Sunday, March 1, 2020

CONVERSATIONS with a Hypoxic Dog (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other inanities. CwHD began May 1, 2017. The Bookstore opened in July, 2017, providing an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available at my publishing website, majikwoids. A link is provided to these sites below and in the sidebar.

Visit majikwoids for editorial services, free reads and my latest stories.
Subscribe to receive this weblog when new content is available.

CwHD 92
(A glossary of archaic or uncommon words is added at the end of the essay.)

Slack Water and the Crinoids of Chomolungma

For all of us, mountains turn into images after a short time and the images turn true. Gold-tossed waves change into the purple backs of monsters, and so forth. Always something out of the moving deep, and nearly always oceanic.1

Can buoys, green in color, six to nine feet in diameter, as tall as twenty feet, can weigh several tons. The Owner had decided to follow the green cans across the bar and stood by the forward shrouds directing traffic. The Cabin Boy, Mozzo by name, manned the helm. The two men might have been friends ...

A four or five foot swell, rather benign, provided a bit of spice. The boat, a 41 foot ketch designed by William Garden, wallowed about, struggling up the steep face of wind waves, motoring, slamming into troughs, the tide making. The boat, stuffed to bursting with the Owner's toys, was taking him, his dog, and his family on vacation. Mozzo and the dog had come along for the first part of the journey, delivering the boat to Victoria where the family would join the Owner. The family, apparently, wanted no part of the voyage up the coast.

The helm was sluggish, and Mozzo, in his inexperience, became anxious. Just off Peacock Spit, the Owner suddenly thrust out his right arm, pointing, and yelled, “Turn.” The dog, a Norwegian elkhound, barked.

Mozzo cranked the wheel to the right.

The other way,” screamed the Owner, arms waving. The dog stood on the gunnel peering over the combing. He looked at Mozzo and barked. Twice.

And so Mozzo cranked the wheel back the other way. The Owner had pointed at the green can buoy coming just a whisker off their bow. Mozzo saw it then, close to, bobbing down the starboard side, a near miss. Not the most auspicious start to the voyage.

Three miles out, ten miles up the coast, still motoring, the ketch decided it had had enough and stopped. The sudden quiet was unnerving. They drifted a bit. Mozzo suggested sails, but with little or no wind the suggestion was ill received. Besides, the sails had not been out of their covers in years. The Owner motored; he chose not to sail.

Mozzo sat at the lifeless helm watching the Washington coast bob up and down. Willapa Bay, he reckoned, off there to starboard. Japan, off there to port. The Owner on his hands and knees down below, cursing, as he tinkered with fuel lines and filters; but the ketch adamantly refused to cooperate. The dog sat on the stern sheets watching gulls lift and turn and mewl. They drifted.

Call the Coast Guard,” suggested Mozzo.

Shut up,” retorted the Owner.

Time passed. The Long Beach peninsula continued its up and down, the purple hills beyond provided a backdrop at once maudlin and sublime. The mizzen boom rolled to starboard then back to port, giving the winches a good bang each time. Though frustrated with the failure of his motor, untoward anxiety, edginess, also marked the Owner's face. He cursed. A box wrench was flung through the companionway into the gentle heave of sea. The boom swung to port. The boom swung back. Thump.
The dog went below. He hopped onto the settee, sat and considered the Owner.

"What?" said the Owner.

The dog turned and curled up in the corner. He sighed.

Damn it, yelled the Owner.

Raised eyebrows from Mozzo. Definitely out of sorts, he thought. More than the situation warranted. He wondered, knowing the fellow's history, what goodies might be stashed aboard. Did he fear having the federales on board?

Reluctantly, the Owner called the Coast Guard for assistance. They waited in silence. The dog slept. The Coast Guard arrived, a stout line looped the ketch's samson post and off they went. They crossed back over the bar which was, of course, a milk pond. Mozzo thought he might easily canoe this glassy expanse. Well timed, this rescue. Slack water.

Trail Dog

Between ebb and flow is slack. Not always a milk pond, but usually quite benign. For the businessman, slack is a slow period. For a climber, a loose bit of rope. Also, the dictionary tells us, the word suggests negligence. The link below is to a video that is not about ocean, but about ocean's obverse which is mountain. The Euclidean perspective (a hairball best left to mathematicians, but useful in this context) suggests that all space is unique yet comparable. Its otherness lies in its nature.2 Many mountains were once sea floor; much of the seafloor was once mountains.

Slack features prominently in the short film. The contention made in "Trail Dog" that happiness is beyond good and guilt is almost so. Almost. But beyond happiness and its opposite,which is sorrow, beyond all dualities, is what I chose to label Slack Water. Slack Water is a place as well as a state of mind. It is where animals---dogs and cats, deer and whales---live. That is, if the animal in question has not been too domesticated. Slack Water is what humans---especially those who are out of sorts---seek. Slack water, to all who know the tides, gives a tangible image for an abstract concept.

No words can adequately describe that which is beyond all dualities. The term offered here merely suggests the complete integration that lies beyond concepts. The film linked below is narrated, and the words are well written and compliment the images equally well. But it is the images themselves which tell the story. The Runner and his friends are beyond mischief, happiness, dancing Slack Water.

A story is one medium for explicating the difficulties of concepts. A film is able to provide visual information to fill in the blanks. Ultimately, humans, with their limited ability to see beyond the end of their noses, must be moved by some epiphanic occurrence and then expand themselves, physically and mentally, to find Slack Water, and so become their obverse.


Chomolungma, Tibetan name for Mt Everest (K15)

crinoids, marine fossils some of which can be found on the summit of Chomolungma. See website linked here ( ) for more information

epiphantic, an intuitive perception or insight, usually unexpected, into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually triggered by some commonplace occurrence or experience.

obverse, the counterpart of a fact or truth.

1Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1976), 144.
2The tallest mountain on the planet is Mauna Kea, Hawaii, at 33,000 feet from its underwater base to its summit.

Monday, December 16, 2019

CONVERSATIONS with a Hypoxic Dog (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other inanities.  CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website majikwoids. A link is provided below and in the sidebar. 

Visit majikwoids for editorial services, free reads and my latest stories.
Subscribe to receive this weblog when new content is available.

CwHD 91

A glossary of archaic or uncommon words is added at the end of the essay.

Chop Wood, Carry Water

Sir Isaac Newton is noted for his concise descriptions of the physical world. His three laws of motion are well known and the third law is so often cited that it has become something of a cliche. The third law states that for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. If object A exerts a force on object B, then object B also exerts an equal force on object A. The lift generated by a wing exemplifies this principle as does the game of billiards, the martial arts of aikido and judo, tsunamis, marbles, walking, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

While this exchange of forces is quite predictable for inanimate objects and the autonomic movement of animate objects, any attempt to apply the principle to human behavior is far more problematic.

How does one respond to an upraised middle finger (action)? Certainly, context is critical to any informed decision. However, the phallus finger seems to trigger such an emotional, visceral response (reaction) that informed reasoning is short circuited, adrenaline surges, and before we can say oh fooie one's middle digit is raised in return, the arm outthrusted, jaw clenched.

Thus the conundrum. Controlling one's emotional reactions is often beyond reason.

Neville Chamberlain is often reviled for his vain attempt to appease Adolf Hitler. Appeasement, of course, is most often considered a form of flight. In order to avoid confrontation, one attempts to pacify and conciliate one's opponent. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, is often lauded for his famous speech to Parliament in June of 1940 that proclaimed " ... we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and streets, we shall fight in the hills ..." Two of the Bible's most often quoted anecdotes suggest either course as correct: One can passively turn the other cheek or vengefully take an eye for an eye.

The United States Supreme Court, that once august body, has given this opinion on unbridled responses: "fighting words," speech and actions that incite others to imminent lawless actions, obscenities that might do the same, as well as certain types of defamatory speech and specific types of threat are not protected by the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and so can be regulated and even punished by the legal entity involved (the state of Pennsylvania in this case). Laws that have been upheld as constitutional are laws whic range from a simple summary offense of Disorderly Conduct to felonies such as Terroristic Threats.

Controlling one's limbic system, it seems, might well be imperative in order to remain at large and free from the capricious nature of some hanging judge. No simple matter apparently. Statistics from the Bureau of Justice from the year 2012 give the total of federal, state and local expenditures on prisons, jails and the like at just over $80 billion.

So consider the movement of water which is, of course, a body of knowledge encompassed in the science of hydrology. Moving water offers an analogy that might serve to untie the Gordian knot that is the feedback from one's limbic system. If one embarks on a river of some size, or a coastal voyage in a small boat whose motive power is the wind or one's muscles, the analogy becomes more apt.

The Columbia River does not need much encouragement to run at four or five knots. If the main channel is narrow or the flow is constricted by islands, the water will crown and carry away the less than intrepid sailor or paddler. Head on confrontations with currents, however they may arise, rarely profit the small boat sailor, paddler or rower. Flight is the order of the day. Back eddies, slack water and the lee side of some prominence provide the means to tame the aggressive current (might such current be labeled the aqueous world's limbic system?).

Flight, unfortunately, carries a connotation of cowardice. So euphemisms are in order.

Flight can mean simply running away; but the word surely connotes more than that. In terms of the working analogy, both back eddies and lee sides can equate with avoidance, a more complicated form of flight which involves keen awareness of one's environment as well as an astute awareness of human nature. Slack water, my personal favorite, at first glance appears to be merely indifference. The following anecdote implies much more.

Morihei Ueshiba, the man who put aikido on the map, often traveled by train. As a slight seemingly frail old man, eighty-something, he had his students carry the luggage. No matter how crowded the platform Ueshiba was able to walk sprightly along, parting the waters as it were, with his students hustling along behind in his wake. Committed to neutrality, focused, the old man lived upon slack water. He gave no thought to fight or flight. His only concern, to add an old Chinese analogy, was to chop wood and carry water.

Concentrating on one thing at a time seems beyond possibility in this digital age. Focus is wanting generally. But there is this: Sick with flu, prostrate on the couch, wallowing in self-pity, the cell phone rings (vibrates, chortles, clangs, dingdings, whatever) and reluctantly the call is answered. A long lost friend has reached out. Smiles and laughter and hail-fellow-well-mets blossom and flourish. And the flu? Well, one's illness is apparently in remission for the moment. Similar focused moments are common experience, if one but considers. And it is such moments that I label slack water: the disconnected haven between Scylla and Charybdis. And if moments are possible, why not hours or days or a lifetime.

Asians seem better at this mindset than western folk. Two prominent individuals who attained neutrality (centrality?) were Mahatma Gandhi and the Dali Lama. In an interview with Bill Moyers (still available on YouTube), the Dalai Lama was asked a question that cut to the core of the issue. How did he deal with insect pests like mosquitoes. The Dalai Lama laughed (a very happy fellow this fellow) and said at first he would gently wave a hand. And if that didn't work? asked Moyers. Ah, then perhaps a puff of air. And ... The Dalai Lama laughed his laugh, and then smack, he slapped his forearm. Chop wood, he said. Ha ha ha.

autonomic, involuntary or unconscious, relating to the autonomic nervous system which includes heartbeat and breathing among other less obvious examples (cellular homeostasis, e.g.).

conundrum, a confusing and difficult question or problem.

limbic system, that part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviors one needs for survival: feeding, reproduction and caring for one's young, and fight or flight responses.

Scylla and Charybdis, in Greek mythology, Scyylla was a rather nasty six-headed monster who lived on a rock on one side of a narrow strait (said to be the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily), and Charybdis was a whirlpool on the other side.

summary offense, the least serious type of crime. Felonies are most serious and misdemeanors less so. Summary offenses can be decided without jury trial.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

CONVERSATIONS with a HYPOXIC DOG (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other inanities. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website majikwoids. A link is provided below and in the sidebar.

Visit majikwoids for editorial services, free reads and my latest stories.
Subscribe to receive this weblog when new content is available.

CwHD 90

A glossary of archaic or uncommon words is added at the end of this essay.

The Folly Of Personal Pronouns

Leuthold's Couloir does not belong to Joe Leuthold. The couloir is a gully decidedly vertical rather than horizontal which splits the southwest face of Mt Hood. Like other geological features throughout the known universe, the couloir was named for the man (far less often are places and things named for women) who first climbed the route, and does not signify possession. The apostrophe 's' can, at times, indicate ownership; but the construct is far more ambiguous than the personal pronoun.
from the base of Leuthold's Couloir, lookinng NNW
photo by gv simoni

'My dog' is more specific, and certainly indicates possession. Dogs are usually rather affectionate creatures and not wont to complain. Some dogs, however, are not the least bit impressed with that 'my', and will blatantly disregard their master's wishes, making their escape, jumping fences, tunneling, chewing through leads, doing whatever is necessary to go gallivanting about the neighborhood. Inorganic creatures, like pickup trucks, are more easily 'owned'; although internal combustion engines are notoriously finicky, and perhaps this is due, in part, to the tyranny of ownership.

Rarely will someone claim ownership of, say, a doorknob. In the grand scheme of things, doorknobs have little importance. The value of an object seems to be proportional to the desire to own that object. Old boats, more often than not made of glass reinforced plastic, are rarely claimed. They languish in backyards and boat yards gathering dirt and mold. A Weldcraft Cuddy King 300 with twin inboard diesels will make hardhearted landlubbers salivate. That's my boat, they'll say. Ain't she a beauty. 20 years of water under the bridge and that same boat will likely be scrap, the victim of electrolysis and neglect.

The folly of personal pronouns? Ownership is a dubious concept. Man's tenure on planet earth is something less than a burp. If you build it, nature will, sooner or later, reclaim it. Mountains, though majestic and seemingly eternal, come and go like governments. So one argument against this penchant for acquisitions surely must be life's brief passing. Does one have time to spend foolishly trying to own things? Like Hitler and other megalomaniacs (saying you have the DTs takes on a whole new meaning these days), is it the 1000 year Reich you are after?

Curiously, folly has a second meaning. The word denotes an edifice that costs far more to build than it is worth, one that has no practical purpose, is merely ornamental, and is commonly found in the hidden reaches of a garden. Many of our 'possessions' are much like follies. They are expensive, impractical, and end up rusting in the yard or gathering dust in the closet.

Possessiveness, the desire to own more than we need, goes hand in glove with domination. Greed seems a likely root cause of this wayward desire. Advertising does nothing but feed these desires. The American educational folly (in both sense of the word) does little to ameliorate the problem. An argument can be made that public education exacerbates the issue. Well educated, intelligent people are often badly and sadly disconnected from reality. They want the American Dream, however transmogrified that fleeting apparition has become. Does happiness come with a six figure income? Not likely.

Emotions are not easily controlled. Reason is often elusive. Homo sapiens are not reasonable creatures. The ability to think clearly must be acquired. Mathematics affords an excellent opportunity to hone this skill. The answers are clear; the process is straightforward though sometimes complex. Aerobic exercise, music and other arts, and various crafts also work well to eliminate the extraneous and focus one's mind on the specific. It is not coincidental that those whose culture focuses their thoughts produce outstanding crafts.

Commonly, knowledge is divided into two general types. Explicit knowledge can be written down, verbalized, and taught. For example, 2 + 2 = 4 is a bit of explicit knowledge. Or: The capital of Oregon is Salem. Or: the jointed rock in the Columbia River Gorge is columnar basalt Tacit knowledge is implicit. Largely subjective. Understanding comes intuitively. What one knows implicitly cannot be verbalized or taught. Most arts and crafts are imbued with tacit knowledge. One can learn the chords on a guitar and even strum a song; but to play well involves mastering sounds emitted from the vibration of strings which require precise plucking with flesh, nails or plectrum, various pressures and positions, equally precise fretting, and a host of other details which one cannot express in verbally. Sheet music is, at best, a skeletal outline of the composers intentions. Interpretation, using all the tacit knowledge at his or her command, is the responsibility of the artist.

Ownership is explicit and binding. One becomes territorial. Defensive. And, in turn, aggressively offensive. "I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands," is a slogan common among aficionados of firearms. One so often becomes a prisoner of what one possesses.

Wisdom is tacit knowledge. One cannot purchase wisdom on the installment plan. Freedom is tacit. People living through the Great Depression of the 1930s, acquired tacit knowledge. "Necessity is the mother of invention" is a proverb attributed to Plato 2300 years ago; and is often rephrased in English as "having less, means knowing more." Conversely, having more, it seems, often means knowing less.

We have too much. Some have far too much. The wealthiest 1% of the world's population owns more than half of the world's wealth.1 10000 years of human greed has done the planet irreparable harm. And the material objects from cars to shoes seem to be poorly made: all sizzle and no steak. Often disposable. Gimcrack gimmicks.

Cultures that eschew materialism have a curious knack for producing exquisite crafts. The Navajo is one such. Their tradition maintains that one only needs enough to take care of one's family. Hozho is the Navajo belief system that delineates how one must stay in harmony and beauty with the world. A simple tenet is to own less. Though Hozho is a culturally specific aesthetic idea of the Navajo; many of its tenets are held by indigenous people everywhere. Doing more with less, for example. Respect for the natural world. A greater kinship with all living creatures. The Navajo, of course, are renown for their crafts, especially blankets, jewelry, and sand paintings

The Amish rely on a pragmatic code (though the source for their belief that separation from the modern world is essential to their salvation does come from a literal interpretation of their Bible) that severely restricts their behavior. The primary motive belief is akin to the vow of poverty taken in many monasteries east and west. They are farmers. They avoid contact with the outside world. The horse still provides their transportation. Theirs is a communal existence. Ownership, such as it is, is shared. And, of course, their skill at woodworking and cookery is widely admired and copied.

A simple means to achieve less is to recycle all the detritus in one's life. Redistribute assets. Give it all away. Both minimalism and living off the grid have their roots in a desire for shared communalism and respect for the natural world. Minimalist are known to be quite self-sufficient. Craftsmanship is part of the creed.

An addendum to all of the above is that once past possessiveness, personal pronouns can be useful. They often register a commitment. 'My dog' necessarily implies ownership; but the phrase can also suggest a determination to provide and care for the dog, a kinship quite apart from ownership.


couloir, a French word, with the meaning of a passage or corridor, commonly used by climbers generally.

eschew, deliberately avoid using, to abstain from

gimcrack, flimsy or poorly made but deceptively attractive.

ilk, archaic Scottish, meaning type of people or things already referred to.

transmogrify, to change or alter greatly often with grotesque or humorous effect.

wont, in the habit of doing something, accustomed

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

CONVERSATIONS with a HYPOXIC DOG (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other inanities. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website majikwoids. A link is provided below and in the sidebar.

Visit majikwoids for editorial services, free reads and my latest stories.
Subscribe to receive this weblog when new content is available.

CwHD 89


Rivers are sinuous creatures, possessing tenacity, ingenuity, and supple grace. By definition, a river is a large body of water flowing in a channel to the sea, a lake, or another river. Most of the synonyms of the word describe rivers of various size or character: watercourse, stream, brook, rivulet, rill, freshet, creek, burn, billabong, beck, wadi, arroyo. The specific meaning of each of the terms changes with location. Local definitions can be quite different. A creek in Maine is not a creek in Oregon.
Upper Salmon River, photo by gv simoni

James Fenimore Cooper, noted author of The Last Of The Mohicans and many other novels, had this to say:

'Creek,' a word that signifies an inlet of the sea, or of a lake, is misapplied to running streams, and frequently to the outlets of lakes.

Cooper lived in upstate New York in the mid 19th century, well within the orbit of New England pedantry. The quote is from Cooper's book The American Democrat which was published in 1838.

By 1859 the definition had begun to broaden and generalize. The Dictionary Of The English Language defined creek as " ... a small inlet of the sea or of a river, a bay; a cove ... " This dictionary was the work of Joseph Worchester, the rival of Noah Webster, and the favorite son of Harvard English and the detractor of the English spoken further west and south. Mr Worchester did grant that " ... in the Middle, Southern, and Western states ..." the word might define a " ... small river; a rivulet."

The 1934 Webster, arguably the finest American dictionary --- the last hand-bound book allowing it to be as thick as the editors needed it to be and not subject to the dictates of machine binding --- explains creek as:

... a small inlet or bay, narrower and extending farther into the land than a cove; a narrow recess in the shore of the sea, a river, or a lake ... the estuary of a small river or a brook, emptying on a low coast or into the lower reaches of a wide river, together with the upper course of the small river or brook to its source.

This begs the question of when or if a 'creek' is also a 'crick.' Some people pronounce 'creek' as though it were spelled like 'crick.' Some people do not. Some people distinguish the difference between creek and crick by size. For example, a recent article on the Field & Stream website quoted a commenter from Texas who suggested that " ... if you can jump across it, it's a crick; if you have to wade across it, it's a creek."

Definitions, too, it seems, can be sinuous creatures, possessing tenacity, ingenuity, and, at times, even supple grace.
Lower Columbia, photo gv simoni

The length of a river is its measure from its source at its headwaters to its mouth where it debouches into another river, a lake, or the sea. Length is the sine qua non for determining the river's size and ranking. Generally, any tributaries feeding a river must be smaller both in size and volume. The Mississippi, reckoned the 2nd longest river in North America, becomes the 4th longest in the world if the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi just north of St Louis, is added to it. The Missouri, however, is considered a separate entity due to its size. The numbers suggest finagling: the Mississippi is most often listed as 2,348 miles long, though 2,320 is not an uncommon measurement; the Missouri is listed at 2,341 miles long, and is often granted the longest river in North America laurels. Three streams and many tributaries feed the upper Missouri with considerable opportunity for error. The Mississippi begins its southern journey in Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. Quibbles seem to be in order.

In terms of volume, generally measured in cubic feet per second (cfs --- think sugar cubes 12 inches square), the Mississippi heads the North American list with a discharge of 593,000 cfs. The Columbia River, the fabled River of the West, languishes at just seventh in length at 1,243 miles; but moves up to fourth in volume at 293,000 cfs. By comparison, the Amazon, the largest river in the world by volume (and by length, as well, depending on who is measuring) discharges 7,380,765 cfs.

The gravitational pull of the moon creates tides, and long sections of rivers that empty into the sea fluctuate accordingly. Tidal rivers rise and fall with the tides, and they flood and ebb as well. The fresh water of a river, less dense than the ocean's salt water, generally floats over the top of the heavier seawater. St Helens, Oregon, once a contender with Portland for major port honors, sees a three foot rise twice daily from the tide. Merriwther Lewis noted tidal water as far inland as Beacon Rock, 145 miles from the Columbia's mouth. The river's flow has considerable variations due to dam releases, wing dams, wind, and tidal currents. Data taken by NOAA suggests tidal flows are coincident with the rise and fall of tides and effect the river's current by up to two knots. No worries for tugs pushing barges which have bigger fish to fry. Kayakers, however, may be late for dinner if paddling against an adverse tide.

Rivers lend themselves to various metaphorical phrases. Most often, flowing water is used to describe life itself, or that other great abstraction, time. In literature, stream of consciousness is a major stylistic feature of many modern novels which attempt to duplicate in words a character's thought process. The phrase was coined by psychologist William James in his Principles Of Psychology of 1894. Though James thought of one's reactions to events as a continuous flow, novelist, with the limitations of the written word, may come closer to duplicating what to many is a rather herky-jerky, stop-and-go process. As one floats the river of life, a good deal of focus is required to maintain a continuous line of thought, to focus beyond distraction come hell or high water. Nonetheless, distractions are legion, and sooner or later one finds themselves up a creek without a paddle, in the proverbial chicken-wire canoe.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Visit majikwoids for editorial services, free reads and my latest stories.
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CwHD 88

Small Boat

If Mr Einstein would have his way, everything is relative. Small is a relative term. A small child is a toddler or perhaps a five year old just off to kindergarten, or an undersized 10 year old. A small craft, as in small craft advisories issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, refers to a vessel less than sixty feet in length. And smalls are --- at least in Britain and Australia --- one's undergarments. Small, clearly, is relative.

photo by merrily simoni

A small boat, then, can be an 8' pram, a 24' sloop, a 50' ketch or any other of the many configurations of hulls and rigging as long as it is less than sixty feet in length. Despite NOAA's dictum, to the dapper gent on the upper deck of a 1000' foot cruise ship halfway to Hilo, a 100' yacht may seem dismally small. That is what relativity is all about. Eye of the beholder, you see. Point of reference and all that.

Small talk is the medium with which humans weave their social fabrics. How's the weather? Baked a cake today. The dog's got fleas. Some people are better chatting comfortably with their fellows than others. Darwin had no use for what he considered inanities. Serious fellow, this Darwin. Much too busy explicating evolution to natter away about a rainy day. Most talk at the bus stop, if any talk there be, is not about the speed of light in a vacuum.

Simplicity, it seems to me, is inversely proportional to size. Growth inevitably leads to complication. Detroit is far more complex than Winnemucca. This inverse proportion seems to hold true for everything from strawberries to planets. An amoeba makes an interesting study. Cancer cells offer frustration and endless deliberation.

This brings us to the relationship between elegance and simplicity. The pairing of these two --- simple elegance; elegant simplicity --- is well documented. Indeed, elegance is often defined as beauty marked by an unusual simplicity which is focused on one essential feature of a person, place or thing: one color, one shape, one sound. Cacaphonic music would never be labeled elegant. So we posit another inverse relationship: complexity, and thus size, must be the ruin of elegance. Complexity tends to stun one's cerebral cortex so that focus is lost and confusion reigns. Perhaps the redwood tree is an exception. Or whales. Nevertheless ...

Etymology offers some insight.

Small comes from the Old English smael which is of Germanic origin and related to Dutch smal and German schmal. Latin for 'small' is, among other translations, parvus carrying the meaning 'short' as well as 'small'. Synonyms for 'small' are compact, little, and bijou. Bijou, by the bye (in the 1500s, this word 'bye' referred to a side path, down which we have wandered ...) is synonymous with small, little, compact, snug, cozy.

Simple comes from Middle English from Old French from the Latin simplus. The noun form of the word originally (mid 16th century) referred to a medicine made from one constituent, especially from one plant. Current synonyms are uncomplicated, without much decoration or ornamentation, composed of a single element, not compound.

Elegant originated in the late 15th century from French from the Latin elegans which is related to eligere, to chose or select. As an adjective, the word carries the definitions of pleasingly graceful, tasteful, discerning, refined, among others. When referring to a scientific theory or solution to a problem, the definition is pleasingly ingenious and simple.

photo by gv simoni

The relationship between the three words is, admittedly, rather convoluted; which is to say, alas, complicated and therefore not the least bit elegant. Both 'small' and 'simple' have multiple meanings and 'elegant' traces its origins to a different source entirely so the link is tenuous. One must reach for it. Perhaps it is a bit of a stretch, but a common thread does run through these concepts.

The connection comes from the definition 'one': one plant, one thing, etc. 'One' suggests an integrity, something that is not duplicit (two-faced, false). Integrity might well be the common thread to elegance; and, by extension, to simplicity and smallness as well.

So what difference does it all make? Most people of sense would find integrity an important concept. Elegance is, I fear, rarely considered. Americans are driven by size, the bigger the better. The fact of the matter is that small boats give far more pleasure than large boats. Most boats of any size spend their days tied up in the marina while dinghies, kayaks, and drift boats are out and about exploring the watery byes. Small boats get used. Cliches abound extolling the benefits of small: keep it simple stupid, walk before you run, brevity is the essence of wit, know when to stop. Even the Peter Principle has at its core the folly of increasing growth ( ... in management, one rises to his or her level of incompetence). And the classic philosophic principal, Occam's Razor, might be the last word on the subject: Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

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CwHD 87

The Dogs At The Gate

photo by Molly Simoni

For most of us, life is a continuum. We divide this continuum arbitrarily with age and occupation and other divisions; and these divisions, these nooks and crannies in which we fit our selves, may be considered and selected either objectively or subjectively or, more often, randomly. Infant, toddler, youth, teen, adult. Student, worker, retiree. Bold. Meek. We are shaped by our environment: physical, mental, and spiritual. If we were born and raised in Calcutta, we would likely be beggars. If we were born on the Diomede Islands, we would feast on whale blubber. The nature-nurture discussion continues thousands of years after its inception with no clear resolution in sight. No matter. None needed.

For most of us who are immersed in the immense cultural flow known as western civilization, possessions come to take precedent. We are what we own. In many instances, our possessions come to possess us. Fences, locks and electronic surveillance are sure to follow. This insistence on owning land, houses, cars, gadgets, dogs, cats and what-not, includes, unfortunately, owning people. An economic argument suggests all this possessiveness, including slavery, is necessary. This premise, like all based on economics, is both tedious and specious.

Distinctions between owner and owned can be cut rather fine. A hair's breadth. The lead photograph, 'The Dogs At The Gate', is not about possession; but rather about protection. These dogs are not 'owned'. Their 'owners' abandoned them. For two of them, neglect and abuse was their lot. Old dogs often suffer the same fate as old people, they are discarded. This is an interesting corollary to possession: If it breaks, don't fix it. Throw it away. Get a new one. A better one. A bigger one. Such is western civilization.

Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you think that much too broad a generality. Consider: Two pillars of this civilized culture are religion and politics. The Ancients created gods to explain what they could not understand. Arguably, the Greeks of Socrates and Plato established democracy. Science and the recalcitrant leaders of organized religion, have put paid to many belief systems. Americans have ended democracy. Western religions cultivate ownership. We are all god's children, they tell us, and batter us with the alms basket. They take the vow of poverty, but it is the people, historically, who have suffered the grind of poverty. And both archbishops and industrialists, popes and kings, know that needy people are more manageable.

Just for good measure, it might be noted that Eastern religions, in general, have no such inherent need for possessing souls, for erecting monuments to the glory of ephemeral beings, their innumerable gods and goddesses. But Buddhists and Hindus and what-have-yous become possessed by possessions as easily as those of us in the West. And the politics and and religions of the East are inextricably intertwined. For every Gandhi or Nehru there are a multitude of Maos and Lon Nols and moguls and maharajahs, Taj Mahals and Summer Palaces.

The ruling cliques, both lay and cleric, drive the legislation that erects ephemeral boundaries and quotas, restrictions and tariffs that guard the 'national interest' and which profits only the members of the cliques and those who empower them. The military gets fat on weapons. Industry gets fat on the military. Insurance companies get fat on premiums to protect are possessions. Pharmaceuticals get fat on drugs to enhance and preserve our bodies and what remains of our minds.

No matter. These are not revelations. The preceding little diatribe is just a snippet of a discussion that fills book after book, if one cares to pursue the argument. Or read history. The gist of course is that power emanates from possession. And wealth is the outward guise of power. Economic arguments abound, rationalizing all this business. As a species, we are rather adept at rationalizing.

Roger Payne has spent a lifetime studying and defending whales. In his 1998 book, Among Whales, he wrote:

Using an economic argument as if it were the soundest basis for judgment is, of course, at the root of the tragedy of our times. One could hardly find a clearer example of what such reasoning leads to than the present state of whales. Simply stated, putting economics first is the myopia of this the most shortsighted of all civilizations; it is the view for which our era will be remembered the longest, the addiction for which we will someday be judged more harshly than the most prejudiced medieval society. The ultimate expression of our madness is that we revere as wise those who put economic considerations above all else and sneer at those who see the madness of such a system of values, labeling them as unrealistic. Meanwhile, we spend all of our children's inheritance to maintain ourselves in the myth that what we are doing is viable. I would offer that this is the most deeply flawed, most expensive belief ever adopted in the history of our species.

We are driven by our desires, and all too often neglect that which we need most. Payne suggests that it is our 'wild' selves we need most, and one cannot but agree. That word 'wild', however, has too many connotations and fails to convey precisely the point he tries to make. Humans are animals; that is the reality. We are born from the wilderness as all animate creatures are. Only humans deny their origins; only humans feel a need to civilize the wild. Yet, the attraction remains. Payne wrote:

Remote and imperturbable, the lives of whales are somehow enough to match any fantasy humanity can create. They are what we have lost, what we yearn for. They are in some ways the last wild voice calling to the consciousness of terminally civilized humanity, our last contact before we submerge forever in our own manufacture and irretrievably lose the last fragment of our wild selves.
---Roger Payne, Among Whales

Terminally civilized.

But perhaps Mr Payne has understated the case. As wildness is lost on the planet we lose not just a last fragment, we become in fact fragmented, not whole, become some unwholesome creation who knows nothing but power and greed and corruption. Certainly, we are not who we think we are; we are not unique; we are not singular. We are not superior to the rest of creation. At various times our costumes change. We adorn ourselves with different masks; but there is little real change. And whether Catholic or Muslim or Protestant or Hindu, Irish, Burmese, Chukchi, or Australian, we all suffer the same faults and fates.

But since we are not puppets dancing on strings, we can gather up the shards of our fragmented existence and become, simply, one again (or mostly so: see footnote on Charles Scammon). And just how might that be done? From Aldo Leopold:

Samuel Whittemore Boggs, the geographer, once spoke of "the wholesomeness of wholeness." The wisest man is insufficiently conscious of the remedial quality of mere presence in the wilderness when he first comes from the marketplace of nerve-wracking half-truths and no-truths into a genial haven of a whole ... and he feels himself becoming whole again.

Wholesome and wholeness are often listed as synonyms. They might be, at times. They are not always. Wholesome refers to that which promotes spiritual or mental health or well being, an adjective. Wholeness is a noun, and generally means 'not broken.' When one is mentally fragmented, broken, it is necessary to find something wholesome to help repair the damage.

And so we return to the dogs at the gate. The companionship of dogs is usually wholesome. Swimming with dolphins is often used as part of a healing process for battered women. And whales, at least the grays of San Ignacio Lagoon, have a miraculous (I have selected this word carefully) power to transform the most nerve-wracked, embittered human into one who is at peace with the world.

Photo Merrily Simoni

The dog in the photograph is Cowboy. So badly abused and neglected he could not be groomed, but only shaved. The end of his tail was amputated due to a gangrenous injury that had never been treated. When Cowboy first arrived at our house, he made for the back bedroom and lay down beside my wife's mother's bed. Laura patted the dog and smiled. Largely bedridden, there were few pleasure's remaining in Laura's life. Responding to the petting, Cowboy sat up and lay his head on the side of the bed. Then, slowly, the old collie hoisted himself up beside the old woman and lay down. And so they remained, a comfort to each other, healing one and another, fast friends for the time left to them.

Has the case been overstated? Is this merely some modern day bit of psycho-babble? Are humans guilty of reeking havoc on the planet and its creations? From The Eye Of The Whale, a quote from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick offers some insight:

eye of gray whale, drawing by Charles Melville Scammon,
The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America, 1874

What is it, that nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time, recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare. Is Ahab, Ahab?

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Among Whales (1998), Roger Payne at your favorite local book store.

I am a heretic, using the internet to debase the internet. From whatever perspective, the Internet is a cultural wasteland. The immense quantity of data collected is beyond manageable. This data poses no threat to the individual until someone decides to seek you out. WWW is the new plague, and should be avoided. Support human businesses, local venders. Visits to the web should be as infrequent as television viewing. Stay off the phone. Look people in the eye. Those who communicate by text message or similar inanities have the least to say.

Eye Of The Whale (2002), Dick Russell. p633. The book focuses on the migration of gray wells from Baja California to the Bering Sea. Charles Melville Scammon, who drew the eye of the whale, was a whaler who discovered the breeding lagoons of the gray whale and was responsible for their wholesale slaughter. He was also an excellent amateur naturalist, and his book on marine mammals is still relevant. Scammon apparently had a change of heart, and quit whaling to join the Revenue Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard, whose main function, ironically, was to apprehend poachers.

A Sand Country Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold

Moby-Dick, 1851, Herman Melville, is a classic everyone should read. The quote is from the chapter 132 entitled 'The Symphony'.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

CwHD 86

Trees and Trilliums

Over the last two years, Google data recorded 7536 views of CwHD. Most of those views lasted less than a minute which makes for a poor bounce rate. A bounce rate is the percentage of visits in which a person leaves a website from the landing page without browsing any further. No matter. Words and language are, like the complicated business of driving a vehicle, taken for granted by most people. Boring, in fact. Unless reckless. Or intoxicated. Or both.

I find this odd.

Odd, too, is the way many people go through life. Just browsing is what many seem to be doing, living without intention or direction. Or living impetuously. No doubt Google could put numbers on this generalization. For example, currently the population of the planet is 7.7 billion. The World Population Clock web page keeps ticking over with births and deaths. To the minute, 50,287 people have died today. 121, 276 have been born. 30% of the people on the planet are just trying to survive. They are not bored. Or impulsive. Dire straits focuses one's attention rather acutely.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote that "...the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation..." And that desperation might well be humdrum or horrific. For example, according to the Center For Disease Control website, over a billion people worldwide are without clean water or proper sanitation which leads directly or otherwise to the deaths of a million children each year. Bored with your job, are you? Having a midlife crisis? Credit cards maxed out, are they. Alas.

Webb Chiles is an intrepid fellow who has circumnavigated the globe six times. He has made these voyages, for the most part, alone. The greater part of one voyage was done in a small, open boat. Mr Chiles has insisted on living an epic life, as he puts it, traveling to the extremities of experience and then reporting back. He is rarely ever feckless or foolhardy. He is, in a word, a seaman. He is, as well, a wordsmith, a fellow who takes language seriously. He has written several books and maintains his own web log. Generally, he has little tolerance for the dreary, humdrum, often intolerable life ashore. He prefers the open sea and solitude.

Mr Chiles no doubt concurs with Thoreau, and so chooses to live his life with a fierce intention to be heroic. Though I, too, vote with Thoreau and Chiles, my point of view is slightly different. The distinction between us is but a hair's breadth, yet it is significant.

When Henry David went to Walden Pond, the small lake and its surrounding forest were wilderness. Now it is just a short drive from Boston; but in 1845 it was something of an epic trek. During the two years, two months, that he lived there, Thoreau began to write Walden, a classic of American literature. He wrote:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Living deep requires intention and focus. Consciousness is not spontaneous, not instinctive, not autonomic. We must put some effort into our consciousness for it to function as we think consciousness does. Philosopher Dan Dennett in his TED Talk (2009), 'The Illusion of Consciousness', likens it to a conjuring trick. He points out that at any given moment our attention is focused entirely on a point the size of our thumb nail at arm's length. The background and foreground are filled in by our brains. Think pixels. Or dots of paint from an impressionist's brush. Our brain (or some combination of the 37 trillion cells comprising the human body) creates the bulk of the image. We really do not see what we are seeing. Or smelling. Or hearing.

To be conscious, then, is not something to take for granted. Webb Chiles' desire to suck the marrow out of life led him to the sea. The impression given by the words he writes is that nothing less would do. So too with Thoreau. To put all that is not life to rout, it seems, requires a challenging environment. The high mountains might qualify, or the deserts of the world. Wildness. Little else. Certainly not Levittown.

My take is that Levittown would do just fine. Seclusion is a state of mind. If each moment of anyone's life is considered to be an epic occurrence, just where you are becomes irrelevant. And, as I have written before, we create those moments ourselves, that bit of reality. How is this done? I am fond of this quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: The world we see is the words we use. The world we create comes from the various and multitudinous synapses in the recesses of our brains, and the subsequent verbiage we use to describe what we create. Presto change-o: Reality. And Consciousness. Or Consciousness, then Reality. No matter.

As far as publishing one's experience to the world goes, that reporting back business, one can undertake the task or not. Certainly it seems to be true that the writer's job (or painter or musician or name your art) is to create work that reports back from wherever their fancy finds them. Warhol painted soup cans. Beethoven wrote symphonies. Wildness need not be part of the program.

Singer songwriter John Prine, an old geezer like Mr Chiles and myself, wrote a lyric that went: ... strangers had forced him to live in his head ...(from the song 'Donald and Lydia', album John Prine, 1971). We all live in our heads. Each of us does so uniquely. What one usually finds is that strangers have forced us out of our heads; and we become lost in a gray and threatening world, a place of confusion and dread.

Open ocean is a fine arena to regain one's perspective. Mountains and deserts, too. But a walk in the park might be all one needs. Or simply a quiet corner of the house. Solitude and simplicity are often necessary for introspection, but not requisite. Trees and trilliums would do. Cats and dogs. The one proviso I would add is this: Always remember what the Dormouse said. (Read the book, listen to the song: you decide.)

photo by gv simoni

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Find "Donald and Lydia", John Prine (1971) here:

Find the Dormouse in : ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Lewis Carroll [Random House, 1946]. p.134, and elsewhere.

Find 'White Rabbit' (Grace Slick, 1966) sung by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings at

Find quote from Walden in essay by Elizabeth Witherall (and Elizabeth Dubrulle) in their essay on Walden (web page: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau). Depending on your edition of the book, the quote is on p90.