Mutability

If you're a regular visitor to this site you're aware that the appearance keeps changing. We're sorry about that. More or less sorry, anyway. We're experimenting with different ways of arranging things around here and we not experts at HTML code, or Cascading Style Sheets, and we know absolutely nothing about PHP. But maybe you guessed that already. All this is by way of explanation and not an excuse. (But we hope you'll excuse this occasional mess.) The writing is the important thing, right? We hope you enjoy the writing.

“The Nun’s Story”

Medieval nuns 276There’s a little story about  a nun and a dog. A dead dog.  Fortunately, everything  turns out well in the end. The story is set to music and both the story and the music were composed by Marilyn Robertson. And Yes, that’s Marilyn playing the guitar and singing. It’s a simple whimsical tale and we think you’ll like it. Ms Robertson has a way with words and she manages some delightfully sly puns along the way.

The nuns in the image we’ve posted here are from way back in Medieval times, but our nun is quite contemporary — she rides trolley cars and deals with the hazards of life in the city. The only recording of “The Nun’s Story” is located at SoundCloud.com, which you may not be familiar with, so we’ve made it easy and all you have to do is click  HERE.  And after you’ve listened to Marilyn you can explore the other music on the site, too. Then return to Critical Pages.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Better Angels of Our Nature cover image 235While our fellow humans are drowning themselves in each other’s blood, it’s consoling to remember Steven Pinker’s great book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The author’s preface begins with these words:
“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

Pinker’s book, including notes and index, is 802 pages long. It’s overwhelmingly convincing. You may not want to choose a work of such length for summer reading, or for reading in any season, but even a random walk through these pages will be a corrective to the view that history is on a long downhill trajectory. Some readers may dispute his statistical methodologies, but by and large the trends he focuses on are beyond question.

There are passages describing what humans no longer do to each other, and those pages may be hard to take. The record of violence and cruelty increases as we read further and further back in history, and we’ve forgotten or averted our eyes from the bloody chronicle because we can no longer stomach thinking about what we have done to each other. If you lived in medieval times your chances of being murdered would be thirty times greater than today.

In Steven Pinker’s words “The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her note cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human right almost incoherent. Genocide ad war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature is an important book not only because it adds to our understanding of human history, not only because it is a corrective to fanciful notions of a more just and peaceful past, but also because – and this is crucial – it encourages us to persist in our struggle to overcome what Steven Pinker calls “the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression.” Our progress has been straight or smooth, and it is certainly uneven today, but clearly we are moving in the right direction. Because we know we can live better, we should keep pressing forward.

Turnips & Rutabegas

Turnips

Turnips

Most people know what a turnip is. But not so many are sure they know a rutabega when they see one. Assuming you know what a turnip is and you also know what a cabbage is, we can tell you that a rutabega came about as a cross between the turnip and the cabbage. Yes, we know that’s unlikely, but it seems to be so.

Rutebegas

Rutebegas

Turnips and rutabegas are members of the plant genus Brassica. In fact, among people who care about such things there’s a theory known as the Triangle of U which diagrams the relationship between members of the Brassica  — a theory which has been proven true by DNA studies. But that takes us very far afield. All we wanted to do was to introduce this light, whimsical poem by Marilyn Robertson. It’s called “Roots” and it goes like this…

Is this a turnip? I ask the man arranging vegetables
in the markeet. No, he says, that’s a rutabega.

Here’s a turnip — and he holds up a roundish
white and purple root. The colors are nice,
but the name is not half so musical as rutabega.

It makes me think of jumprope rhymes,
cheerleaders at football games:
Rutabega, Rutabega, sis boom bah.

Or the melodies of old songs: Rutabega moon,
keep shining…Rutabega, here I come,
right back where I started from.

I put a few in my shopping cart.
At the check-out counter,
I ask the young man bagging groceries,

Pardon me, boy, is that the Rutabega choo-choo?
He has no idea what I’m talking about.

The Polls, the People, and Obama

The Washing Post recently published the results of a Washington Post – ABC News poll which had some curious findings.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

The poll sought to reveal what the public thought about Obama, and about Democrats and Republicans in general.

The poll revealed that Obama’s  approval rating fell to 41 percent from 45 percent in the first 3 months of this year. The results of the Washington Post – ABC poll showed he had just 42 percent approval for handling the economy and 37 percent approval of his handling of the Ukraine and Russia. Furthermore, the Washington Post reported that “people were asked whether they thought it was more important to have Democrats in charge in Congress to help support Obama’s policies or Republicans in charge to act as a check on the president’s policies. On this, 53 percent of voters say Republicans and 39 percent say Democrats.”

Now, here’s where the poll gets interesting. The Washington Post reported that the survey showed “Americans trust Democrats over Republicans by 40 to 34 percent to handle the country’s main problems. By significant margins, Americans see Democrats as better for the middle class and on women’s issues. Americans favor the Democrats’ positions on raising the minimum wage, same-sex marriage and on the broad issue of dealing with global climate change.”

In other words, more voters than not favor the policies of Obama and the Democrats, but more voters than not think it’s best to have Republicans in charge of Congress in order to act as a check on those policies.

Maybe the explanation lies in the connection — or lack of connection — between President Obama and the people of the broad middle class. Wages have remained essentially flat since the 1970s, and most of the middle class is desperately busy keeping body and soul together. Most people don’t have time to think about political and social philosophies.  What they know in their bones is that they’re overworked, that they’re running faster and faster just to keep in place, that other people are getting rich and that they, themselves, can’t even get by as well as they used to.  And  Obama isn’t any good at engaging the American public in order to explain his policies and say how they’re designed to help. The cool, no-drama-Obama isn’t the kind of guy who can say, “I feel your pain, and here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

Meanwhile, Obama’s critics are happy to explain Obama’s policies, day in and day out. Congressional Republicans, by their remorseless drumbeat on the president’s “over reach” and “power grabs,” have convinced these busy, over-worked Americans, who know there’s something deeply wrong with the trajectory of their lives, that the fault lies in Obama and the expensive, wasteful programs  invented by Democrats to help other people.

Easter Renewed

Easter eggs AWe were unable to reach the web the past few days, so we arrive here at Easter out of breath and unprepared. We do have those eggs we’ve colored over the years  (well, actually, the children did most of the work) and we’ve taken  them from the little egg boxes that we keep beside the cartons filled with Christmas decorations.  We haven’t anything new to say about Easter eggs, so we’re reposting our sentiments from last year.  The photos are fresh.  You’ll notice they’re the same decorated eggs, but rearranged — we couldn’t get the same arrangement even if we tried.Easter eggs BSociety finds it easier to give up religious belief, than to abandon the traditions and symbols of religion. Eggs have symbolized fertility, birth and rebirth, for a long, long time. And, as you probably know, you can find eggs used symbolically that way in a number of religious traditions.  Here and now we’re celebrating Easter and what we have here are Easter eggs.  Much of Christian lay society makes a greater celebration and display at Christmas, Christ’s birthday, but clearly in the sacred drama of Jesus’ life his rising from the dead on Easter morning is far, far more significant than his birth.

If you wish, the egg represents the stone that was rolled against the entrance to the tomb to seal it and was found rolled aside on the third day after his death. Or, if you wish, the egg being empty — and all those painted eggs are first punctured and drained — symbolizes the empty tomb of Christ on Easter day. But for many people, contemporary Easter eggs, as bright and colorful as flowers, simply call to mind springtime, fertility and that awakening we feel when we have come through another dark winter and are looking forward to more light and warmth.Easter eggs C

 

April & Poetry & Financial Literacy

National Poetry Month logoApril is National Financial Literacy Month and it’s also National Poetry Month. We think it’s a bad idea to put them in the same month.

On one side we have the Academy of American Poets which began National Poetry Month in 1996 to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. On the other side,  we have US $10000 billthe US Senate which in 2003 passed Resolution 316, making April National Financial Literacy Month, and two years later the US House of Representatives passed a bill supporting the goals and ideals of Financial Literacy Month.

Because we have poetry and financial literacy occupying the same month, we’ve looked around for poems about money. There aren’t many. We’ve already posted “The Banks Are Made of Marble” by Pete Seeger and, anyway, we make a distinction between song lyrics and unadorned poems. After a critical search we think that “Money,” by Philip Larkin, is the best poem about money. Readers familiar with the rhythms and rhymes of conventional English verse may be unsettled by these unconventionally long lined couplets. We must add that Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) was a distinguished British poet, a kind of unofficial Poet Laureate in England, and that the word screw in the poem is a Brit’s slang for salary or wages.

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

The Golden Age of Porn Movies

Barbara Nitke - Exhibit of her Photographs at One Eyed Jack's

Barbara Nitke – Exhibit of her Photographs at One Eyed Jack’s

Did you know there was a Golden Age of Porn? OK, probably you never gave it a thought. A Golden Age is a time of prosperity, achievement and happiness, and for the porn industry that period extended from around the early 1970s to the mid 1980s. It certainly was a time of achievement and prosperity for porn movies — happiness for the actors, not so much.

One of the most beautiful visual records of that time is Barbara Nitke’s un-sentimental collection of evocative photographs gathered in her book, American Ecstasy. (Critical Pages posted about American Ecstasy some time ago.) Nitke worked as a set photographer in the porn industry just as the Golden Age was coming to an end. To be protected by the US Constitution, the porn movies had to claim a socially redeeming value — in other words, they had to pass as artistic expression, which meant they had to have characters and a plot, not just bodies doing it. That was the achievement and that’s what brought about porn prosperity and the Golden Age.

According to Green Cine’s Sex in the Movies Guide, “between 1972 and 1983, porn — not sexy Hollywood fare, not racy sexploitation, not European art films, but pure, unabashed porn — chalked up 16 percent of total box office returns in the US.” Eventually, AIDS, the video camera and the Web ended the showing of large scale porn movies in movie houses. The Golden Age was over.

But not forgotten. Photographs from Barbara Nitke’s American Ecstasy volume have been enlarged and beginning on April 4th they’ll be exhibited in Great Britain at One Eyed Jack’s gallery in Brighton. Social historians, admirers of E. J. Bellocq’s Storyville portraits and anyone interested in fine photography should take a look at these astonishing photographs.

How Much Does Free Speech Cost?

Chief Justice John Roberts

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The full majesty of the United States Supreme Court was on display the other day when the conservative majority proclaimed that rich and poor alike can now give as much money and they please to as many political candidates as they choose, so long as they don’t give more than $5,200.00 to any one individual.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion of the court’s conservative majority. He found that the restrictions on campaign giving, which limited the number of candidates to whom you could give money, violated the Constitution. Roberts wrote that such restrictions “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise the most fundamental First Amendment activities.”

In a wonderful example of non-sequitor thinking, Roberts wrote, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Somebody from Sesame Street should point out to the Chief Justice that merely because we find certain things repugnant, doesn’t mean they have any other relation to each other or to something else we find repugnant.

Anyone who so desires can burn a flag, protest at a funeral or parade with Nazis. But only the very rich can give away money in the thousands or millions to influence an election. In the last presidential election, Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire, along with his family, gave over $53 million to super PACs to help elect Republican candidates from Mitt Romney on down to a Representative from New Jersey. Thanks to the conservative Roberts court, the rich have considerably more freedom of speech than the poor.

SNAP or “Food Stamps” and Free Lunch

About 20 percent of US households are on “food stamps.” Conservatives look at that number and say, “Good grief! Twenty percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program logothe US is getting a free lunch, and the rest of us are paying for it!” Liberals, seeing the same number, say “Good grief! Twenty percent of the US lives in such poverty that they can’t afford to eat without government assistance!”

Some facts may provide a clearer picture of the “food-stamp program.”

First of all, it’s no longer stamps – it’s a card, an Electrical Benefits Transfer (EBT) Card. It used to be called the Food Stamp program, but now it’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It’s the government assistance program to help low-income households pay for food.

Last year, 2013,76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits go th these vulnerable household.

SNAP eligibility is limited to households with gross income of no more than 130% of the federal poverty guideline, but the majority of households have income well below the maximum: 83% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 100% of the poverty guideline ($19,530 for a family of 3 in 2013), and these households receive about 91% of all benefits. 61% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 75% of the poverty guideline ($14,648 for a family of 3 in 2013).

The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744; net monthly income of $338 after the standard deduction and, for certain households, deductions for child care, medical expenses, and shelter costs; and countable resources of $331, such as a bank account.

The statistics cited in this post come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. If you’d like more information on this subject, check out feedingamerica.org —  that’s what we did.

Big Bang Getting Bigger Faster

Whether God is an old man with a white beard, as portrayed by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or whether, on the contrary, God is a badly organized committee just blundering along, are theological questions beyond the scope of this web site. Consequently, when it comes to Creation, we’ll stick to the scientific news we read in the New York Times and witness on BBC TV.

Now, the cosmological news this season comes from astronomers at the South Pole who believe they’ve found evidence that in the trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Moment of Creation, or Big Bang, the universe expanded at a truly terrific rate and took on the smooth shape it appears to have today. They also believe they’ve found evidence of gravity waves – and no one has ever done that before.

Inflation of the cosmos - Polarization Pattern in Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation

The image above shows the polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation, and those twists and turns were presumably produced during the period of terrific expansion, or inflation, which occurred very shortly after the Big Bang went bang! We don’t think the image is a suitable substitute for Michelangelo’s painting of God creating the sun and moon and planets, but what it portrays is evidence that our universe did undergo rapid expansion.  Of course, the evidence will be queried and tested by other cosmologists before it gains complete acceptance.

Calling the Moment of Creation the Big Bang really shrinks it down rather a lot, and reduces it to an almost trivial phenomenon. Even so, it’s a difficult moment to envision. Most people – and this includes physicists, too, especially when they draw on the blackboard or make cinematic dramatizations of the event – imagine a vast volume of empty blackness and then a tiny white speck that explodes and is the BIG BANG. The problem with that vision is that prior to the event there’s nothing there, and by nothing we mean nothing at all – no big empty volume of blackness. Remember, prior to the Big Bang there’s no space. No, not even empty space.

Below is one of Michelangelo’s images from the Sistine Chapel showing God creating the sun and moon and other astronomical bodies. He looks rather angry, but maybe that’s because creating the cosmos is hard work, even for God — or maybe that’s just Michelangelo’s personal irritation coming out as he’s trying to paint while lying on his back on scaffolding way up close to the ceiling, with drops of paint spattering him.God creating sun & moon & planets

Comments

If you have a comment to make, we'd like to hear from you, so long as it doesn't reduce us to tears. Or, better yet, if you've written a couple of paragraphs on an engaging topic, send them along. Our email address is on the Contact page.