You never know what you’ll find on these pages. This time it’s a quick bit of quirky short fiction. “The Case of Jorge Medeiros” is by Francesca Forrest, an editor who is also a writer of young adult novels and short stories which deal in the fantastic. We came across her tale of a man and his book of random numbers at askiyume.livejournal.com. And we found it a welcome relief from some of the grimly serious news coming from all directions these days. No need to be rational all the time. In fact, it’s good to enjoy the irrational now and then.
The Case of Jorge Mederios
A texting driver made a widower of Jorge Medeiros, and perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to say that it was the association of text—words—with death that pushed him in the direction of faith in numbers.
In any case, left with the care of his two elementary-school-aged children, Jorge’s indispensible aid became a book of random numbers, a souvenir from the middle of the last century that his wife had picked up at a yard sale as a curiosity.
He started out using it for household tasks: How long should he run the dryer for? Its serial number was 4214289, so he opened the book at random and ran his finger down the columns until he came to a number that began with 421. The next two digits were seven and six. Seventy-six minutes? Seventy-six seconds? Seven point six minutes? The dryer dial said “Max Dry” next to the 70, so he decided on seventy-six minutes. The clothes were very dry.
He used the number book to determine what temperature to set the oven to keep the pizza warm, how many rolls of wrapping paper to buy for the school’s fundraiser, and how much was an appropriate amount to spend when the kids were invited to birthday parties. The results were varyingly successful and disastrous: 512 (degrees Fahrenheit) resulted in thick black smoke, a visit from the fire department, and no pizza for dinner; 96 (rolls of wrapping paper) delighted the PTO at Linsey Elementary School.
He even used the book of random numbers for the kids’ bedtime stories, at first just reading off the numbers, only to be pressed by the boys to explain the what, who, where, when, and why. Four thousand fifteen whats? Grains of sand. Twenty who? Fishermen. Three hundred fifty where? Miles off the coast of New Bedford. Eighty-eight when? Years ago.
“Thirteen,” their father said, and then, by way of further explanation, “The twenty fishermen carried the 4,015 grains of sand divided between their—” (here he consulted the book) “—five boats to ward off the bad luck of the number thirteen, when they had to go out fishing on the thirteenth day of the month. It’s a bit of the shore with them in the boat, see? So they’ll never drown. They’ll always make it home.”
And so on.
This his sons have accepted as natural. Three months ago, for their father’s thirty-fifth birthday, they pooled their funds and bought him Pi to Five Million Places. He told me the gift brought tears to his eyes.
Since then, he’s abandoned his original book of random numbers and now relies entirely on pi for his number consultations, taking smaller or larger doses of it as needed, mining it from its never-ending, nonrepeating decimal tail.
“It’s a continuous stream, see? Go on, open to any page.” I opened to page 147 (of 588), and sure enough, nothing but row upon row of uninterrupted digits, zero through nine.
“Just like life . . . and irrational, too, just like life.”
A few days ago, Republicans in the House voted to kill Obamacare by taking its money away. If you think this is stale news, you’re right. And also wrong. Stale and not stale, because although House Republicans voted to get rid of Obamacare just this month, this most recent vote was the 37th time they’ve tried.
The United States — the greatest free-enterprise country on the planet — has tried to get along on private health insurance plans for half a century after national plans became common in Canada and the nations of Western Europe. The results haven’t been so good. In fact, the US spends more on health per person than most industrially advanced nations, and generally gets poorer results. Here below is a table by the World Health Organization. It lists nations according to the life expectancy of their citizens. Longest life expectancy at the top of the list, a shorter life as you go down the list. See if you can find the United States.
|Rank||Country||Overall life expectancy at birth||Male life expectancy at birth||Female life expectancy at birth|
Yes, the United States is 37th in life expectancy among the nations of the world. The CIA ranks us 33rd in its list based on UN member states.
Another way of looking at the health of a country is to look at its infant mortality rate. The infant mortality rate is calculated simply by figuring the average number of infant deaths in every one thousand live births. The United Nations Population Division lists the United States as 34th.
Can you recall a roller coaster called the Big Dipper? No? It was a long time ago and if you’re over 40 you may have forgotten it. We tend to forget little things, but after a while all those little things add up to a whole world. Marilyn Robertson knows about forgetting. Her poem is called “A Lost World.”
What is lost today stays lost.
One story after another floats down
the murky corridors of mind,
all the way back to zero.
Then along comes the eraser.
Names, dates, who came with us
and who stayed home because they had chores
or their mothers said no — it’s a lost world.
It eats lunch with the dinosaurs.
You say: I can’t believe you don’t remember.
The four of us in the back seat of the convertible,
your father putting the top down…
the roller coaster…the handsome sailor.
I concentrate on the scene.
It’s as flat as a raft on a dead sea.
the sailor tries to climb aboard, but after
fifty years his arms are not so strong.
He slips back into the current and drifts away,
along with the convertible
and all the rickety cars on the Big Dipper,
slowly chugging their way to the top.
The ferns in the photograph above belong to the group called fiddleheads. The fern emerges from the soil tightly coiled, and as it grows the top unrolls and resembles the head of a fiddle or violin. Fiddlehead ferns contain omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, and are high in iron and fiber; people in some parts of Europe and Asia eat them. The indigenous people of North America ate fiddlehead firns, but the population of that continent doesn’t much dine on them today. Nobody at Critical Pages has tried to eat a fiddlehead fern and we hasten to add that some varieties are said to be carcinogenic. But we like the way ferns look and we think their design is terrific. In fact, when we took the photo we were reminded of this remark by Thoreau — “God made ferns to show what he could do with leaves.”
From time to time we remind you to patronize your local, independent book store.It’s part of our effort to stamp out starving writers by buying their books. In the past, when we suggested that you buy a book, you may have thought we had in mind only a literary novel or a heavy work of non-fiction. We never mentioned pulp fiction, even though it’s one of our guilty pleasures. And by pulp fiction we mean everything from Westerns and mystery stories, to science fiction and romance novels. Pulp fiction writers get paid by the word, and only pennies per word. Buy some pulp fiction and you’ll help stamp out starving writers!
And as long as were talking about pulp fiction we should mention The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. Yes, it was news to us, too. Their web site says, “We’re a group of friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, and complete strangers, who love good books and sunny days and enjoying both as nearly in the altogether as the law allows. Happily, in New York City, the law allows toplessness by both men and women. So that’s the way we do our al fresco reading. If you’re in New York and the weather’s good, won’t you join us sometime…?” The photo above comes from their website. Finish reading this page first, the whole page, then go off and do what you will. We hope that will include buying a book.
Maybe you’ve heard the old song, “Ain’t We Got Fun?” (This is really a post about economics and we want to talk about the lyrics to “Ain’t We Got Fun?” We promise to play the song at the end of this post, if that’s what you’re here for. So stay with us, please.)
The lyrics were written by Raymond Egan and Gus Kahn back in 1921. The words tell us about the newly married couple in the cottage next door who are pursued by bill collectors from the grocer, the butcher and the landlord. Despite their poverty, the couple sings these lines:
Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening,
Ain’t we got fun?
Not much money, Oh, but honey,
Ain’t we got fun?
As the song goes on we hear its most famous lines:
There’s nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get children.
In the meantime, in between time,
Ain’t we got fun?
Or, as it says further along:
There’s nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get laid off.
Of course, “There’s nothing surer,” leads us to the rhyming word “poorer,” for which the lyrics substitute “children” or “laid off.” But what’s unsung is what we already know: The rich get rich while the poor get poorer. That’s capitalism in a nutshell. You probably know that, too.
Foreign Affairs magazine recently published a lead article called “Capitalism and Inequality” by Jerry Muller. Muller believes that “Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it — because some individuals and communities are simply better able than others to exploit the opportunities for development and advancement that capitalism affords.”
You might pause here to reread and relish Jerry Muller’s use of polysyllables — half a dozen five-syllable words in a single sentence. Anyone can say that capitalism produces inequality, but not many can say it like that. And saying it that way almost makes you forget what it means.
Maybe you’ve seen the 1987 movie Wall Street. (No, we’re not going to play you the movie.) It starred Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance as Gordon Gekko, a corrupt Wall Street insider whose most famous line is “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” What might be overlooked is Gekko’s declaring, at another point in the movie, that the upper one percent own 50 percent of the country’s wealth. That was back in 1987. But the rich keep getting richer and today the upper one percent own 80 percent of the country’s wealth. That’s what Jerry Muller’s polysyllables mean.
The subtitle of Muller’s Foreign Affairs article is “What the Right and the Left Get Wrong.” In his view, those on the right who want to weaken Social Security and other safety-net programs, need to know that “major government social welfare spending is a proper response to some inherently problematic features of capitalism.” And, of course, those on the left should learn that “to redistribute income from the top of the economy to the bottom” has serious drawbacks, that “preferential treatment to under performers, may be worse than the disease,” and “even continued innovation and revived economic growth will not eliminate or even significantly reduce socioeconomic inequality and insecurity.” All of which makes a fine 21-page defense of the status quo.
There’s great sense of even-handedness in the article. After all, the author points out that both left and right get it wrong when they try to change the way things are arranged just now. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and there’s nothing to be done about that except to keep a safety net out there to catch the poorer acrobats – about 40 percent of the population today – as they come crashing down. And nothing can be done about it because capitalism is a fact of nature, like the furnace of the sun or the rotation of galaxies. But capitalism isn’t part of the natural order of things.
Capitalism is a creation of humankind and it can be changed for the better. That may be obvious to you, but it’s not clear to most of the people in Congress. One of the inevitable features of capitalism is the emergence of monopolies. At least is used to be. Nowadays, we have laws against monopolistic behavior, and when a company is judged to be a monopoly it can be told to break itself up and sell away parts of itself. Anti-monopoly laws don’t injure capitalism, they improve it by helping to create competition and spur innovation.
There’s a legend that Henry Ford — a very rich auto maker, not a bomb-throwing radical — improved his worker’s wages so that they could afford to buy a Ford motor car. Of course, no one is compelled to follow Henry Ford’s apocryphal example. Indeed, it’s still possible to allow a capitalist economy to go freely on it’s inevitable path — the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the richest of the rich ascend to unimaginable wealth, the middle class descends to abject poverty and the entire society collapses along with the economy. Ain’t we got fun? No, not when that happens.
OK, we promised you a song, and you’ve been patient, so here it is. Click the arrowhead in the middle and enjoy the old song:
Boston is a good sized city — a population of 680,000 — but small enough so you can get to know almost all of it. A large proportion of the citizenry of Boston and neighboring Cambridge is made of college and university students, giving much of the city a youthful feel. At the same time, it’s one of the oldest cities, with a history going back close to 1620. After the horrific attack on the crowd at this year’s marathon, Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen told NPR’s Melissa Block , “We only care about three things in this town. Sports, politics and revenge! And the revenge will be the laughter of our children. We are not going anywhere.” The photo of the flag at half mast was taken in an ordinary parking lot on this ordinary day, far from the terrible scene in Boston, but bearing witness to it.
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Society 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.
Marilyn Robertson, a singer and song writer living in California, writes poems, too, as readers of Critical Pages have come to know. This one is called “Piccolo Mare” and is as simple and as complex or self-referential as a face in a mirror, or a sound and its echo.
The man whose bald head reflects the light
is writing a letter to his mother,
telling her he’s arrived in a town called Piccolo Mare.
He’s met a poet there, himself, at a sidewalk cafe,
taking pleasure in the coffee, the feel of the pen
in his hand, and the word evanescent
he has just written at the top of the page.
A bell rings in the church tower.
Its chimes float out to sea, then curve back
toward the hill houses,
easing under eaves, through open windows.
He thinks of the clock in his childhood home,
a grandfather clock, whose deep sound
carried him safely into each night
and out the other side.
He knew what that country looked like,
what he could expect.
Those things did not arrive.
He made a life anyway.
Now a new chapter begins.
He watches his hand to see what will happen next.
We’ve now come to the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and it appears that the story of that event isn’t being clarified, but simply smoothed over. Yes, we must focus on the world today and look forward to what lies in the future. But unless we are clear minded about what happened in the past, unless we understand what went wrong and why, we’ll be making the same errors again.
Despite the fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney, there was no connection between the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Saddam Hussein. And despite the repeated announcements by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, there was never any credible evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and planned to use them against the United States.
There was, of course, a lot of vague speculation and fanciful rumor about Saddam’s presumed biological and chemical weapons. And intelligence services of friendly nations with a common interest tend to reinforce each other. But intelligence estimates are only estimates; they are never absolute statements rendered with certainty. As a matter of fact, investigators sent into Iraq in the days just prior to the war found no such weapons, and objective reports from our own personnel found no reason to believe the weapons existed. That part of history seems to have been erased from the page.
Continue reading »
Continue reading »
Q. What does the phrase “Privatize the profits, socialize the losses” refer to?
A. It refers to an economic system where a private enterprise keeps whatever profits it makes, and taxes society at large to cover its losses.
Q. That sounds impossible! Can you give an example?
A.When the banking system in Cyprus made bad bets and suffered losses in billions of Euros, putting the nation’s economy at risk, the grand plan to make up for those losses was to take money from the bank accounts of those trusting souls who had put their money in the bank.
Q. Then what happened?
A. The depositors, no longer trusting souls, immediately began to take their money out of the bank.
Plan B should be ready soon.
We drink a lot of coffee at Critical Pages. We admit it. We even glory in it. And today we learned from Dr. Yoshihiro Kokubo, MD, that a cup of coffee each day reduces the risk of stroke. Way to go, Kokubo!
The assiduous Dr. Kokubo and his team studied studied 82, 369 Japanese between ages forty-five and seventy-four. These were people who didn’t have any cardiovascular disease or cancer when the study began. They filled out questionnaires about their food frequency habits, most importantly about coffee and green tea, and they were followed for an average of thirteen years. In other words, it was a very large, long-term study.
The results were dramatic. People who drank at least one cup of coffee a day reduced their risk of stroke by 20 percent compared to people who rarely drank coffee. People who drank two to three cups of green tea every day reduced their risk of stroke 14 percent, and those who had at least four cups reduced their risk 20 percent, compared to those who rarely drank green tea.
So enjoy that cup of coffee. In fact, in these gray economic times, it’s good to recall that back in the Great Depression, when Herbert Hoover was President and things were going badly, Irving Berlin put it this way —
Just around the corner
There’s a rainbow in the sky
So let’s have another cup o’ coffee
And let’s have another piece o’ pie!
The video at the top of this post let’s you listen to the way it sounded back in the 1930s. The lyrics begin after the musical introduction and we think you’ll be amused, especially by the reference to President Hoover saying that now’s the time to buy — so let’s have another cup of coffee and let’s have another piece of pie!
Buy their books! As a Public Service, we at Critical Pages urge you to visit your local independently owned bookstore and buy a book. Now is a good time to prepare for spring and warm rains by sitting in a tub of warm water with a good book. Bring a friend to the bookstore, too. Then you can sit together in that tub of warm water and read out loud to each other. You don’t think so? Have you ever tried it? We thought not. Yet it’s amazing what can be accomplished this way. Try it. You’ll be amazed. And you’ll make the bookstore, the publisher, and the starving writer happy, too.
- 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, and you can get there by clicking the word Contact just above the calender.
Gene Mirabelli writes most of the posts here, so we're very pleased to announce that his recent novel, Renato, the Painter, has won a first prize for Literary Fiction in the 2013 Independent Publisher (IP or "IPPY") Book awards.
The Awards program was created to highlight the year’s most distinguished books from independent publishers. Award winners are chosen by librarians and booksellers who are on the front lines, working everyday with patrons and customers. Some 125 books competed for the literary fiction Gold Medal. These books are examples of independent publishing at its finest.
Publishers Weekly says "In prose as lusty and vigorous as Renato himself, Mirabelli captures the feeling of coming to terms - ready or not - with old age." For more about the writer and his book, turn to our contact page or to the author's web site.
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