Extreme prejudice

We all have prejudices. It’s an evolutionary trait. It can be as simple as “spicy foods don’t agree with me”, or more complex, like “my girlfriend left me for a guy with red hair, so now I don’t trust people with red hair”.

I’m more interested in the latter, not that a girlfriend ever left me for a guy with red hair, just the concept of undeserved judgement.  A good deal of generational prejudice springs from what children see in their parents, and a fair amount of parents do things they don’t understand.

I spend my days wondering how people can be so mean to each other. Maybe not so much how as why. I know how. I’ve known people who couldn’t learn from their own mistakes, usually because they can’t admit to their own mistakes. I used to think such people were stupid, or masochists. Now it occurs to me that such people are the catalysts for the rest of us to do better. I no longer pity the wankers, I’m thankful for them.

When my grandfather was very young, shotgun shells used black powder, prior to the popular use of smokeless powder, or “cordite”. As kids, they would open shotgun shells, place the powder in their hand, and ignite it. The powder would flash, like an old time camera flash. Black powder essentially explodes, leaving little residue. When the first kid with a cordite shell tried igniting the powder, it just burned. Right into the kid’s hand. My grandfather said other kids tried it (I suspect not too many), but seeing the first one was enough for him. He would tell that story when talking about learning from your own mistakes. He had gone one better, learning from other people’s mistakes.

There are people, though, who learn from their mistakes, but pick up the wrong lesson. From personal pain they learn to induce pain in others. Either because nothing can make their lives brighter, or because of some failed sense that sharing pain will make theirs bearable. This is where we get to the guy with red hair, or rather, the jilted boyfriend.

Filled with anger, our raven haired agonist spends his life mistrusting gingers. Soon he forgets why, but the uneasiness never goes away. His friends might sense it, his family certainly does. Then one day his daughter meets a boy with orange hair, and despite the fact that he’s everything she ever desired, she can’t trust him.

Now change hair color to religion, race, political leanings, or occupation, and you can see how prejudice spreads. We do things that make no sense, because we don’t take the time to consider our motives, or how those motives came into being.

We feel pain, and rather than fix ourselves we hurt others. After a while, we don’t even realize we’re doing it, or that there’s anything wrong with it. A man kicks his dog because he’s angry with his boss, the boss kicks his dog because his employees won’t perform. Some innocent kid gets bitten by a dog that keeps getting kicked for no reason. The wives of the boss and the employee meet at the animal shelter because their dogs have been determined “vicious”. They form a group to help victims of dog bites, and help the innocent kid develop an interest in behavioral science. All because of a couple of wankers.

It’s a very small world we live in. Even though I chose not to follow a teaching career, I have always felt an obligation to teach. Recently I have found that there are many people who just don’t want to know. They’ve shrouded themselves in their prejudices, and see what they want to see, regardless of what they’re presented with. They know not to pour the cordite into their hand, but can’t resist pouring it into another person’s hand. Someone with red hair.

Someone told me recently that being a teacher meant not giving up. They obviously hadn’t seen the schools in Philadelphia. I can’t get through the day without something angering me, my disappointment with humanity is often overwhelming. But I don’t give up, I try to inspire others, and in doing so inspire myself. I know that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has an intertwined past with its ancestors, Homo sapiens idaltu was extinct prior to Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis and Cro-Magnon man fighting over whether to speak French or Dutch. Our next evolutionary step lives among us, as does our last.

A hundred thousand years ago we would have just hit the wankers with a rock. Today we try to inspire the rare members of our successors, and hope they’re the lithe intelligent ones (gingers), not the brutish stupid ones (wankers).

Full disclosure, I am devoting my life to installing the term “wanker” into American English. I want to hear it on elevators.

First they came for the Jews

When approaching a project of any kind, it is typical to take on the easiest part first. You knock out the weakest part of the wall, or gather all your supplies, you look for the low point on the fence, or use the argument that you’re most likely to win.

There appears to be a growing anti Jewish sentiment in Europe. To me, a gentile, it is only at the edge of my awareness, But the Jewish press is watching closer, and seeing more.

I’m not sure what the trigger is. During poor economic seasons Jews have been the favorite scapegoat. In a world being threatened by a violent Muslim presence, silencing the Jews is easier than silencing the Muslims. I’m not sure what to make of it. What I am seeing is a coordinated campaign, a slow displacement of Jews coming from non-religious organizations, Racism for a good cause.

The Dutch government, under the guise of “human rights”, requested that products from Israel state where in Israel they were produced. Okay, just like Obama asking Israel to return to pre 1967 borders, The Dutch wanted to label what was made in “Israel” and what was produced in “Settlements”. Interestingly, there is no suggestion that products from China or Bangladesh be labeled “Proudly produced by Slave Labor in Asia”. But as a politically active consumer, in a country that is five percent Muslim and less than two percent Jewish, I might want to know, and either support or avoid such products.

The use of a Palestian flag on the stickers makes the motive obvious.

The use of a Palestinian flag on the stickers makes the motive obvious.

The result has been closer to what might have been expected, Aldi, and other supermarkets, have decided to ban all Israeli products to avoid any confusion. The country where Anne Frank hid from the NAZIs is in turmoil. Despite Muslim members of parliament, there are laws preventing the wearing of burqas in public, The Interior Minister has renounced multiculturalism, seeing his culture turning into a battlefield.

In other “anti-Semitic” news, Poland has outlawed Kosher Butchering. As you know, from an animal’s point of view, there is no difference who blessed the blade that slices your neck when you’re hanging upside down. Kosher and Halal practices look the same to the slaughtered. It’s not pretty to watch, but is one of the less painful ways to die. Animal Rights activists have convinced the Polish Government to outlaw Kosher butchering for humane reasons. In a time of economic crises, Poland shut down a one billion euro industry.

With no reference, I present the following. Hitler decimated the Jewish population in Europe. Europeans saw the danger of ethnic cleansing, and embraced multiculturalism. Filling the void, Muslims of all stripes found their ways into European society. These Muslims force their ways onto a welcoming culture. In attempts towards appeasement, Jews are marginalized. National leaders ever so slowly recognize that nothing less than total capitulation to Muslims will bring peace, Maybe that’s a simplistic view, but the Muslims have placed themselves in a position beyond criticism, in which a cartoon drawing can cause rioting and deaths.

The term “Ethnic Cleansing” did not originate with the holocaust, it was coined in the 1990s, when the Bosniaks were removed by the Serbians.

No group is inconsequential. We hold up the weak and hold off the strong. This poem has been cited and updated many times over the years,

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Speak out, early and often, before it’s too late.

Humans made to order

I want to start his by saying I love science. I believe that through science we may understand more about life, and improve our lives.

I also need to say that blind faith in the goodness of “science” is foolish. The scientific method requires investigation, proof, and peer review. Science can be used for good and evil, Just a few quick examples:

The Chemist Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1919 for his work in synthesizing ammonia. His aim was to increase the availability of fertilizers for crops. He also worked on pesticides, using a cyanide derivative. Other uses of his work include the poison gas used in WW1 and Zyklon-b, the gas used to exterminate Jews by the NAZIs.

Gregor Mendel discovered the effects of genes. His work has been used to create monoclonal antibodies which can cure cancer. Hybrid crops produce more food, and can be resistant to pests, hybrid cattle survive in more extreme conditions and produce more beef. Knowing that a fetus has a genetic disease, or even is just the “wrong” sex, can allow for it being aborted.

Albert Einstein discovered the ratio of equivalency between mass and energy. His principles have been applied to advances in medical imaging and the production of clean, safe, energy. They have also been used to produce the most devastating weapons known to man.

Using these three men as examples, Today I am writing about genetic modifications.

A byproduct of science is that many people don’t understand it. “Radiation” even though it has many meanings and applications, means “radioactivity” in the minds of the public. “Nuclear”, meaning the center, or nucleus of a cell, is so associated with radioactivity that MNRI, or Magnetic Nuclear Resonance Imaging, in which the magnetic resonance of the nuclei of cells is imaged, changed its name to “Magnetic Resonance Imaging” or MRI. Mary Shelly’s portrayal of medical experimentation gone mad gave us Frankenstein, so that Chef Georges Perrier could refer to genetically modified food as “Frankenfood”.

Genetically modified food, in and of itself, is nothing to fear. We have been eating hybrids for a hundred years. It is the introduction of unnatural traits that causes fear. One strain of wheat crossed with another is nothing new, last week both strains were ingredients in different breads. A tobacco plant crossed with a firefly is a little scarier, blending plants and animals for consumption might affect our genes.

Firefly tobacco hybrid

Firefly tobacco hybrid

Monsanto, known for its “Adventure through inner space” ride at Disneyland and “House of the future” to my generation, also bears the legacy of Agent Orange. They are a chemical company well versed in public relations, now referring to themselves as a “sustainable agriculture company”. Not that I’m going to number each of them, but I’ll call that “Lie number one”. Their products are not only not sustainable, they are addictive, in that farmers must purchase the products every year.

While making a field fertile for corn or soybeans, it is also made fertile to weeds, which steal the nutrients from the desired crops. Following on the success of Agent Orange, Monsanto developed Roundup, herbicide extraordinaire. You might have some in your garage, it works great. It works so well, that it can end up damaging the very crops it’s supposed to be protecting. So Monsanto came up with a plan to genetically modify the crops so they would be resistant to Roundup. What better business model than to sell both the poison and the antidote?

These crops are not engineered to produce more or healthier food, they are designed to be resistant to a poison, so that more of that poison can be applied and enter the food chain (okay, the actual reason is to sell more poison, ending up in the food chain is a natural result). The point is, Monsanto is not in business for any other reason than to make money. The after effects of their products are of little or no concern to them. That doesn’t make them bad, it makes them capitalists.

You know that if you’re pregnant you shouldn’t smoke, and you should control your alcohol use. Certain drugs, even vitamins, should be avoided when pregnant. How about food? That’s right, the Roundup which is in your body affects your fetus. Your cell lines (or your partner’s) may have already been affected anyway. The solution? Stop eating. GMOs are in everything. You can try to avoid them, but the fact is corn, corn oil, corn syrup, and corn meal, is in almost everything you eat, and much of it is from GMO sources. The same applies to Soybeans, alfalfa, and wheat. If not directly in your food, it may be fed to the livestock you eat. You’re probably wearing GMO cotton.

Up until now I’ve been focusing on direct effects, your personal health. What about other species? Those that we might want to have around? Instead of reverse documenting (.1 mcg of roundup in a human relates to .007 zg in a honey bee), there is the direct evidence that these substances are severely toxic to insects. In fact, Monsanto’s Bt Corn (available at Walmart) is registered not as a food, but as an insecticide.

Just as we have observed with antibiotics, super weeds and super insects will evolve in the face of the rampant use of poisons. It is less likely that the tangential insects will rebound as well. Corn borers will evolve as long as there is corn, but what about honeybees and butterflies? What about the plants that honeybees pollinate, or the species that eat the butterflies? While focusing on the profits of Monsanto, the balance of ecology was overlooked.

Monsanto is a powerful corporate entity, and has managed to push through congress the “Farmer Assurance Provision”, also known as “The Monsanto Protection Act”. Understanding the fear of GMOs, Monsanto has fought hard and successfully to not label foods as being, or containing, GMOs. I always thought that pride in your work involved placing your name on it, apparently Monsanto isn’t terribly proud of their creations.

So after all that, we touch briefly on the title of the article. As we look at the relative complexity of the human genome compared to wheat, and the errors we have made in the laboratory with gene manipulation, why are we comfortable altering the genes in humans?

Beyond the moral questions of selecting a fetus based on it’s sex, is manipulating stem cells to create organs, or antibodies to fight diseases, or even designing children down to hair and eye colour wise?

Unexpected consequences is the history of genetic modifications, and there are people who seriously intend to try this on humans?

Perhaps the ultimate irony will be that genetically modified humans may only be able to survive on organically grown foods.

Serving a life sentence.

I found a few smiles in a recent ABC article about Multiple Sclerosis.

The more I think about it, the more thankful I am to have Multiple Sclerosis. My point of view has changed. My insight into several issues has deepened. My ability to find silver linings has increased. In what some might find an odd statement, I appreciate life more than before.

The first myth the article mentions about MS is that it is a death sentence. But the way the response was worded touched me. “MS is a life sentence”. Yep, there is no cure, I’ll have this for the rest of my life.

Another important one I wish everyone would get is “Everyone’s MS follows the same path”. I’ve known people who got much worse, and believe it or not, a few that are doing better. I’ve known people for whom it has been a violent roller coaster, and many, like myself, for whom it is an “advent calendar”, every day is a surprise.

That falls with the next one, “MS is curable” (See myth #1). No it is not. “Treatable” is a word that must be approached carefully. There are drugs, and they work differently with each person (see myth #2). I tried each of the new drugs as they came out (when I was diagnosed there were NO treatments). They worked to varying degrees, but when weighed against the side effects none of them had an overall positive effect. Some people have had wonderful results, just not me.

Another myth was “You’ll need a wheelchair”. Regardless of your health, next time you go to the zoo, please rent a wheelchair. Tell me how much you enjoy the visit, and the evening afterward. There is nothing wrong with using an appliance to make your life easier, and it just might break down your prejudices. I resisted using a cane until my neurologist said “it will make you look cool”. I thought about it differently, and while I may not be “cool”, I’m not as tired or in pain when I use it, I get a seat on the bus, I have a tool to catch elevator doors with, I get preferential boarding on aircraft and occasionally get moved to the front of the line in security, and I can trip wankers who get in my way (and no one says a word).

You may hear people say “God won’t give you more than you can handle”. In fact, the scripture they’re referring to is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able ; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” From this I interpret that God will not give you anything you can’t handle with his help. There are countless examples of people who couldn’t handle the challenges they were faced with.

It is my faith in God that makes my life bearable. When Emma was awaiting surgery, I fell and broke my arm on her birthday. I was able to be there for her twenty four seven in the days leading up to surgery and her recovery. It was the best thing that could have happened (other than her surviving cancer).

Another helpful part of seeing silver linings is knowing that this life sentence ends when my heart stops beating, but my life goes on through eternity, not only in the company of the creator, but free from the troubles of this life.

One hundred

This article marks my one hundredth post in this blog. Time to evaluate.

Without a standard reference, I’m not sure how I’m doing. I’m averaging over thirty six views a day, complemented by eighty nine followers who receive each article by email. I’ve been viewed in forty six countries, and every continent save Antarctica, circling the globe (not much happening in Central America or Central Africa). To me, a landmark was a couple of days ago when someone commented on someone else’ comment. The zygote of a community.

Seems like a lot, except that a video of a kitten in a box can get a million views on You Tube overnight.

I prefer to think of the difference as quality over quantity, and maybe more people would follow if I wrote about a particular theme everyday instead of free associating into the internet, but hitting on the issues that are on my mind keeps everything fresh. I’ve hit politics, music, food, religion, beer, a little history, science, and current events. I’ve philosophized and whined, talked about my weaknesses and strengths, and my opinions. I’ve tried to be balanced, honest, factual, fair, and humorous.

Suggestions are more than welcome, I know the things I like to rant about, but I don’t know what you like to read, or prefer not to read. Probably shouldn’t approach that last one, there’s a bug in my head that likes to bring up things people are uncomfortable about.

So at this point, I’m thinking about Genetically Modified Organisms on Monday, maybe blending with genetically modified humans. I’m not sure what I’ll be moved to preach about on Sunday, that inspiration usually comes to me Saturday morning.

Thank you all for reading, staying polite in your responses, and sharing my articles with others.



United Nations

As Americans, we’re not really thrilled with the United Nations. From what I understand, it goes both ways, but America is a great place for diplomats, so they remain headquartered here. Where else can you violate all the laws of your country, and then leave your car parked in the middle of a bridge, and just wave your credentials when the police show up? In England, if you’re a foreigner,  you can’t vote in national elections, but local elections, that affect you, you can vote in. With diplomatic immunity in America, nothing affects you.

As an idea, the United Nations is wonderful. Peace is almost always preferable to war. Unfortunately, for a situation to be bad enough to require UN “peacekeepers”, diplomatic efforts have failed, and it’s time for war. There’s a reason we don’t issue soldiers badges and nightsticks, soldiers are not intended to “keep the peace”, they are tasked to end the war.

Despite our diplomatic failures, our military has routinely won the conflicts they have been involved in. We won in Vietnam militarily, then the politicians threw it away. We nailed the Soviets in Afghanistan, then we lost the peace because the politicians walked away. Today, our biggest enemies use different tactics, and the politicians declare war on the populace. My view is biased, I believe that the military is the big stick you pull out when other efforts have failed, and in using the big stick, you leave it alone to do its job. Then you send in the diplomats, with the lawyers and documents.

We are often called “The world’s policeman” in a derogatory way. We are not. That is the job of the UN. We are the world’s enforcers.

The UN has a history of failures, all or at least many of which could have been avoided. You don’t send “Peacekeepers” into a war zone anymore than you bring skittles to a gunfight. Unfortunately, when the UN applies the wrong tools, people die. Lots of people die. And being diplomats, deaths are less important than responsibility, so the paper pushers figure to ways to blame the people whose hands they had tied.

Take for instance the Bosnian conflict. A UN “peacekeeping” force was deployed to key villages, including Srebrenica, which in 1993 the UN Security Council had formally designated a “safe area”, the French UN commander telling the people of the village that he would never abandon them. Then he did. The enclave of three hundred fifty square miles was assigned to a force of four hundred Dutch troops, surrounded by two thousand Serbian troops, arranged as thee brigades with tanks, artillery and mortars. The fifty thousand Bosnians inside were under siege, with roughly one peacekeeper per square mile to protect them.

If you’ve ever known of a case of domestic violence, you know the value of a “protection order”. This situation is analogous, two groups that wanted to kill each other for centuries divided by a sign reading “UN Safe Area”.  Thousands of civilians were killed, tens of thousands evacuated (exiled), and the UN blamed the Dutch. After the dust settled, it seems everyone was blamed except the Serbians.

Let’s talk about Rwanda. In January of 1994, the Canadian commander of UN forces in Rwanda became aware of multiple weapons caches and troops, and made UN headquarters aware that he was going to seize the arms. He was told that seizing arms was beyond the scope of his mission, and to notify President Habyarimana of possible Arusha Accords violations. The Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF- Tutsis) began to systematically take control of the country.

On 6 April, the presidents plane was shot down, and on 7 April, fifteen peacekeepers arrived at the Prime Minister’s residence to find it already under attack. The Prime Minister attempted to escape, but was captured and killed. After being told there was no back up, the peacekeepers surrendered. The five Ghanaian troops were released, and the ten Belgian troops were tortured, castrated and dismembered with machetes.

Over the next one hundred days as many as one hundred thousand people died. European forces evacuated their civilians, but refused to assist the UN forces.

The UN does not fight wars, nor should it. They are guided by a “Prime directive” that prevents getting involved in local politics. So you might ask, “What is the point of peacekeepers?”. I have dark, ugly suspicions, having to do with using human lives as pawns in diplomatic games, that a certain number of people have to die before retaliation is appropriate. But I’ve spent a number of years holding my nose around diplomats, I’ve lost friends to wars that didn’t need to happen, so I’m biased.

The seed for this article came from a “Dutch Uncle”, literally not figuratively. Lieve’s uncle lives in Holland and is a human rights activist. He spoke with me a week after I toured Ypres, and after investigating Srebrenica, and a number of other UN failures, I am able to understand again the necessity of war, the need to attempt to wipe evil from the face of the Earth.

Evil cannot be eliminated, or negotiated with. It can be controlled, and that control is force. As humans, our tight rope is to control evil without becoming evil ourselves.

more trouble with labels

There is a debate in certain circles, of whether the  universe is made of particles, fields, or something yet discovered. The article in Scientific American gets ever so close to the answer, then kind of fizzles. Let’s start with something we all agree upon.

E = mc²

You’ve said it, but have you considered what it means? It means that energy and mass are equal at a  certain ratio. The trouble in trying to define whether the universe is particles or fields is that particles (mass) and energy (fields) are expressions of the same thing. Everything is everything.

Neils Bohr was well aware that his model of the atom as a tiny solar system wasn’t accurate, but it was a useful model for considering the sculpture of relationships. Dr. Schroedinger did not have a degree in veterinary science, his use of a cat in his infamous thought experiment was in part to present the notion that we are exploring the properties of something that we cannot visualize. Large systems do not behave as quantum systems do.

Seeing the fabric of the universe requires far more than eyesight and exceptional imaging systems. It requires the ability to not see the physical world around us, it requires imagination.

When we visited Lieve’s brother, who is mentally and physically handicapped, I found myself in an amazing position. I couldn’t tell the patients from the visitors, and they didn’t know what category I fit either. They couldn’t speak my language, and I couldn’t speak theirs. Everyone was casually dressed, and aside from a few people in wheelchairs, we all walked around and tried to interact with each other. There was no way of knowing the depth of anyone’s handicap, and one person I was fairly sure was a doctor was in fact a patient.

When we consider the size of quantum particles, the incredibly small mass and the surprising high energy, it becomes a little easier to understand how their state is in flux between our human definitions. Getting bound up by what word we use is similar to a reading problem. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, your mind stops when you come across it, and the rest of the sentence has less meaning. This is part of the reasoning in the naming of quarks. “Strange”, “Charmed”, even the hierarchy of “flavors” is designed to make you recognize you’re speaking of something beyond our ability to describe.

Why? Because.

We are. Now. Everything else is a construct of our imaginations. Colour is not the frequency of light that our eyes perceive, it is what our brain tells us it is. Put on a pair of rose colored lenses and pretty soon you can see a black and white photograph as black and white, even though the colours reaching the cones in your eyes are pink and brown.

We can operate a television without the ability to build one, we can understand the universe without being able to build one also.

If you’re still with me, let’s go on to the next level.

If we accept that reality is only our perception of it, then we can change our reality (within reason). So called “Psychic” abilities are merely the focusing of our neural oscillations. Remove the distractions of Maya, the veneer of reality, and you can play with the reality underneath. If it was easy, everyone would do it, but you don’t have to be able to hit a home run to understand home runs are possible.

As humans, we are not a collection of cells. What makes us human is the relationships of those cells, yet we are not merely a bundle of relationships. Deux ex Machina. What makes us, is best described as “energy”, but “energy”, and “mass”, and “the speed of light” are all words, descriptions of things we cannot visualize.

“The universe is made of oatmeal, some parts are thin, or thick, or sweet, or pasty, but it’s all oatmeal” is as reasonable description as any other. Today we call it energy, or mass, or strings, and tomorrow we may come up with another word, but the universe doesn’t change because we call it something different. The important part is understanding what is in the can, not the picture on the label.

It is what it is.




Move on

You may remember MoveOn.org, the group created in 1998 that successfully changed the argument from whether Bill Clinton had lied to  congress to whether it mattered that Bill Clinton had violated his marriage vows. If you wanted to lay blame on who created the “All politicians lie so it doesn’t matter” attitude, I would place it on them. If you’re tracking the decline of Western Civilization, you’re aware that “it doesn’t matter” has reached the level of the Secretary of State’s defense of allowing an Ambassador and his team to die in Benghazi. Hmm, same family.

Anyway, after America decided that Hillary Clinton wasn’t worthy of a loyal husband but might make at least as good a president as he had been, MoveOn didn’t go away. Why should they? With that kind of success they’ve branched into a huge lobbying organization, contributing between twenty and forty million dollars to PACs every election. In 2012, they donated ten times as much as the Koch brothers and their companies, (not including unconfirmed reports, just what was reported to the IRS), and they didn’t make any philanthropic donations at all. Someone told me that the difference is that MoveOn is a non-profit, and the Koch brothers employ fifty thousand Americans, not including the companies that they own. You know, for a couple of guys worth over sixty billion dollars, they could use a spin doctor. Maybe they should talk to Warren Buffet about that.

Lately though, it seems like not everyone loves high powered lobbyists. Unless they’re goring the neighbor’s ox. (That is an exceptionally complicated blended metaphor and excuse to point out the similarity in the Kochs and Al Gore)

I’m on MoveOn’s mailing list (because it’s always good to know what power brokers are doing), and it seems that the idea they were suggesting through the Occupy movement via “Anonymous”, denial of service attacks on servers, was such a good idea that someone tried it on them. It’s been a few weeks so I’ve stopped laughing about it.

I received an email from MoveOn complaining about the attack, saying “It was the equivalent of someone firing a shot-gun through our window—clearly aimed to intimidate us and interrupt our work.” and asking for a donation to upgrade their servers and pay for technicians. The drama was, to me, hilarious, as I seem to remember them saying that their attacks on others were “Non violent protests”. Of course, the work of MoveOn.org is far more important than the work of anyone they’ve shut down. Who needs the FBI or DOJ? Oh, I guess Moveon.org does.

I’m not sure what you call the hypocritical twists MoveOn makes. There really ought to be a word, when every aspect of your organization is a lie about a lie about a lie.

This week, I received another email, this time asking me to sign a petition (and make a contribution) urging AARP to withdraw their ads from “The Rush Limbaugh Show”. Rush, being a Conservative, is an enemy of MoveOn. Of the over one hundred million dollars they have spent lobbying politicians, not one cent has gone to influence Republicans. There’s an entire essay there about the difference between ideals and politics, perhaps it’s running through your head right now. This article is about hypocrisy. One issue at a time.

The folks at MoveOn seem to forget they asked everyone to drop their memberships to AARP over the latter’s support of  a prescription assistance program for senior citizens. Ignoring the point that the elderly are part of MoveOn’s “47%”, what influence did they expect to have if all MoveOn supporters were no longer members of AARP?

So because this might appear to be “all over the place”, let me tie it all together in one neat can of worms.

AARP is a lobbying group for insurance companies interests, funded by the senior citizens they claim to be representing. They operate several for profit companies, mostly in the insurance industry, and donate to candidates in all parties, attempting to further their financial goals.

MoveOn.org is a fundraising group for Democratic party interests, funded by people who support any one of a myriad of conflicting issues. They donate exclusively to Democratic candidates , attempting to further their political goals.

The Koch brothers are a couple of guys who lobby by donation their personal interests, funded by the corporations they operate which employ hundreds of thousands of Americans. They also build libraries and schools, attempting to use their money furthering their ideals.

I don’t belong to AARP or MoveOn, I hold no stock in the Koch brother’s companies or Warren Buffet’s, and I believe that people are more important than politics. I donate directly to causes I believe in, rather than umbrella groups who may use the money for anything.

You can apply your own prejudices as to what of this matters. I know what matters to me.

He brought snacks to a gunfight

It was difficult, but I avoided commenting on anything American for the last two weeks. Now I’m back.

In Brussels, Blaine Reininger covered the dubstep song “Knives to a gunfight“, dedicating it to Trayvon Martin. He started by saying “Out of respect to Trayvon, we’re going to call this ‘you brought snacks to a gunfight”. I knew I’d have to write about it.

The President of the United States of America stated “Trayvon could have been me”. Wouldn’t Trayvon have been fortunate. At seventeen, Barry was at the Punahou school, a 17-acre oasis of calm, order and privilege tucked behind a low stone wall topped with cacti in Honolulu Hawaii. In his own words, he used marijuana and cocaine to push the questions of who he was out of his mind. Sounds as if thirty five years ago, Barack Hussein Obama II was more like George Zimmerman (let me spell that out. A liar). Trayvon neither used cocaine nor was he awaiting a scholarship to Occidental College.

I’ve seen some pretty bizarre responses to the Zimmerman verdict, the New Black Panther party offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of George Zimmerman, dead or alive. Publicly. Repeatedly. I’m not sure exactly why they feel like they’re “third class citizens”, I doubt very much the Klan ever made public statements that outrageous. Now of course that offer was made more than a year ago, and I don’t recall the Panthers paying the bounty to the state of Florida when they arrested him, but bringing the story to light sure is a great way to fire up racial tensions.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry felt their opinions about justice would be of interest. Something about pots and kettles goes here. In a related (too bizarre to comment) story, Zimmerman’s brother is worried about vigilantes.

Another great story was a collection of twits saying they would go out and shoot a Mexican and call it self defense in response to the “Not Guilty” verdict. Well, at least they’re getting closer. Zimmerman’s mother is from Peru. He actually doesn’t like Mexicans either, so maybe shooting a Mexican would put you on his good side.

As a matter of fact, George Zimmerman is an idiot. It doesn’t matter what his race is, and it really doesn’t matter what Trayvon Martin’s race was, Zimmerman was told to stay in his car by a police dispatcher, and instead confronted a man on the street. None of us will ever know what happened between then and when George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, but for some reason twelve people on a jury thought that “stand your ground” doesn’t mean that it’s actually your ground that you’re standing on.

Another twelve people in Florida thought that Casey Anthony wasn’t responsible for the death of her daughter.

Things were starting to look pretty good for violent offenders in Florida, then a woman went out to her car, got her gun, and came back to fire a “warning shot” at her ex husband, and received twenty years in prison. Apparently she hadn’t realized that in order to get away with a crime, you should not leave witnesses. Particularly witnesses who you’ve shot at.

If these stories were all you knew about Florida, or America, you might think we’re a bunch of idiots. Well, we have done everything we can to encourage idiotic behavior but there are a couple of things to remember.

First, there are about three hundred fourteen million people in America (over nineteen million in Florida alone). Allowing for a lunatic fringe of three percent (although I believe it’s closer to twelve), that would be over ten million lunatics in the United states. They can’t all live in Manhattan.

Second, while some people still believe the news media reports important stories about society, the job of the news media is to sell the advertising space that allows it to exist. News is not a public service, it’s a business. Dog bites man doesn’t make the front page. Man bites dog might make page three. A story has to be unique, not representative, to make the lineup.

Third, a headline is not a story. A headline is supposed to get your attention. This is why the most intriguing story is mentioned over and over, and then broadcast last, so you’ll watch the entire show. Which isn’t a terribly bad thing, many people sit through an entire newscast and might pick up some actual information while waiting to see the squirrel on water skis. The headline is the carnival barker, making the bearded woman sounds interesting enough that you’ll pay to see her.

Rioting in response to an unpopular verdict is not the answer. Using a tragedy for self promotion is a number of things, ranging from pathetic to disgusting.

We cannot fix every broken mind out there, but of those that we can fix, we can only do so with love.


I’ve greatly enjoyed the last few weeks, feeding my body and soul, exercising my mind, exorcising my demons. I consider my tendency towards hedonism, and the scripture of John 12:25 “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.

I do love life. I see beauty all around me, always seeing the flower in the weeds, or growing through the cobblestones.

!.5 cm flowers in Gloucester MA

1.5 cm flowers in Gloucester MA

I enjoy fine wines, fine foods, well crafted beers, warm sunny days and the company of friends. I enjoy fine arts and street art, and the odd accidental composition.

Roller blades left at base of abstract bicycle sculpture

Roller blades left at base of abstract bicycle sculpture

My error, of course, had been context. The scripture refers to the metamorphosis of life on Earth to spiritual life. I love life on Earth, but I have no desire to hold onto it for one second longer than I required. One has only to look at the previous verse “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.“, to understand.

Earlier in the chapter, verses three through eight, actually speak to enjoying the senses. “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him,Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

When my grandmother died, we gathered at my grandfather’s home for the weekend. He had been filling in the bank, where there had been some erosion, and there was a pile of rocks that had been delivered. A group of us walked down to the bank to do the work for him. My grandfather, ninety two at the time, said to us “Come inside, leave that for me. Next week, you will all have gone home, and I’ll have nothing to do”.  He was a very wise man. He died three years later, almost to the day, and never stopped enjoying life and his family.

I cannot believe we have been given these bodies and minds in order to deprive ourselves of the pleasure they are capable of experiencing. Neither do I understand other Christians who fear death or Armageddon, as both are part of God’s plan.

It is certainly our duty to strive to assist those not as well off, but doing so by denying ourselves is not the path. Equal joy is the goal, not equal suffering.







Emigration man

That is spelled correctly.

As we ponder moving across the ocean, away from a country to which I had pledged my life, to a land where I do not speak the native language, I am faced with issues similar to those entering the United States. Belgium is in many ways dealing with the problems that America faces, and while they deal with them in ways that may be better, changing countries is not an easy process. The economic refugee affects both countries, and protecting the economy from those that will not contribute is of utmost importance. When I enter Belgium, my American passport is stamped without question, but tomorrow when we enter the United States, Lieve’s Belgian passport will be examined, she will be electronically fingerprinted, and we will have to present the letter from DHS stating that her green card has been extended while they consider giving her “permanent” status, because America has been overrun by people who enter illegally.

The annoying part is that even though Lieve now has a green card, were we to leave for more than a year, she would lose her “permanent” resident status. We would have to start the lengthy and expensive process again, from the beginning. My status in Belgium is much more simple. Unfortunately, lacking the size and complexity of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, we’re not certain precisely how simple. The consulate in the States tells us one thing, about a few documents that we would fill out and file with the town hall in Leuven, but when we checked with the town hall, it was even easier. We want to do it properly, but just becoming an illegal immigrant would be the easiest, until I applied for work.

In Europe mixed nationality marriages are more common than in America, think about it as marrying someone from another state, and then when you move in together, your partner can’t vote in your state. Despite the world wide economic difficulties, there is always someone worse off,  so Europe was a target for economic refugees from Northern Africa, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union refugees from former Soviet states arrived looking for a better life. Despite the “open borders” of the European Economic Community, some countries are better off than others and would like to keep it that way. Culturally, that little difference in accent is seen much more differently than in the states, it can be told by an accent almost what town you were raised in, everyone appears to be aware of each others origin. Lieve, with her blended Flemish and British accents, is mistaken as South African sometimes. No one is likely to ever mistake me for anything other than American.

We would like to be able to live with dual citizenship, moving back and forth between America and Belgium, but that option does not appear to be available. We need to make a choice, and it is a difficult one. Lieve’s parents are not in the best of health, and could use assistance, and Lieve would like to be able to help. On the other hand, her children are just graduating High School, there will be college, first apartments, relationships, and possibly grandchildren that she would like to be involved with.

It takes about seven hours and a little over a thousand dollars to fly round trip between New York and Brussels, my family is spread across the continent, so visiting will be more difficult. Lieve’s children, with British citizenship and American personalities are likely to stay in the New York area.

As far as employment, the two economies are roughly similar. I can write anywhere, I just need someone to pay me once in a while, Lieve has a network of friends in Belgium, but again, the chances of gainful employment are about the same on both sides of the ocean.

Currency is a somewhat humorous story. When Lieve left Belgium, the Franc was still the currency, then she moved to England, which even though they are part of the EEC, still uses the Pound. She moved to America where the coins make no sense at all to her (dimes, although worth more, are smaller than nickels), and now Belgium uses Euros, so she uses the notes and I deal with the coins. This morning she handed me her change, and in one handful was thirteen euros.

Sunday a new King is crowned, Lieve totally missed the last one. So her ties to Belgium are not as strong as they might be. Her ties are to her family , which draws her to both Belgium and America. Immigration policies, like most government regulations, are designed to inconvenience law abiding citizens while law breakers simply walk through the gaps.

Old friends, new friends

Lieve and I met some of her old friends in Brussels last night. She has known Samy and Truly for about thirty years, they are wonderfully warm and friendly people and accepted me into their circle a few years ago. We always have a great time when we see them.

We arrived in Brussels early to do some shopping for Truly’s birthday present, and stopped by a little cafe that Lieve used to visit when she lived in Brussels. Even though the city has become very “touristy”, some places are hidden away enough to remain quiet.

La Becasse

La Bécasse

At the end of a hallway with a hardly noticeable doorway is La Bécasse, a pub dating back over one hundred thirty years. Despite the crowds on the street the place was almost empty and very quiet, with an open terrace and a dark pub. It’s past its glory days, but is still very cute. There is a great deal to see in Brussels if you look around, on our way to dinner we looked up above the second floor of a rather trashy casino to see beautiful art deco decorations in the facade.









After dinner, we went to a tiny little club, L’Archiduc, to hear some old friends play. Blaine Reininger, a founding member of Tuxedomoon, knew Lieve, Samy and Truly from the days they were involved with Crammed Discs and Crepuscule. Lieve always thinks that no one will remember her because she was involved behind the scenes. I remind her that it’s not just me that is impressed by her, she stands out in a crowd. Several people approached our table to say hello to her, she is well remembered.

Tonight, Blaine was playing with Georgio “The Dove” Valentino, a young artist. Georgio has a beautiful voice, and since he usually sings in Italian, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand the lyrics when he performed his own work. His wife played bass, and another Tuxedomoon alumnus, Luc Van Lieshout, played trumpet. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any video of his playing due to a guy who kept walking in front of us. Luc’s playing was beautifully subtle, and his ego is non existent. When I complimented his technique he said “Well, I’ve been doing it for forty years”.


As nights out with Samy usually go, there were many old friends and fans there. Samy was not only the lead singer of Minimal Compact, but has a radio program  on 92.1 Radio Campus Bruxelles and DJs today. Samy’s musical knowledge is encyclopedic, and he can speak extemporaneously for hours about not only the old days, but everything that has happened since.

Time out for an autograph

Time out for an autograph

Samy and Truly have been married longer than some of Samy’s fans have been alive, a testament to love and understanding. Their joy of life is infectious, and they seem like newlyweds at times. We were celebrating Truly’s birthday, and true to character she brought a gift for us.

Samy and Truly

Samy and Truly

I can’t identify what is about music that keeps us young. The effects of aging cannot be stopped, many of us have greying or missing hair, but music has a rejuvenating effect. Watching Blaine’s fingers flying on the neck of his violin was amazing. We have seen friends lose their battles with excess, but age gives another dimension to our experience. There is little to no generational discrimination in music, musicians of all styles and backgrounds join together in a river of creativity.

Truly had invited us to spend the night, although Lieve had warned me that Samy’s record collection inhabits every inch of their apartment and we might be sleeping atop record crates. We had to catch the midnight train to Leuven in order to catch the last bus home. Well, it would have been the last bus on a weekend, but the route ends earlier on weeknights, so we ended up walking home. It was only a few kilometers, and the streets were quiet and peaceful.


No tears at all.







Belgian enchiladas

I don’t like to cook in other peoples kitchens. They don’t have my knives and pans, they rarely have the spices I keep, their choices of ingredients are usually not the same as mine.

Imagine cooking in another country.

“Sure, we’ll cook for my parents”, Lieve said, “we can always go to the store to pick up what they don’t have”.

I’m sure that there are specialty grocers who stock the ingredients I use, but the Carre-foure doesn’t have jack cheese, so I’m making enchiladas with gouda. It may work out fine, it just won’t be the way I make it at home. I’m sure there are Mexican stores that have real tortillas, not Old El Paso brand flour tortillas with an expiration date deep into next year. I’m certain there are spice shops, so I won’t have to blend generic curry spice and “mixed herbs” spice, trying to get something like a mole rojo.

Even in America, not all grocers carry the same items, they play to their regulars. But I would think that there would be a choice of canned tomatoes, what with Italy only being a few hundred miles away. I would have expected a variety of olives, and more choices of beans than kidney and lentil.On the other hand, there were several types of leek, and the biggest endives I have seen in my life, for a third of the price I pay for beat up specimens in the states.

That part of the problem I can blame on shopping at the last moment, had I taken a few days I could have gone to the markets in town, although I do need to accept that some things will just be different. I ordered a martini the other day and the waiter looked at me oddly, and brought back some lemon aperitif in a water glass. As I was saying to Lieve while we were shopping, I may have a future as an “innovative chef” once we move here.

The other part is the basic cooking in a strange kitchen. Electric burners instead of gas was more difficult to get used to than an oven that reads in Celsius. Using different pans was actually rather interesting and made me thankful for the electric burners with their even heat. I really do miss my knives, but at least they have one sharp knife, although the blade was flat rather than curved, so chopping cilantro was an adventure.

I had intended to keep the spices mild, but I had no idea how limited the choices would be.

I look forward to putting a kitchen together here, meeting the local grocers, and maybe trying out some recipes on neighbors.


Later on that evening…

Okay, they must have been good, Lieve couldn’t get a picture before the dish was empty. My father in law thought it was too exotic, and my mother in law said she would like it to be spicier. The gouda worked well, with its melting point similar to jack, and everything had the right consistency.

I am reminded of Lieve’s stories about the Flemish society in America, the complaints that it wasn’t like Belgium. It’s not supposed to be, and I will adapt my recipes to what is available locally, no doubt I’ll be making curry with leek, Thai dishes with endive, and incorporating waffles into creme bruleé (note, Lieve’s eyes widened when she read that last one). The object of the exercise is to experience a change of culture, I just hope that I can bring some of my influences with me.

I may have to leave mole negro behind, but I’ll try it at least once with a younger audience. Chocolate and pablano chilies is either going to be embraced or totally rejected in a culture with such a strong bond with chocolates.

Grails, holy and otherwise

The object of the quest

The object of the quest

I haven’t always liked beer. In fact, for a very long time I didn’t drink beer at all. Back in the 90s, Samuel Adams produced a triple bock, and it came in a cool blue bottle with a cork, so I tried it, and had it been routinely available I would have tried more, but it wasn’t that great. Then I met this Belgian woman, and I found out that there were many more interesting beers out there.

The right glass for Mc Chouffe

The right glass for Mc Chouffe



I’ve had some great guides, Lieve’s brother not only enjoys a variety of beers, but also has all the right glasses.




Beer sampler serving






And so the search for the perfect beer began. Every trip to Belgium contained not only new sights, but new beers. My preference has been for dark beers, but I’ve found quite a few White, or Witte beers that I enjoy.


Straffe Hendrik brewery in Brugge




Our next trip included Brugge, and while I was daunted by one pub that carried 750 different beers, I carried on, visiting breweries and comparing styles. Fortunately, Lieve was always there to assist when there were too many to drink at once.

Just across the street from Straffe Hendrik!

Just across the street from Straffe Hendrik!




It was in Brugge that I discovered the Quadrupel. In a little restaurant next door to our B&B, they had La Trappe, one of only twelve breweries producing the quadrupel style at the time.


La Trappe Quadrupel at “De Republiek” in Brugge





I continued my search as I traveled, trying house brews wherever we went. One pub in the English countryside reminded Lieve of “An American Werewolf in London

Scary small pub in English countryside

Scary small pub in English countryside






And at a dinner in Leuven I found Wolf 8, a widely available Belgian beer. I also tried a type of meat I’d never had before.

Wolf 8. Goes well with paard.

Wolf 8. Goes well with paard.




In Brussels I tried a Trappiste Rochefort 10, another widely available Belgian beer. With us was Lieve’s nephew Joren, who, like his father enjoys trying new beers. He suggested the elusive Westvlateren, a beer that can only be obtained at the abbey, but he knew where to find it in a cafe.

Trappste Rochefort 10

Trappste Rochefort 10


At the Cafe Metafoor in Leuven

Our quest led us to the Cafe Metafoor in Leuven. They didn’t have Westvleteren, but they did have what became my favorite, St. Berndus Abt 12.







Our next trip took us to Amsterdam, where just like in Belgium, you can have beer with breakfast!

Breakfast in Amsterdam

Breakfast in Amsterdam



This year, we checked out Cafe Metafoor again, for one thing, I just love the name. They knew where I could get Westvleteren. I’m not allowed to reveal the secret, but Joren was familiar with the place.

Alpaide, at Cafe Metafoor

Alpaide, at Cafe Metafoor

We had dinner (and a Westmalle Dubbel) with Joren, and decided to meet the next day at his student house. Side note. If you ever order a martini and the waiter looks at you with a question on his face, just cancel the order and have a beer.

Dinner with Joren

Dinner with Joren



Joren just completed his Masters in archeology, and is vice president of his student house. It’s like a fraternity, and they have a bar which he was painting when we arrived. I noticed beer coasters on the ceiling, but since it’s a historical building, they are not allowed to touch the ceiling.


Beer coasters on the ceiling.

Beer coasters on the ceiling.




The student house bar had some of the blond Westvleteren. In order to stay within the rules, they give a bottle away after you buy five other beers (not necessarily in one night). Although a closer look at the ceiling suggests that some people just might drink all those beers in one sitting.

Tennis shoe stuck to ceiling.

Tennis shoe stuck to ceiling.





Since the bar wasn’t open, he gave me a bottle of the blond Westvleteren after Lieve and I had a Leffe Bruin.




Westvleten blond

Westvleteren blond


It was very promising. We made plans to meet after dinner at the “secret” cafe. Realizing that the beers had been breakfast, Lieve and I stopped across the street and had some lunch, an oddly out of place Mexican salad at the Cafe Appel, along with a Westmalle Tripel.






We did some shopping, and stopped at another cafe that Joren had suggested. The beer menu was a book.

Massive beer menu

Massive beer menu




This menu is of seven hundred beers, Joren knows of a pub that is planning to carry two thousand five hundred Belgian Beers, a world record. I wonder what they would serve while you are making your decision.

Lieve waits while I peruse the menu

Lieve waits while I peruse the menu

Westvleteren is made with the same recipe as St. Bernardus, they just use different water, and probably different techniques, so I decided to refresh my palate memory with an Abt 12. Lieve had a Lindemann’s Kriek, her favorite, a sour cherry beer.





The day’s work completed, it was time to relax. We met Lieve’s brother and Sister in law for dinner and a concert in the square before going on to meet Joren. The cafe at which we had dinner also had La Trappe quadrupel.

Dinner before the concert

Dinner before the concert




After the concert, the moment had arrived. We worked our way through the small streets to the pub, where Joren was waiting with a friend.




The "secret" pub

The “secret” pub


The legendary Westvleteren


Westvleteren is not on the menu, due to the rules of the abbey, but it is available on request, at fourteen euro a bottle. The waitress asked if I wanted to spend that much, having no idea of the trek that brought me here.

Oh yes. This was definitely worth the search.

There is no label on a Westvleteren bottle, only the cap identifies the maker and style. There is a date stamp, called the “minimum sale date”, but the beer allegedly continues to develop for years after the date. When I eventually move to Belgium, I will be able to go through the process to purchase a case every two months from the Abbey, and I’ll do all I can to preserve a bottle or two in order to test that theory.

Later I had a Duchesse de Bourgogne, what is called a “sour beer”, with Joren. With thousands of beers produced in Belgium alone, there will always be new beers to explore. Just last night at dinner, Joren’s father and I tried the house brew at the restaurant, the “Troubadour”. Luc had the Blond, I had the Obscurra.

Troubador Obscurra

Troubadour Obscurra

Lieve’s appreciation of beers has expanded as well, although she is usually the designated driver, or as they say in Belgium, the “BOB“. We haven’t discovered where the term comes from, but apparently it’s an acronym, in either Flemish, French, or German, and has developed from the noun (I’m the bob) into a verb (who’s bobbing tonight?)





Stop by sometime and join us for a beer. With all the choices, there is certainly something you will enjoy.



In Flanders Fields, Episode Three

Plaque at site of first use of chlorine gas

Plaque at site of first use of chlorine gas

At 1700 on 22 April, 1915, the German army released 168 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders near Ypres. The greenish cloud drifted gently towards a line of French troops. Though it was not the very first use of chemical weapons (Ironically, the French were first, using tear gas in August, 1914) but it was the first successful use of lethal gas. The Hague Treaty of 1899 prohibited the use of asphyxiating gas in artillery, however the Germans had released the gas from 5,730 canisters, and argued they had not violated the treaty.


Plaque at St. Julien in Ypers

Plaque at St. Julien in Ypers

Canadian memorial at St. Julien. "The brooding soldier"

Canadian memorial at St. Julien. “The brooding soldier”













Fritz Haber, a German chemist who had developed the weaponization of chlorine gas, was on hand to supervise its use. I feel perfectly comfortable describing Haber as sub human. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his work in developing ammonia synthesis, crucial to the production of fertilizers, and argued that gas was not inhumane because “death is death“. He might know. His wife Clara, the first woman to earn a PhD at the University of Breslau (also in chemistry) was so horrified by his use of chlorine in Ypres that she took his service revolver and committed suicide in their garden after an argument with him on the subject on 2 May. Haber left for the Russian front to oversee the use of gas there the next morning, leaving his 13 year old son to discover his mothers body.

Continuing the irony of this story, the patriotic Haber happened to be Jewish. His work led to the development of Zyklon-B, the cyanide based gas used to kill 1.2 million Jews, including his extended family, after he escaped Germany.

Mass graves in Langemark many of the soldiers of Jewish heritage

Mass graves in Langemark, many of the soldiers of Jewish heritage

Langemark cemetary

Langemark cemetery













World War one debuted a number of what we now call “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, and to place that political phrase into perspective, keep in mind that the pressure cookers used to make the bombs of the Boston Marathon are now being called Weapons of Mass Destruction, yet we could find nothing that fit that description in Iraq? The horror of the war changed many aspects of humanity, Sigmund Freud was so shaken that he altered his views on libidinal drives in relation to self preservation. Our ability to develop more “efficient” ways of killing ran far ahead of our ability to love.

Tyne Cot memorial, with the names of the dead that would not fit at the Menin Gate

Tyne Cot memorial, with the names of the dead that would not fit at the Menin Gate

In addition to poison gas, flame throwers were first used in and around Ypres. A stream of flaming petrol could be projected twenty yards. This is much like directly applying Napalm.


Tyne Cot with battlefield in adjacent background, German pillbox on left at base of tree.

Machine gun technology was perfected, allowing one gun team to replace one hundred rifles. Pillboxes (hardened gun placements) were arranged so that a field of crossing fire created a zone of death.

Preserved trenchworks (reinforced with corrugated tin)

Preserved trenchworks (reinforced with corrugated tin)

Communication van. Bicycles and homing pigeons.

Communication van. Bicycles and homing pigeons.

The internal combustion engine, the caterpillar track, and steel armor came together to create the first military tanks. Mobile firepower brought a change in tactics.

Beginning with zeppelins and progressing to biplanes, air warfare was born. Death from the skies and in the skies was a new aspect to the previous land based armies. Developments in artillery tactics, aiming, and projectiles brought huge long range shells, and smaller mortars, into the battlefield.

The submarine, or U-boat, changed naval warfare. 3.5 million tons of supplies on merchant ships were lost to U-boat attacks, which was largely responsible for drawing the United States into the war.

Essex Farms cemetary

Essex Farms cemetery

Most appalling, at least to me, is that the concept of a war of attrition, fighting until your enemy no longer had the supplies to fight, changed in tone. War changed from economic attrition to human attrition. Both the Central powers and the Allies used the resources of human lives as one would use water on a fire. Commanders on both sides faced recriminations after the war for the number of lives lost. Belgium, a multilingual country, was divided in that the officers were largely French, and the soldiers largely Flemish. Officers would give orders in French and followed with “et pour les Flamands, la même chose”, which means “and for the Flemish, the same thing”. Insert obscenity of your choice here.

Weeping angel atop memorial at Tyne Cot

Weeping angel atop memorial at Tyne Cot

One of countless unidentified graves

One of countless unidentified graves












In the Ypres region, 90,000 soldiers were lost. I don’t mean to say died, that number is somewhere near one million. 90,000 are still missing, lost in the mud of the battlefield (one story is of a soldier seeing an Australian helmet in the mud, and upon attempting to retrieve it found that it was still attached to the head of its owner. He reached through the mud to place his hands under the arms of the buried soldier, and the Australian sputtered through the mud “Brace yourself man, I’m on horseback”). Despite extensive cemeteries and memorials, the entire region is one mass grave.

The weapons used in Oriental martial arts are developed from agricultural implements. We will always find ways to beat our ploughshares into swords, research into accidental vapor cloud explosions led to the development of thermobaric weapons. The physicist  Kenneth Bainbridge, who had a long history of inventions that benefited humanity, was director of the Trinity atomic bomb tests. After the first test, he remarked to Robert Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches”.

Should you find yourself in Belgium, I highly recommend Flanders Battlefield Tours if you wish to see Ypres, or any of the surrounding historical sites. Our guide, Genevra (think “Jennifer”), was thorough and precise, filled with facts that I have confirmed while writing this series. Most importantly, she was respectful to the dead, and the sacrifices of all who served.

Make a joyful noise

In the joy we share, in the beauty of existence, we praise our existence and thus our creator.

From Psalms 98

98 Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

That which we create of joy and love reflects our love of life. Street Art fills many purposes, and while I do not endorse vandalism, graffiti can be beautiful. In some places, such as Leuven, areas for graffiti exist, such as this wall. The wall was scheduled for demolition, but the sections of graffiti were to be kept.

Graffiti Wall

Graffiti Wall

Te Houden ~ To Keep

Te Houden ~ To Keep

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell what is graffiti and what is commissioned artwork, as on this wall in Brussels.

construction wall

Or at this train station outside Antwerp


This is one of my favorite pieces in Leuven, right across from the Bus station


And while those little stickers that you see everywhere can be annoying, this one, inside the Herge museum in Brussels is apropos, although I don’t think many people notice it.

stairway sticker

Man falling on stairway cartoon, stuck on steps at Herge museum

Street art is not always graffiti, it can be music, or as in this work in progress I came across in Manchester England, it can be three dimensional. The finished work looked like a dog resting at the curb.

sand sculpture

Sand sculpture on street in Manchester

My youngest son, Nolan, began his artistic career doing graffiti, and has moved on to making graffiti style prints. He operates a gallery in Huntsville AL, at Flying Monkey arts center. His gallery, Beautiful but Strange, has been in operation for a couple of years, and his work ranges from eccentric sculptures to prints and postcards.


I have always had an “unconventional” appearance, I have a penchant for hats and often wear a beret. It is not unusual for people to ask me if I am an artist. My standard response is “Everyone is an artist, we just work in different media”.

In Flanders Fields, Episode Two

My grandfather lied about his age to enlist in World War One. Compared to others, he was an old man at all of seventeen.

Valentine Strudwick, age 15

Valentine Strudwick, age 15

Although the minimum age allowed for enlistment was eighteen, V.J. Strudwick enlisted by lying about his age. He became a rifleman in the 8th battalion. It appears that he was fourteen when he enlisted. He was wounded, and repatriated to a hospital in England for three months. When he recovered, he requested to return to his battalion, and died one month before his sixteenth birthday in Ypres, Belgium.

Much is made today of child soldiers, but it is nothing new. The reason Valentine enlisted may never be known, but he was remembered as a good soldier by his commanders. He was clearly dedicated, as inferred by his return after being wounded severely enough to have been sent to hospital back in England. His family was poor, so poor in fact that his mother was unable to travel to the hospital to visit him, her last vision of her son was of him leaving for war.

In the early days of the war, there were many reasons to enlist. One man stated his reason as being able to get away from the coal mines where he had worked. Another knew that soldiers received new boots, and he had no shoes. There was a great deal of anti German propaganda at the time, and certainly many enlisted out of a desire to protect their families, from the evil German hordes, or out of national pride, or a sense of duty. When I enlisted in the military in 1980, at the age of 22, it was because I felt the only differences could be made from within the system, that I would be able to bring some level of intelligence to the decisions being made and with hope save a few lives. We can all be foolish when we’re inexperienced.

Valentine may be among the youngest, but he had much company. Young men from many countries enlisted for a spectrum of reasons. A few years into the war, when the reality of the horrors taking place trickled home, volunteerism dropped off and conscription filled the ranks. In Germany, universities were vacated to provide soldiers. Unlike other nations, in which a recruit would receive training and then be assigned to a low intensity unit to acclimate to the war, young Germans were placed directly on the front after training. Of a population of 65 million, Germany lost 2.1 million in the war, more military deaths than any country except Russia. As a percentage of population, Serbia lost over 16% of its people, many were civilian deaths. The Ottoman Empire had its greatest losses in civilian lives, over 2 million lost mostly to famine.

Card from Simon Hazard to his mother

Card from Simon Hazard to his mother

Simon Hazard, a Sergeant Major of the 12th mixed brigade, wrote home to his mother “Dear Mother, I leave for Liege, probably tomorrow Saturday. I am very pleased. I join my unit. I am going to war on horseback, it is better dying doing your duty than living without fulfilling that duty”.

The young have served as cannon fodder for all time.

Mass graves at Langermark

Mass graves at Langemark

The lists of the dead at Langemark

The lists of the dead at Langemark

The German cemetery in Ypres, Langemark, is a collection of mass graves. Following the first World War, Belgium granted the land on which German soldiers were buried to the German government for 35 years, after which they would be required to pay for rent and upkeep. Originally Langemark held 10, 143 remains. After the second World War remains were exhumed from other cemeteries and “amalgamated” to Langemark. The remains of approximately 25,000 unknown soldiers reside in a single mass vault, the total of remains in the cemetery is in the range of 44,000. Adolf Hitler visited the cemetery in 1940, and while photos of him appear to show solemnity as he viewed the graves bearing only the names of entire units of student soldiers, a more cynical view may imagine other thoughts in his mind.

Photo of grieving soldiers 1918

Photo of grieving soldiers 1918

Statue by  Emil Krieger

Statue by Emil Krieger

A statue by Emil Krieger, inspired by a photograph of mourning soldiers, stands near the rear of Langemark cemetery. The soldier second from the right in the photograph, portrayed by the figure at the far right in the sculpture, was killed a week after the photograph was taken.

In the museum in Ypres, there is a slice from a tree that survived the war. From counting the rings, the tree dates to the eighteenth century. The large black stains are scars at the rings representing the period of the first World War.

Tree section from Ypres

Tree section from Ypres

In the battles of Passendale, lasting 16 weeks in the late summer of 1917, although figures have been in dispute, between 400,000 and 800,000 lives were lost. one estimate is that for every meter of the eight kilometer campaign, thirty five lives were lost. In American terms that’s about one life per inch for five miles. All sides faced recriminations for the losses. Today, many consider Marshal Foch to be a “war criminal” for maintaining tactics that led to so many “unnecessary deaths”. Stop and think about that reasoning. It assumes that there are necessary deaths.

The first recorded war, between what was then Iraq and what was then Iran, was in 2700 BC. There were probably earlier wars, but we had not invented writing yet. Today, starving people buy bullets rather than food. I would never say there is nothing worth dying for, but it is always important to balance all the things worth living for.

I’ll write about something lighter on Sunday, then continue with this series on Monday. For now, I’m off on my quest to find a particular beer, listen to some nice music, and enjoy the company of family.


In Flanders Fields, Episode one


I visited Ypres, Belgium yesterday, and there is much I wish to share about the experience. At this point, I see it as at least three, possibly four, subjects, so I start with why I visited. Today I will discuss John McCrae and his experience in Ypres, I will follow with the story of the soldiers, and end with the weapons and technology of this war. In all episodes, I wish to draw attention to what has not changed. The lack of social progress in the last hundred years.

John McCrae graduated from the University of Toronto with an MD in 1898, and served an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  MD.  He was granted a fellowship in pathology at McGill University, but requested a year off from his studies, during which he served as an artilleryman in the second Boer War.

Lt. John McCrae 1898

Lt. John McCrae 1898

After serving a year in South Africa, McCrae returned to Canada and his studies, resigning from the military in 1904. In 1914 he was drawn to return to service as a surgeon, first in Neuve-Chapelle, France, and then his brigade was moved to Ypres Belgium.

Ypres is one of those beautiful little villages that you might pass on your way somewhere. In this case, it was the Germans, on their way to France, but its history as a battleground dates back to the Romans. Ypres stood between the Germans and the English channel, its strategic importance was verified with every change in warfare, from the invasion of France, to the U-boat ports that denied trade to the British, through access to Dunkirk. in the second world war.  The tools of war were changing in 1914, and tactics had not quite caught up. The marvelous German cavalry was no match for a few Belgians on bicycles with machine guns.  Although the Germans had initially overrun Ypres, the allies returned and retook Ypres in October of 1914. The battle lines became static, and held throughout the war, and trench warfare was born.

Forward dressing station, Essex Farms

Forward dressing station, Essex Farms

In 1915 German chemist Fritz Haber successfully weaponized chlorine gas (more on him tomorrow). Its first use was on 22 April, 1915, in Ypres. I will not publish any photographs of the effects of chlorine gas on the human body, but if you care to do the math, that bottle of Clorox in the laundry room is about 6% chlorine. Aerosol Chlorine at 1000 ppm is lethal within seconds of exposure. It is a painful, ugly death, after which the acids corrode the remaining tissues, by which I mean to say the effects are horrific to the witnesses who survive.

Interior of dressing station today

Interior of dressing station today

John McCrae was one of those survivors. Stationed at Essex Farms, a forward field dressing station, he treated the soldiers mere yards from the front lines. On 2 May 1915, his friend and former student Lt. Alexis Helmer was killed by a shell and later buried in the adjacent cemetery. Originally, wooden crosses marked the graves, and the spacing is haphazard as the cemetery itself remained under artillery fire. No stone marks Alexis’s final resting place.

Cemetery in which Alexis now rests

Cemetery in which Alexis now rests

McCrae, a poet as well as surgeon, sat down and wrote a poem in memory of his friend. He discarded it, but it was recovered by another soldier and eventually published. The approachable language and images made it popular immediately, and it has made the poppy a symbol of remembrance.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

A month later, McCrae, was transferred to a hospital in France where he was the lieutenant-colonel in charge of medicine. Writing of the days after the first gas attacks he wrote “I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days… Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done”. His fellow staffers at the hospital, many friends from McGill, barely recognized the war torn veteran. On 24 January 1918 he was appointed consulting physician to the 1st British army, the first Canadian to be so honored.He was not to live to receive the honor, dying four days later of pneumonia and meningitis. It has been said that he would not have wanted to survive when so many under his care had died.

The First World War never actually ended, an armistice was called for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. American General John Pershing is said to have stated “Without an actual defeat of the Germans, we’ll be back within twenty years to finish this”. In fact many historians believe the armistice made World War Two inevitable.

Ypres was rebuilt in the classic style, and appears to be an ancient city. In fact, there were no buildings left standing after the war. Over 55,000 soldiers were never identified, and a large portion of the bodies were never found, lost in the mud, blasted to bits, and dissolved by the hydrochloric acid formed when chlorine gas mixes with standing water. The memorial at the Menin Gate turned out to be too small, and the names continue to be listed at the Tyne Cot Memorial, where just days ago three more bodies were buried that were only identified as being from South Africa, by the springbok insignias that survived with their remains.

South African soldiers from WW1,  laid to rest 9 July 2013

South African soldiers from WW1,
laid to rest 9 July 2013

Other memories of the war are routinely found, this live artillery shell was placed by the side of the road and awaits disposal by the bomb squad.

Live ordnance on roadside

Live ordnance on roadside

In 1919, months after the end of the war, Pete Seegar was born. In 1955 he penned the song “Where have all the flowers gone”, which is in many ways reminiscent of Flanders Fields. The song went on to be an anti war song during the Vietnam era, because despite the First World War being known as “The War to end all Wars”, it wasn’t, or we wouldn’t need to number it. In fact, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent has assisted in over one hundred conflicts since the war to end all wars.

Couldn’t stand the weather

The weather here is unusually warm. A string of days with sunshine and 24°C (76°F) days. We draw stares when we’re out walking in this heat.  We always bring odd weather with us, the 25 centimeters of snow the first time, the tropical storm during Pukelpop another. We visited relatives in Texas and it was cold. In 1979, I lived near Three Mile Island, in 1986, Lieve was at an outdoor concert near Chernobyl. I’m beginning to think there’s a connection.

I was having lunch with a vintner in the Finger Lakes region once, he was telling me how some years he’d be snowed in for months. I reminded him that the roads went South, and in fact I’d be traveling in that direction in just a few days if he needed a ride. I have often thought that the key to peace in the Middle East was air conditioning. It’s just too hot there, if they could cool down they wouldn’t be so cranky.

Weather is a subjective experience. We acclimate to our surroundings, and accept what some would call severe weather as normal. As human beings, we’re adaptable. We have inhabited every nook and cranny of this planet, we’ve set up habitats under the ocean and in outer space. These are good thing, the planet cycles through droughts and ice ages, species that cannot adapt face extinction. The surface of the planet shows wild shifts in temperature, sea levels, and vegetation over he ages. A number of people believe that an entire continent has sunk below the surface of the ocean, a little thought places Noah and the society of Atlantis at the same time.

That is our truth. it is neither convenient nor inconvenient, anymore than breathing oxygen is an annoyance. The climate changes routinely.

It is mainly ego, the impression that we are more important than we are, and isolation, the impression that for some reason we are separate from nature, that one incredible ego ignited the idea of “Global Warming”. The data is truly all over the place, but taxing society for existence is one of the greatest money making scams ever.  Wasn’t it just a few decades ago that Rachel Carson was warning of global cooling? Have we not gone through several decades of “connecting to Mother Earth”? And, in fact, have not global temperatures remained stable for the last sixteen years?

If it rains for a week, do you build an ark, or do you assume it will pass and collect the rainwater for the dry season ahead?

Our choices in diet do not alter the carnivorous habits of the rest of the species on Earth. Our choices on cruelty do not alter the way other species treat each other.  What we do, what we are, is nature. The only difference is whether we accept our place, or try to claim responsibility.Whether we curtail our use of fossil fuels, or use them up entirely, we will need to find a new source of energy (and plastic) within the next few decades.

We are humans, we will adapt.






Unified change

I believe in leadership. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point “leadership” was replaced by “management”. This has been a gradual change, I remember in the eighties hearing complaints that the two styles were not interchangeable. From a military standpoint, you do not manage a man into battle. But as we faded away, a new generation has attempted to do just that, with foreseeable results. The same change of styles can be attributed to other failures in society, the most obvious being the banking and healthcare industries.

When Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results”, he could not have anticipated an elite that would try the same thing, but call it something different, and expect different results. As words became more powerful than actions, our leaders became our managers, and their concept of the responsibility of leadership became the responsibility of management.

Realizing that this doesn’t work comes from the bottom and works its way up. That a change is necessary is not the object of the debate, but an efficient manager can unify his minions for the purpose of managing them. Yes, everyone wants a change. If we argue about what changes we want we will get nothing done, and if we unite and stand together for change in and of itself…nothing gets done. My desired change and your desired change are not capable of coexisting, but everyone voted for the candidate who promised change. Well, not everyone. Fifty two percent of the fifty seven percent of voting age people who voted. Which would mean that somewhere in the area of one out of five inhabitants of the United States voted for that change in 2008. Not exactly a mandate, but you get what you pay for.

Despite the lack of any positive changes, a slightly smaller percentage of a slightly smaller percentage elected the same person in 2012. In a recent survey, exactly the same amount of people believe that the weather affects cloud computing. Just sayin…

Approximately the same percentage of the population in Egypt voted in a new president last year. Muhammad Morsi was the change the people wanted after thirty years of Hosni Mubarak (who had brought historically unique stability to Egypt). They wanted the change so much they could not wait for the scheduled elections just two months away. Last week, after a mere twelve months in office, he was displaced in a military coup. You can call it a revolution if you wish, I believe the Chinese are still using that term to describe their system, although the Wuchang uprising was over one hundred years ago. The fact is a minority of the Egyptian people decided to protest in Tahrir square and break things until their country changed again. The military, a largely autonomous organization, wasn’t terribly happy with the new leader, so they placed Mr. Morsi under arrest, suspended his new constitution, and appointed the leader of the constitutional court acting president. Yeah, it didn’t make any sense to me either. “Democracy”, “Constitution”, “and “Elections”, are not quite the same there as they are here.

So they went from dictatorship to democracy to military junta in just over a year. And the “people” are calling it a revolution. The people who chose Morsi to replace “the tool of the USA and Israel” wanted Morsi out because he was “a tool of the USA and Israel”. Maybe they should have watched a news report from the states, where Morsi was seen as an enemy of the USA and Israel due to his bonds with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Which reminds me of what some people would call a joke. A guy on his first op (FNG) is told if things go south, to say he’s with the CIA. “But why? Won’t they deny I’m with them?” So you explain, “Of course they will, they deny their own people, so that builds your credibility. They will assume you’re with the CIA, they’ve never heard of us.”

The other day I was reading through my favorite anarchist site, and one young man made the statement “Each and every Egyptian is against Morsi”. I suggested to him that if that was true, why are there protests? With that kind of consensus they should all be getting along wonderfully. I applauded the fifty one percent of voters who had changed their minds. His English was not strong enough to appreciate my sarcasm. I’m finding the anarchists less fun lately, rather than the individualists I grew up with, they want to put forward the idea that everyone agrees.

The over three billion genes we each carry allows for differences that can for all practical reasons be called “infinite”. No two of us are precisely the same, nor do we have precisely the same desires. We build consensuses, we agree to majority rule, but we know that even within the majority there are subtle differences of opinion. A crowd of a million protestors calling for change is looking for a million different changes for a million different reasons. They may take comfort or find strength in their unity, but that unity is often simply in the desire to protest, to express dissatisfaction.

Suffering idiots

The word “suffer” is immediately connected with pain. One might read the title above and think of fools in pain. Today I consider a different meaning, “allow” or “tolerate”, as in “He does not suffer fools”. Although the allowance of fools is indeed painful, the word does not necessarily imply pain.

As much as I enjoy Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, one of their songs has been abused by fools for over forty years. Yes, I am speaking of “Teach your Children Well“, a song that might be sub-sub titled “I am an idiot for using these lyrics as justification for my ignorance”. The song does not suggest that children are wiser than their parents, it suggests that all generations need to strive to understand each other. I once lived with a woman who would pair this song with the phrase “From the mouths of babes” to explain why she thought her daughters opinion was superior to hers. Not on occasion, but always. Yes, I have loved morons.

When the same daughter received academic scores in the first percentile, not only did I have to explain percentiles to this woman, but I was asked not to explain them to her daughter, because she didn’t want her to “feel bad”. When the daughter expressed an interest in becoming a brain surgeon, she was encouraged in order to spare her feelings. I lost track of them soon afterward, having never bitten completely through my tongue, but on occasion I wonder whatever happened to them, the daughter would be closing on thirty now, if she survived the crushing blow to her ego that was waiting for her.

Another woman I lived with shortly thought that the music video “Land of Confusion” by Genesis was real. Not just true, but real. She based her political opinions on muppets. In fairness, this may not have been true stupidity but was more likely brain damage. I can’t recall a three hour interval during which she did not smoke marijuana. We eventually parted ways because she felt I was not adequately terrified of a hurricane we weathered in Antigua. Of all our differences, that was the one that annoyed her.

So you don’t think too poorly of me (or maybe this makes it worse), there have been many women in my life, and I am not attracted to idiots, I just tolerate them and am able to weed out inspirational jewels from their unusual viewpoints. A mind that is free of the ravages of intelligence can be quite refreshing. A martini can be refreshing as well, neither should be the center of a healthy diet.

It often comes to suffering, feeling mental anguish, but if I only sought out people exactly like myself, I would be very lonely. Not because there are few people like me, but staring at one’s reflection must be isolating.

The two edged sword of technology is that with universal access, there is no filter. The viewpoint of the genius and the moron stand side by side on the internet. You have no way of knowing my credentials, if I am intelligent or just egotistical, from a single article. Over time you most likely realize a constant tone, and you either agree or disagree with the point of view, and it is my hope that you find a reason to reference me as a reliable source of information. I come from a long line of teachers, and it is always my desire to inform and educate. I don’t expect to be profound every day, just often enough for you to keep coming back.

My tone can be acerbic, there was in fact a time it was my only joy, the “inside joke” with myself as I worked in a field surrounded by fools I had pledged to assist. One client was in the habit of calling me “Doctor House”, after the television character portrayed by Hugh Laurie. The nick name fit well enough that my wife gave me a cane with flames painted on it. Although I rarely need to use the cane anymore, I do carry it when traveling, “handicapped” people get preferential boarding on aircraft, and do not stand in line at security checkpoints, so I consider it one of the few positive aspects of multiple sclerosis.

We all have our place, and our value, in society. It is not up to any of us to judge the relativity of that value, as without all of us, none of us could enjoy a full existence. It is through understanding a spectrum of viewpoints that our own has any validity.

Christmas miracles

There are a number of reasons I’m writing this in July. One is because some recent debate has suggested that Jesus was born in July. There are for some unknown (though perhaps divinely inspired?) sales in America titled “Christmas in July”. And of course, when I first traveled to Belgium, my luggage took a different voyage, so that it was not until I returned in July that I was able to distribute Christmas gifts.

Miracles have no calendar, and there are many who would say that life, being a miracle in itself, happens everyday. There are certainly things that happen everyday that someone will call a miracle, even if it’s just finding their car keys.

C.S.Lewis said “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see”.

I think C.S.Lewis has it right. We tend not to notice the “everyday” miracles like the fact that life exists at all, or that we have the capability of understanding more than our individual needs. Our definition of special doesn’t include existence, but if we stand back for a moment to consider, it is quite amazing that everything, and by everything I mean everything, worked out so that life could exist through humanity surviving as long as it has to our parents meeting each other so that we as individuals could lose our car keys, and consider finding them a “miracle”. We don’t see the forest for the rock we stumble on.

So when I started to write this I was going to talk about waking up Christmas morning 2010 in the bedroom that had been my wife’s since she was a child and the first sight being a Russian Madonna icon, and my awareness of God’s presence. As things have worked out, other events have clouded my mind, or focused it. Two people I knew died this weekend, two very different people, and through their passing I am again reminded of God’s presence, and how at some level we are all the same.

Thomas Smith was my uncle. My father had been a late baby, his sisters much older than him, so Thomas was much older than my father. I didn’t realize this until later in life, you rarely consider the age of your relatives. I saw Thomas angry one time in my entire life. My parents’ other child was fighting with me and just wouldn’t stop, and Thomas could not stand for fighting family members. I can only speak for what I saw, but Thomas appeared to be the gentlest human being I have ever known. He had been a pilot, and flew from Dallas TX to Rio De Janero during the last years of his career. A joke about Thomas was that he recorded everything, there was always a camera in front of his face. When his parents died his siblings fought over the inheritance so much that he walked away and said he didn’t want anything, then when he got home he and my aunt planned out their wills, with the intention of being as equal as humanly possible with their children. A dozen or so years ago at my Grandfather’s funeral, I noticed the resemblance between Thomas and his oldest son, and realized that in his youth, Thomas must have been a very attractive man. My aunt is not an easy person to live with, and the two of them faced a couple of tragedies in their lives, yet he was always a kind and loving husband, and I cannot recall an ill word ever coming from him about anyone. He had been ill the last few years, and was on his way with his youngest son to vacation, when he died, sleeping in the car.

Annette (I won’t give more of a name, but she has commented on previous blog posts) was a few years younger than I. We had known each other in High School, and caught up on Face Book. She didn’t live far away and we had many of the same interests, so I felt that one day we would run into each other without a great deal of planning. That day will not arrive. Annette was forty nine years old when she passed away. A week or so ago she had commented on Face Book “my leg is broken, going to the doc to see if he can fix it”. Then this morning her husband posted that she had died. That is all I know. Annette was a wonderful person, she was very involved with dogs and helped create the first “No-Kill” shelter in the state where she lived. She was a thoughtful Christian, and from what I could tell from our brief conversations looked at her relationship with God much as I look at mine.

We do not know why we are here, other than to love one another. We do not know how much time we will have here, other than right now.

The conclusion is obvious. Love each other now.


I wrote this ahead of time. As you read this, I have arrived in Belgium, having flown all night and missing all the fireworks displays.

Breaking from my usual practice of celebrating life on birthdays, today I fill this space with memories of someone on the anniversary of her death. Amelia Mary “Emma” Aquilino – May – Armstrong – Cash, shuffled off this mortal coil on 5 July, 2010, right about 0600 EDT. I believe she was at peace, having brought her fight with cancer to an end on her own terms.

You can read all about that stuff on my previous blog, or in the book I wrote from it. Just because I can’t get those images out of my mind doesn’t mean that you have to experience them (but I do like the occasional guest book entry and royalty check).

I thought I’d spend a few words telling about the woman I knew and loved.

Emma was not a shy person, at least not on the exterior. She came across as brash, but there was a vulnerable little girl inside. She had not had a pleasant childhood, and made up for it by taking control of just about every situation.

Emma was widowed twice before meeting me. She was not certain about dating again, but her downstairs neighbor insisted she place an ad in the personals section of the paper. This was before the internet and all the dating services there are today. Neither of them were poets, but they had the formula right.

adThis was her ad, I now keep it with some of her things next to her ashes. Who could not be intrigued? I was looking for a date for the Nouveau party at Chaddsford Winery. I wasn’t really looking for a life partner, just someone to go to a wine tasting who actually enjoyed good wines. Emma was direct when we first spoke on the phone. “There are two things you need to know about me” she said, “I’m Sicilian and I smoke”. As the years passed, I could think of no better introduction for her.

I picked her up at her place and drove to the winery. There was a “secret” entrance in the back, and it never occurred to me that it might be a little scary to drive off into the woods twenty minutes after meeting for the first time. She told me later that she had her hand on the door handle the entire time in case she needed to jump out.

After the party we went back to my place, a tiny apartment in South Philly. She walked in, looked around, and said “No, this won’t do at all”. I had no idea what she was referring to. “You’ll have to move in with me, this is much too small” she said. Obviously I had already made a good impression. I moved into her apartment the next week. She allowed me into the kitchen a few months later. Emma was an incredible chef, and it took a few years for her to acknowledge my skills.

We were married on April Fools Day, and had our ups and downs for over eleven years. She was not the easiest person to live with, neither am I, but we both felt it was worth it. Her mood could flip in a second, and there was a particular level of alcohol that would push her over the edge. I never did figure out how to measure that, probably had something to do with the stars.

Emma was “quirky” (no surprise). Over the years I met her family, I’m not sure how to describe them. There were odd relationships, but the strength of the word “family” kept them together, sometimes beyond any understanding. Family gatherings usually ended in a fight, I heard that fistfights were not uncommon at funerals, maybe that was why she didn’t want one.

If there was ever a person who could really be psychic, it was Emma. Although she was wrong about a few things, she was right far more often. She could meet a stranger and know all their secrets, would know when someone was pregnant before they did along with the sex of the baby. Sometime though, she would have a dream and wake up angry over something that hadn’t happened, and it would be difficult to calm her down because she was right so often.

We joked about being each others third spouses, what would people think if I were to die. Cancer answered that question. She softened in many ways during her last year, things that would have set her off no longer would, and her “team leader” qualities came to the fore, she was everyone’s’ inspiration in radiation and chemo, always smiling and joking and never looking sick in public. In fact, she looked healthier than I, so folks often thought I was the patient. I guess that’s when it finally got to me that we weren’t doing as well as I thought, when a tech asked if I was her son. She never lost her humor, even the night before she died she was still touching the lives of the medical staff.

Lieve and I are listening to a book together about perception, how events and circumstances alter our memories and expectations. When I lost Emma I thought my life was over, and of course it wasn’t. Two years later I thought that I was past the worst part, and thought I was fully recovered. Today, despite all the wonderful things in my life, I can tell you I’m not there yet, and there’s no reason to believe I ever should be.


My first trip to Belgium

We’re flying to Belgium tonight, to see Lieve’s family and friends, and look into the requirements for emigration.

This is my fourth trip to Belgium, and the first time I’ll be on a direct flight to Brussels. For some reason it was less expensive than flights with connections. Air travel is getting weird, when I flew to Texas last time I ended up in First Class on the return flight.

Every year we try to do something on our own, one time we spent a few nights in Brugge, last time we visited Amsterdam. We usually meet friends in Brussels at least once, we’re aiming to meet at a concert by an old friend of Lieve’s this time, and maybe a trip to Paris.

Our first trip was just a short Christmas visit, it was in theory our honeymoon. We married earlier in the month, and it sounded so nice to spend Christmas in Belgium. Lieve told me to bring my winter coat, it can get cold, but rarely snows. We left the evening of 23 December.

Our itinerary was Newark to Frankfurt to Brussels, with a three hour layover in Frankfurt.  When we arrived in Frankfurt it was snowing, and a lovely white Christmas was in store. We had been waiting at the gate and I didn’t see our flight on the monitor, and there was no personnel at the gate. After a bit we decided maybe there was a problem, but neither of us are very strong in German, so we sought assistance.

Apparently, the snow was pretty bad for that part of the world, although it didn’t look like much out the window. Planes were missing connections and the customer service desk was swamped. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were told that international passengers had to go to another desk. We waited in line there, and found out that Brussels was closed. From the intonation I got the impression that the entire city, not just the airport, was no longer open for business. They told us to go to yet another desk for information.

There we found that they were substituting rail tickets. There is a rail station in the airport, and we just needed to go to one more desk to get our tickets. We would be taking a train to Cologne, on to Liege, and then to Brussels. The next train was in half an hour, and it looked as if we might arrive in Brussels before our plane would have. Oh. Baggage? They’ll call us about it.

Waiting for the train in Frankfurt

Waiting for the train in Frankfurt

The train was a little late, but compared to American trains it was luxurious. As we entered Cologne, the snow was piling up, at least a few inches were on the ground. It had not occurred to me that if they rarely get snow, this might be a lot for them to deal with. One winter in Dallas we had about three inches and everyone was putting chains on their cars. In Cologne we found that the scheduled train to Liege had been cancelled. We went to the help desk, where you draw a number. We were 98. The sign said “Now Serving #12” in German. At least the numbers were universal. We were re-routed through Aachen. This was turning into an adventure, working our way through Germany on Christmas Eve. As we waited on the platform, packed with other travelers trying to get home for Christmas with children, presents, and luggage, it felt a bit like some “Last Train Out” scene. A train pulled up on one track and everyone rushed for it, and Lieve heard a conductor say, almost to himself, in German, “That train is going to Aachen too” pointing at another track. Thank goodness she understood that much, we were able to get a seat.

The snow building up in Cologne

The snow building up in Cologne

Aachen was a fairly nice stop, there was food and drink available. We had left home about 1300 EST, or 1900 local, the day before. The last food we had was at the airport in Frankfurt, so we grabbed some sandwiches and a bottle of wine. The platform was freezing, so we spent as much time downstairs in the warmth as we could.

Aachen station

Aachen station

From Aachen we went to Welkenraedt, where we changed trains to Verviers. It seemed things were calming down, getting into something of a routine, we would still make it to Leuven before dark. When we stopped in Verviers we had to wait while they checked the lines ahead. From what we could gather (at least we were in an area where people spoke Flemish), this was the worst storm anyone could remember. We headed out on the last leg to Leuven, the snow seemed to be slowing. All we had were our carry on bags with some Christmas cookies and the bottle of wine.

Between Verviers and Leuven

Between Verviers and Leuven

We got a ways down the track, and the train stopped. The lines were down ahead. We sat there, with no word if we could even go backwards. Lieve had been attempting to sing Christmas carols all day, she has difficulty with lyrics, and by now she was having trouble with melodies. We considered walking back to Verviers. I wondered just how long it would take to freeze to death if I just wandered into the woods. I opened the bottle of wine as we started to eat the cookies.

The train backed to Verviers, and the couple we had been talking with said they had a friend who could pick them up and drive them to Rotselaar, which is where Lieve’s brother lives. We asked if there might be room for us, and they never said another word to us. While we were waiting in the train in Verviers, another train pulled in. Some people on that train came over to ours, and then we heard that the other train was going on to Leuven. Maybe. We had a seat, and were not quite ready to change trains on a rumor. There are no hotels in Verviers, and on Christmas Eve in the middle of a storm we might be safest if we spent the night on the train.

Finally a conductor (outside the train, there was no room to move on board) said our train would be going on, and there was a rush from the other train to board ours. I was glad we had stayed on.

"Ding Dong Merrily on High"

“Ding Dong Merrily on High”

We arrived in Leuven about 1900 local. We had been traveling for twenty four hours, and hadn’t slept in even longer. It wasn’t a terrible surprise that the buses weren’t running, and being Christmas Eve we realized that there would be no taxis. Interesting thing about the age of cell phones. There are no longer any public phones, and our American phones don’t work in Europe.  Lieve was able to convince a worker at the train station to allow her to use his phone, and a friend of her parents was kind enough to venture out in the snow to pick us up. We made it before Christmas.

Waffles in Leuven

Waffles in Leuven

The storm was indeed the worst in almost fifty years. twenty five centimeters (ten inches) of snow. Roofs of churches collapsed, and the entire country was affected. We had a wonderful visit, and I finally got a “real” Belgian Waffle. Our luggage never found us, and the stores were closed on Christmas Day, so we made some adaptations but were able to buy new clothes before the flight home. As we were preparing to leave, there was snow in Newark. We arrived to a fresh twenty five inches, but New Jersey knows how to deal with snow and the roads were clear for our drive home.

Oh, and our bags? On 6 January we went to a concert in Philly, and couldn’t find parking near my old apartment so we decided to drive back to Princeton. When we got home, we received a call that our bags would be delivered in a few hours. At 0130 on 7 January they arrived, still filled with the Christmas presents we had taken to Belgium. So the next summer, we had Christmas again.

The luggage completes its voyage

The luggage completes its voyage

Pet sitting

My neighbors have what we call a menagerie. Two dogs, three cats, two parakeets, two frogs, and a parrot. We trade off watching animals when we’re away. Last week was my turn, then next week they can watch our three cats.


Lena, a one hundred eight pound golden retriever, and Belle, a ten pound Bichon Frise, are the dogs. Both are sweet, Lena preferring to lay still while you pet her, Belle always curious and exploring. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I found that Belle was the one tearing open our trash bags, not the cats. Both dogs get along well with the cats, which puts them at a disadvantage with our cats, who don’t get along with anyone. Belle is loud enough that her bark holds off Rascal, and Lena doesn’t seem to care, she just keeps trying to play even after Rascal scratches her.

teeTee, the parrot, is also friendly. One time she came out of her cage while I was feeding her and perched on my shoulder. She talks, but not when I’m in the room. I’ll hear her calling “Mom!Mom!” and it sounds like there’s someone around. She also imitates the voice of the young lady (I’ll call her “Beth”), I kept trying to tell the mother (I’ll call her “Liz”) that Beth was calling her and she said “That’s Tee,Beth is at work”. Tee will say “Gedep bedep” to me, so much that she has me saying it back after a few days. And then I found myself saying it to Lieve.

frogsThe frogs must have names, but they really don’t interact much. Even when they’re fed, they usually just sit still. Once in a while one will move about, but life seems pretty boring for them. They’re almost as old as Beth. twenty three years in still water eating freeze dried flies.

parakeetsThe parakeets are in Beth’s room, they don’t require much but since I’m upstairs feeding the frogs and emptying litter boxes, I stop in and say hello. They get fresh water and food each Wednesday, and whenever they seem to need it. The biggest rule is to never let Missy into the room, apparently there’s a tragic story concerning Missy and a previous parakeet.

missyMissy is usually the first cat you’re aware of, she’s very pretty and soft, and comes right up to you once she realizes that you’re there to feed her. The rest of the year she keeps her distance, but when I’m taking care of them she’s waiting on the step to rub her nose on mine. It’s not just me, all (except Minnie) and very loving animals, rubbing up against each other and licking each other. Lena and Missy walk around the yard together sometimes.

squishingtonIf Missy is outside, the first cat you’ll notice inside is Squishington. Also friendly, and vocal, Squishington weighs in at about twenty pounds. She doesn’t move very fast, and hadn’t been outdoors before, so I coaxed her out on the back porch and even got her to explore the woods a little last week. Fortunately she wanted to come back, because I wouldn’t have wanted to carry her. One day Rascal had come up the front steps while I was letting Belle in, and Squishington started to come out the door. The screen door was open, Rascal on one side Squishington on the other, and about three inches open underneath the door. The two cats sensed each other, and heir noses went to the same point on the opposite sides of the door. Either one could have reached underneath, but they slowly progressed in tandem towards the edge of the door. I wasn’t sure what to expect, in a minute they would be face to face. They got to the end, were nose to nose, and without a sound Rascal slowly turned and walked down the steps.

minnieThis is Minnie. You might never see her, she is not sociable at all. Even when giving her food she would hiss at me. Both times I’ve watched the animals though, she would come out on the steps on the last day, and act friendly. I would reach up to the spindle and she would nuzzle against the other side of the spindle, then she would bat at my hand, hiss, and run upstairs. Minnie is a tiny cat, and I had thought she was young, but she’s actually quite old, maybe eighteen years. She was the cat that was picked up by a Red-Tailed Hawk in the yard, and fought enough the hawk dropped her.

My Cats

The other players in the story are my cats. We have three, all with distinct personalities, but none who get along with each other. They’ve come to tolerate each other, and will occasionally share a couch, and then just start chasing each other about.

rascalRascal gets the most press. I have seen Rascal cross the street in order to confront a big dog. He’s aloof, but lately he follows me into the yard when I sit outside in the evening. Rascal prefers to be outside, and spends most of his time there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALeroy is actually the largest cat by weight, he’s solid, strong, and constantly shedding. Not a good thing in a home where folks tend to wear black. He prefers the top perch in the cat castle, mostly so he can lean over and throw up on the other cats (I may have found a food he can tolerate). He”s friendly with people, but only tolerant with the other cats.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is my cat, Autumn. The other two were Lieve’s. Autumn is a scaredy cat, she had never been outside before we moved to Princeton, and is just now getting the impulse to explore outdoors. She’s become friendly since Emma’s death, but that is only relative to the fact that she would never face other humans at all before.

I do wish that our cats could get along as well as the cats upstairs, but they are making progress, slowly.

Ain’t gonna play Sun City

Yes, there was a time at which artists displayed integrity. Steven Van Zandt, AKA Little Steven, AKA Silvio Dante, left Bruce Springsteen and the E street band in 1985, at the height of Bruce’s popularity, to work on solo projects. It didn’t exactly work out that way, his first project being Artists against Apartheid.

Steven was interested in the similarities between apartheid and the relocation of Native Americans to “reservations”. There was a United Nations “Cultural Ban” on South Africa, however many artists ignored the ban for the substantial pay  from Sun City gigs. Reliable data is about as easy to obtain as service records of NAZI soldiers, but Queen played Sun City, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Laura Branigan, Rod Stewart, Julio Iglesias, Cliff Richards can’t seem to remember, and, ironically, black singers such as Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick and Boney M. played there.

Steven had originally thought of naming the artists who played Sun City in the song, but instead asked them to participate in the project. Some fifty four artists were involved, including Miles Davis, Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Ruben Blades, Bob Dylan, Pat Benatar, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey, Lou Reed, Run–D.M.C., Peter Gabriel, Bob Geldof, Clarence Clemons, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Jackson Browne, Daryl Hannah, Peter Wolf, U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, Michael Monroe, Stiv Bators, Peter Garrett, Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Gil-Scott Heron, Nona Hendryx, Lotti Golden, Lakshminarayana Shankar and Joey Ramone.

Unlike “We are the World“, Steven was looking to raise awareness and enforce the ban rather than raise money. It worked, slowly. Turning a country upside down takes a while, South Africa is still deciding when to stop spinning.

The issue of “Cultural Bans” continues. The obvious issue of not catering to those that have made their wealth by the suffering of others has been obfuscated by such artists as Sting, who played for Uzbekistan’s president’s daughter. Sting claims he thought the concert was organized by UNICEF, although he would be the only one thinking such. He was paid two million pounds (a little over three million dollars), and hasn’t reported donating any of it to his allegedly favorite charity, Amnesty International.

Most artists, when “outed”, donate their fees either in whole or part to a charity. A  more meaningful gesture would be to donate double their fee, as some show of remorse.

Van Halen had a clause in their contract requiring a bowl of M&M’s backstage, with absolutely no brown M&M’s in the bowl. The purpose was to make sure the contract was actually read, not some distaste for brown food coloring. I can understand the difficulty in knowing the source of your paycheck when you’re traveling to a country renown for its human rights record, particularly when you’re a human rights “activist”. There you are, singing “Happy Birthday” to a brutal dictator and his family, without any knowledge of who they are. Maybe a clause in your contract, requiring a full briefing on who is paying you three million dollars would clear up any misunderstanding.

Or maybe you could have the common sense to “Google” your patron, as you would before hiring a roadie.


To give you an impression of the time that has passed, it was shortly after I graduated from High School that the Voyager probes were launched. With logic that can only be accredited to NASA, Voyager 2 was launched first, on 20 August 1977, and Voyager 1 was launched 5 September 1977. Traveling slightly faster, at 38,000 mph, Voyager 1 passed voyager 2, so that it will be the first man made vehicle to travel beyond our solar system. If we can determine where precisely our solar system ends,  Voyager 1 should cross the barrier at any time. We’ll receive the data about seventeen hours later, because that’s how long it takes for the signal to travel the eleven and a half billion miles.

There are literally millions of things to learn from the Voyager missions, but what I want to talk about today is perspective.

It has taken thirty six years to travel seventeen light hours. Last week, three potentially habitable planets were discovered orbiting a nearby star (Gliese 667C). Nearby meaning twenty two light years away. This would mean that traveling at the same speed as Voyager 1, it would take about three hundred seventy four thousand one hundred three years to reach these new found planets. To put that period of time into perspective, it was that many years ago the first neanderthals discovered Europe, Homo Sapiens did not yet exist.

This is not to say we might won’t come up with some innovation to allow us to cross the void in less time than it has taken to develop as a species. In the years since Voyager was launched, its technology has become somewhat antiquated, the symbol of which most will agree is the golden phonograph record attached to each.

golden_record_coverCertainly any advanced life form should understand how to retrieve the data from a phonograph. Just ask your average twenty year old computer geek. First ask them if they are aware of the existence of phonographic recordings.

Learning from its “inappropriate” plaques on the Pioneer probes, there were no anatomically correct images of human beings, we are a modest bunch, and who knows what we may have evolved into by the time any aliens follow the attached map back to Earth. There will be no history books to describe who the greeting voices on the record belong to, Kurt Waldheim seemed a natural as Secretary General of the United Nations, only a decade later did earthlings discover he had been complicit in NAZI atrocities during World War Two. Maybe the aliens will figure out that the intelligence that launched this minivan size probe into interstellar space was the whales, whose voices are also on the record.

This all assumes that something one day finds one of the Voyager probes. If Voyager 2 was the size of a needle, the haystack would be slightly larger than the planet Earth, and expanding every day. As Carl Sagan said, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”. Did you know Carl was a friend Of Timothy Leary? Just sayin…

Voyager is literally in unknown territory, so predictions about what may happen next are based on…nothing. This is what “exploration” is all about.