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Conditionals

The other day I saw this link on Wood s Lot, and followed it. That took me to another YouTube link, which showed Liberal leader Stephane Dion struggling to understand a question that had been put to him.

In the twelve years since I left Canada, I have not followed Canadian politics and am very unfamiliar with what’s going on there. I’ve observed, however, that politics in North America has become increasingly partisan and divisive, especially in the US. Liberal and Conservative have become pejorative terms, and political discourse has descended to schoolyard name-calling. When I was a teenager, there was a general sense I picked up from adults I spoke to, including teachers at school, and from the media, that Liberal and Conservative were terms that no longer really meant anything. In 1988, for example, the majority of Canadians voted for the Conservative party and therefore approved of the free trade agreement with the US, which had been the major issue of those elections. The Liberals had fought against the agreement, although historically, free trade had been a Liberal platform, which the Conservatives had traditionally opposed.

People seemed to believe that all political parties were more or less the same. It was a cynical point of view, but a civilised one.

I often feel when I see videos of journalists on television, or look at comment and message boards on the internet, that I’m watching a civilisation collapse from within, eaten up by bitterness and pettiness.

I’m disappointed to see CTV resort to the kind of journalism I would expect from Fox, something I don’t remember from when I still lived in Canada. I remember Mike Duffy, but I don’t remember this sort of blatant partisanship. Perhaps it existed then, and I just didn’t notice it. But I seriously doubt it.

If anybody responds to this post, I’ve written the above to explain that I am not writing this post as a Liberal or Conservative. I don’t really care about politics, and don’t follow what’s going on in Canada.

The story is this. Dion was asked “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you have done differently?” Dion struggles to understand the question. CTV made a story of his inability to understand the question, and this, I am sure, had an effect on the elections, which the Liberals lost. When the election was over, Dion was heard to say that he particularly didn’t want to speak to anyone from CTV. He was very bitter. Let’s see why.

When Judith Regan published O.J. Simpson’s book If I Did It, what irritated me more than anything else was that the title was grammatically incorrect. It should have been If I Had Done It.

There are basically two kinds of conditional sentences. In one, where you talk about something that could be true, but you don’t know for sure. In this conditional, you don’t change the tenses.

If that’s what you think, you’re crazy. (It’s possible that that’s what you think, but I don’t know for sure.)

If Jane went to the party yesterday, she saw Frank. (But I don’t know if she went.)

The other kind is something we could call the contrary-to-fact conditional. We are talking about something we know is not true or hasn’t happened.

If I thought so, I would be crazy. (I don’t think so, so I’m not crazy.)

If Jane had gone to the party, she would have seen Frank. (She didn’t go, and so didn’t see him.)

You’ll notice here that we change the tenses. If we’re talking about the present, we use the past tense. (I don’t think so, but if I did think so …) And if we’re talking about the past, we use the past perfect. (She didn’t go, but if she had gone …)

When O.J. Simpson and Judith Regan called the book If I Did It, they were implying But I don’t do it. What they meant was, I didn’t do it, but if I had done it …

I learned my conditionals in high school in French class. We didn’t learn grammar in English class. It seems Dion has learned to think analytically about language, because the man seems to be struggling to make sense of a very grammatically mangled question.

The question should either have been “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you do differently?” or “If you had been elected two and half years ago, what would you have done differently?” It’s illogical to think that something today could have an effect on the past. Dion struggles to understand if he should answer the question by talking about what he would do from now on to solve the problem, or if he should discuss what he would have done to prevent the problem in the first place. ( “If I have been [sic] Prime Minister two and half years ago, I would have had an agenda — let’s start again!” he says impatiently.)

There’s also a problem with the words have done, although I’m sure this never occurred to Dion. But it shows how little control the interviewer has over his language in this relatively short sentence. To have something done (this is called the causative) means that you arrange for someone else to do something for you. I’m having the house painted. When he asks, “What would you have done?”, this could also mean, “What would you have others do?” It would reasonable for someone who gave the interviewer more credit than he deserves to think that the question was, “If you became Prime Minister today, what you have others do?”

This is the only possible way the sentence can be interpreted so that it makes logical sense. “If you were Prime Minister today, what would you have done” is, as I’ve said, illogical because no present action or state can have an effect on the past. In order for the sentence to be logical, the second clause would have to refer to the present or future, and in that case the only possible meaning would be, “what would you have others do”.

So, we have a sentence that could mean three different things, and what is passed off to us as confusion is really Dion trying to clarify this. It’s a shame that the story was spun in such a way that the people who could not properly put a question together exposed Dion as someone who was sensitive enough to language that he was aware of the question’s problems.

UPDATE – 26 December 2008

The Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has appointed 18 new Conservative Senators, in what the Globe and Mail has called “the biggest single day of Senate appointments in Canadian history”.

[C]ritics accused Mr. Harper of hypocrisy in appointing a list of individuals known primarily for their service to the Conservative Party, including a former Quebec separatist. They also questioned the legitimacy of the appointments, given that Mr. Harper has suspended Parliament until late January in order to avoid defeat in the House of Commons. [My italics.]

Among those appointed is

career broadcaster Mike Duffy, who until last week hosted a daily hour-long political show called Mike Duffy Live.

Thanks to Frankie the C for the email and link.

UPDATE No. 2 – 28 May 2009

Thanks to Rick for sending me this article from the CBC, which states:

The arbiter of ethics on the airwaves ruled Wednesday that CTV violated industry codes when it included three false starts in a broadcast of an election interview with then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found CTV Atlantic’s 6 p.m. newscast was “discourteous and inconsiderate” when it ran the awkward false starts after the anchor promised Dion they wouldn’t be broadcast.

It also found the question that was put to Dion “confusing.”

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Insurance

Last Saturday I went to pick up N. from work and was parked on one of the busier streets in the centre of Heraklion. I found a place to park in front of a church, by a square. Across from the square a couple of streets emptied out into the one where I was parked.

It was two o’clock. A girl was on her moped next to the car in front of us, which made it very difficult for me to get out. When N. arrived I started the car and lightly honked at the girl to move. She was talking on her phone and gestured to me to move around her. I honked again, and she gestured again. I honked a third time, and she gestured a third time. By now, I was pretty angry. I should have reversed a bit to cut the angle — I’m sure I had enough room. If I had done so, I would have avoided what happened next.

I had signalled that I was going to turn right (it was a one-way street) and had looked ahead and back and there were no cars coming. But I didn’t look to my immediate right. I turned and then went on a head. A couple of seconds later — I think — I heard a bang and N. gasped. Two girls on their moped were up against the right-hand door. I had hit them.

They wobbled along for a bit, maybe hitting a few cars that were parked on the right side of the road, trying to keep their balance. Then they crashed into a parked car and fell to the ground.

The next thing I remember is that we were outside and the girls were trying to get up. They made it to the sidewalk and sat down on the steps of a shop. I remember seeing oil running out of the motor of the moped. My car was in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. N. was asking them if they were OK. I was trying to say something, but couldn’t speak. Anything that came to mind seem feeble, even pointless. What can you say? “I’m really sorry about that! Are you OK?” All you can think of is, is there anything you can do?

I ran to the car and parked it further up the street, in front of church driveway. Once again I had the girl with the phone in front of me, but this time she was sitting behind and her boyfriend or husband was getting ready to drive off. It didn’t occur to me to take down their number.

Someone had brought a stool out for one of the girls to sit on. They were checking themselves for injuries. The driver, who had been wearing a helmet, had scraped herself near her elbow, and that’s all, it seemed. Their legs were sore, there would doubtless be bruises, but nothing seemed broken. The passenger had not been wearing a helmet, but had been lucky not to have hit her head anywhere.

I ran to a nearby pharmacy to see if I could get something to tend to their scrapes, but it was closed.

The woman whose car they had crashed into had just turned up. Her light was broken, but that’s all. The moped, however, was in bad shape. It looked like a write-off.

“I just got it a week ago!” the girl said.

A man standing nearby took control of the situation. “You need to call your insurance company and the traffic police to report the accident.”

I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at it.

“Relax,” the man said. “Everything’ll be fine.”

I started dialling when the girl told me to hold on a minute. It turned out she had no license plates, no insurance, and hadn’t even got her license yet. She may have passed her exams and the license simply hadn’t been issued yet. I don’t know. I called my insurance company instead. Within a few minutes, someone came to assess the situation.

N. had called her brother and brother-in-law, who both know a lot about such situations. They were on the scene very soon. Every once in a while somebody would honk from where I had parked the car and I’d have to go and let them out.

I took a look at our car. It had a small scratch under the mirror. We had hit them only once, and not very hard. It wasn’t even anything worth troubling the insurance company about.

The assessment guy inevitably started lecturing the girl about driving without any papers. “If we call the police, you’ll get fined over 6,000 euros,” he told her. She was already quite shaken up, and this did not make her feel any better.

Her boyfriend had shown up by now, and so had the passenger’s boyfriend. They took off for the hospital and left the girl with the moped behind.

The assessment guy said that we wouldn’t need to call the police if they signed a paper promising not to attempt to ask for damages for injuries. He seemed to be saying that if the traffic police didn’t show up and take down a report of what had happened, they could turn around later and claim that they were hurt much worse than they really had been.

When I was telling him what had happened, I looked back. We were quite some ways from where I had been parked, further than I was expecting. Where had I actually hit them? Had they perhaps actually come up from behind and hit me? Had they come out from one of the side streets that emptied out onto the main street? I realised I didn’t really know what had happened. I was just willing to accept responsibility because I had knocked a couple of girls off their bike.

The driver’s boyfriend started saying that there was no need to call anyone, and was trying to get us to promise to pay for the bike, which had cost 2,500 euros. N’s brother-in-law got angry when he heard this. “How can you ask for that when you’re driving around without a license or insurance? Don’t you know that that’s illegal?”

It seemed tempers might flare up. I had no real idea what was going on. As a new driver who had never had an accident before, I didn’t know what to expect from my insurance company. I knew I had blanket insurance, so we were all covered, but I knew there could always be loop-holes for the company. The assessment guy took out a form. “Do you accept responsibility?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. I was afraid of committing myself until I understood the situation better.

“Oh, come on!” the girl said. “You came up from behind. Just admit it.” I said nothing. I waited. Everyone kept talking, trying to sort things out. Eventually, her boyfriend took her to the hospital too.

The assessment guy and I went to look at my car. “That’s nothing,” he said, and took pictures of the small scratch.

“What should I do?” I asked him. “Get them to sign what I said, and forget about them,” he said. “If you ask me, they’re trouble. You’re trying to make things easier for them, and keep them out of trouble, and they’re trying to get you to pay for the bike.”

“Do you think it was my fault?” I said.

“Definitely. But you have to decide for yourself whether you’re going to admit it.”

I admitted it then. I wrote out a description of what happened and accepted responsibility. Then we went to the hospital to see how the girls were doing. It was now 3 o’clock.

When we got there, they had done some tests, but were waiting to get them looked at. X-rays, blood tests, things like that. The passenger was very cheerful about the whole thing. She was in Crete for two or three days only, and thought it was funny that she should manage to find time for an accident. She lived in Santorini. The driver was still shaken up. We asked her if she’d sign the paper, and she said, “Write it up and I’ll sign.” Then she went off for more tests.

Her family started showing up. Her mother, and two brothers. They had spoken to a lawyer, who had said that she wouldn’t have to pay a fine if we went to the traffic police. Somehow the situation had altered: they seemed to think that we didn’t want them to go the traffic police to report the accident. We kept telling them that we didn’t mind either way, it was for their good that we weren’t going.

I also realised that they didn’t know that I had accepted responsibility for the accident. When I told them, they didn’t really believe me. Her brother, a rather aggressive guy, said he wanted proof. I took out a pink slip the assessment guy had given me and handed it to him, but it didn’t have the description of the accident. It wasn’t the paper I had signed.

“Where does it say you accepted responsibility?” he said. I looked at it. “I don’t have that paper,” I said.

“Why does it say here there aren’t any injuries?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“I’m photocopying this,” he said, and was gone.

I remembered that the assessment guy had given the girl his cell number. “Why don’t you call him,” I told her, “and ask him yourself.”

When the brother came back with my pink slip, he called the assessment guy. He made the call down the hall. After a couple of minutes we heard him yelling so loud that doctors and nurses came running. “You bums! Where do you get off talking to me like that?”

He came back furious and told us, everyone in the waiting area, that when he asked the assessment guy why he had put no injuries on the form, he had answered with “Listen here, pal…”

“Who does he think he is, calling me ‘pal’ like that? Bunch of god-damned bums! And then they want you to sign forms saying you’re not going to ask for anything!”

It was clear now that we would have to go to the traffic police and report the accident. No agreement would be reached.

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was the assessment guy.

“Listen,” he said. “I told the girl that if she had any injuries, she should call me and I’d make the changes on the form. Then her brother gets on the phone and starts insulting me. I’ve never been insulted in all my years on this job. My own father doesn’t insult me like that! Tell him I’m going to sue him! I’m coming on Monday to the traffic police with you guys and I’m going to file a complaint. And you’re my witness. Tell him! I’ll call you back, and you tell me what he said.”

Well, there was no way I was going to tell the angry brother that the insurance guy wanted to sue him, so I kept my mouth shut.

It was after 8 o’clock when we left the hospital. The doctors told both girls not to sign anything, which we didn’t care about any more. Now they wanted me to sign a paper stating that I had accepted responsibility.

“But I’ve already done that!” I said. It was too surreal a thread to follow, and we let it drop.

I looked at my policy when I got home, and realised I had even better coverage than I’d thought. I was even insured against people with no insurance. I also had legal coverage, so if they tried to sue me for something, they’d have to tackle the insurance company.

N.’s brother came home with us, and we ordered a huge pizza. We hadn’t eaten all day, and hadn’t done our usual Saturday shopping. We opened a few cans of beer. A wave of relief washed over me. I understood the situation now, knew where I stood, and knew that nothing could happen to me. I wasn’t going to get in trouble.

And it occurred to me that there was something insidious about the situation. I could rest easy tonight. I could relax and enjoy myself now, even have a little party. Two girls had been hurt and would be very bruised and sore tomorrow, unable to get out of bed, and yet I had the sense that I had just escaped blame. I had done nothing wrong, because I didn’t have to pay. Someone else would take care of it. I had insurance.

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You, the universe

I’ve never published a book (there were a couple of chapbooks back when I was too young to know any better) but I’ve been able to imagine the sense, which published writers often describe, of letting their book go into the world, of it not belonging to them any more, but to the public. You don’t know who’s reading it, or if anyone is really reading it at all. Maybe you hear from a reader or two, or are approached by someone at a reading or book signing.

Writing in a blog is similar in this respect, although there is greater opportunity for readers to leave comments, and stats trackers can give you even more information if you’re interested. WordPress doesn’t give very thorough statistics, which is for the best, really. When I was on Blogger I had a better stats service, and like many people I often spent too much time looking at them. I knew that there was someone in Toronto who read my blog often and they got to it by googling my full name, and that they did this from a public library computer. I used to wonder who this could be. Was it someone I’d lost touch with? If they read the blog, they could easily get in touch with me again. Was it someone who knew of me, but didn’t know me well enough to contact me? This was a particularly intriguing thought. Recently somebody linked to my Meteora post on a travel discussion board and said, “Here’s some pictures a guy I know took last year.” But I can’t tell from this person’s name who she is, and where I know her from. Perhaps I don’t really know her, or perhaps I know her and she’s not using her real name.

It doesn’t pay to think about these things too much. You’ll waste your time and probably driver yourself crazy. I remember one blogger actually putting an end to his blog because of all the time he was spending on this kind of stuff.

For a number of reasons, I don’t write here as often as I used to. But whenever I get a new link, I get a short-lived urge to start writing more regularly again, to keep up the numbers (i.e. the interest). But I don’t act on it.

The best reader is an imaginary one, one you have in mind as you write, as if you are writing that person a letter. (Of course, this reader need not be imaginary. You can write to someone you actually know, someone you feel understands you.)

A couple of nights ago I was listening to the latest album by Thanasis Papakonstantinou (Θανάσης Παπακωνσταντίνου) and when I got to the tenth track, “You, the universe”, I heard the sound of a dial-up modem, then the beginning of the music, and then a voice reciting words and phrases:

A Casa d’Irene
Academia Nervosa
Accidental Kitty
Anatomy of Melancholy

It was a list of Greek blogs. When I heard mine, and others that I’ve read since I started keeping one, I felt very strange. I can’t help associating those blogs, and even mine, with the front room of the apartment in Athens where I wrote and read them. It struck me that this act of posting things and reading others’ posts, leaving and receiving comments and sometimes even emails, activities which were essentially acts of communication, all along had felt like a private activity. Suddenly, hearing those names in a piece of music I felt as if something that belonged to me had been flung out into some brightly lit public place where people would be hearing of them for the first time. (Never mind that most people, unless they know the blogs already, won’t know what they are.)

And then I thought, does this mean that Papakonstantinou, of whom I am a fan, has read my blog? What about his occasional singer, Socratis Malamas (Σωκράτης Μάλαμας), whose music I love so much? Who knows? Something even more unusual and unthinkable has already taken place.

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Moving Home 2

We found a mover who wanted to take us down this weekend. He said it was better for him than the next one. That meant that we’ve spent our last week in Athens not going to the Cycladic Museum, for example, which is a short walk from here, and which I’ve been telling myself for the past ten years that I absolutely must visit, but locked up in the house trying to get everything in boxes by the weekend. Nothing to blog about.

So this is it.

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Moving Home

Kieslowski explained that when the Double Life of Veronique was shown in the US, viewers were confused when Veronique returns to her father’s house. They didn’t understand who he was, and whose house it was. Europeans understood immediately, but for Americans he had to add a shot of her addressing him as her father.

He tells a story of when he found himself sitting next to a Polish ex-pat millionaire on a flight to the US. The ex-pat had opened a factory that made windows. He was very proud of their quality. They were the best on the market, and he guaranteed them for 50 years. Nevertheless, business wasn’t good. So he tried reducing the guarantee to 25 years. Suddenly, business improved. He lowered the guarantee to twelve years, and sales started to boom. The more he reduced the guarantee, the more windows he sold. Now they were guaranteed for a mere five years, and he could hardly produce them fast enough.

“You see,” the man told Kieslowski, “Americans like to move. No American wants to think of himself as living in the same house for 25 to 50 years.”

The European family home, Kieslowski explained, is a concept North Americans find difficult to relate to. I had friends in Canada who thought it strange that I was in my twenties and still living in the house we’d moved into when I was two, the house my parents still live in. My sister and brother-in-law are saving up to buy a house, and are living there too, so that my little niece is living in the same house her mother has spent her whole life in.

I moved out much later than any of the people I knew. I was 27. I was in university till I was 25, and I wasn’t the kind of student who could hold down a job and go to university at the same time, so earning enough money for rent in Toronto was out of the question. But when I finally did move, I crossed an entire ocean.

I still call the house in Toronto “home”, even though I know I’ll never go back to stay. I guess I call it that because my family’s there, and by force of habit. There’s a sign on the door to my old bedroom that says “Tom’s Room”. It won’t come off. My sister has her computer in there, and they all still call it my room.

I’ve lived in this apartment for the past ten years, and in a week or two I’ll be moving again. This will be the first time I’m moving lots of furniture — at least lots for me — and I get anxious about it sometimes. I keep worrying that something will go wrong and I’ll be stuck between places with all my furniture and books and things out on the street somewhere. I’m worried about the expense, which is mainly due to all my books. I’m going to try to get rid of as many as I can, but it’s difficult. I already got rid of a couple hundred of them last year when N. moved in. I’ll probably have less time than ever to read them, but it’s still hard to part with them, even painful. I’ve always liked having them around because it offered me choice. It’s hard to tell yourself there’s not enough time left in your life for some things.

So, this month I’ll be going to Wuthering Heights, only the third house I’ll ever have lived in, not counting the apartment my parents had until I was two. I’ve been to it several times, have cleaned it after builders did some work on it, and have chosen furniture for it with N., so it already feels like home. And because I tend to stay in one place, I know I’ll stay there too. I look forward to our being happy there. It will be our house; our rent-paying days are over.

Lots of other things are uncertain, though, like how easily we’ll find work, and what we’ll do when we eventually try to start our own business.

I’ve never been a very regular blog-keeper, and I’m sure to be even less so for the next few months. The house doesn’t even have a phone line yet, and we won’t actually be living in the house till after the wedding at the end of July. (I think it’s supposed to be bad luck when the house is new. Things would be a lot easier if we could, but what can you do.)

I’ll try to write a few more posts by the time we leave, most likely about how N. and I are managing to find boxes, and how we’re running around trying to savour our last few days in this city we’ve loved so much.

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Pedestrian Alert

I forgot to mention that I finally got my driving license. It’s common practice here to bribe the examiners and just be done with the whole thing, a hundred euros each. My instructor said that 90% of them take the money. I wanted to avoid the test, and was willing to spend the money. Taking the test costs 150 euros alone, so if you need to take it three or more times, you end up saving money. There’s a lot of stupid unnecessary things you have to do in the test, like turn around a corner in reverse in three smooth movements, which you’d never have to do in real life, and this is where most people fail.

My test was on Friday the 13th, and I was sure that this was a good sign. That weekend there were municipal elections throughout Greece. Here, if you leave your home town or village and come to the big city, you’re still registered to vote back where you came from, unless you go through the bureaucracy of changing it. Most people don’t. (The whole process of offering election promises seems to work best locally.) Athens empties on such weekends as people return to their villages, towns and islands to vote. A lot of instructors had done the same that weekend, with the result that the director of the examining committee, who only tests people who are candidates for becoming instructors, came down to test us. He is not a man to accept a hundred-euro bribe. But he’s just.

Everyone failed. I was second last. Everything was OK till about sixty seconds into the test. I came to a corner where I was told to turn left. I came to a full stop, but to my right, someone had parked right at the corner, blocking my vision. I started edging out slowly so that I could see better. It was a two-way street, so I shot a quick glance to my right. At that precise moment, some guy came barrelling down the road on my left. My instructor, who was sitting in the passenger seat, stepped on the brakes. The car is fitted with an alarm for when he does this. The examiners in the back seat, a woman and the director, heard it, and the test was over.

The guy after me failed before even getting started. When he started in parked position, on the right of the road, he looked back before starting and moving into traffic, but he took too long to do so, and by the time he did, a car had appeared, coming up behind him. He didn’t see it, and started moving out. That was it.

My instructor and I decided not to take the test the following weekend, because there were still more elections. We didn’t want to run the same risk. So I took it two weeks later. I paid the 200, went out for a little spin, and that was all.

Driving back afterwards, I asked my instructor what he thought about this bribe-taking business. He said that most people fail out of sheer nervousness, and do something stupid.

“When your time has come to take the test, you’re ready,” he said. “I decide when you’re ready. I’ve been in the car with you for days. They’re in the car with you for ten-fifteen minutes. I won’t put you in the position to take the test if I don’t think you’re ready.”

He added, of course, that if someone is not ready but insists on doing the test, after the obligatory 20 hours of practical lessons, he can’t stop them, but he will refuse to pass the bribe on. He said he would be responsible for letting someone who’s not ready out onto the road.

This system only works, of course, as long as there are instructors like mine, who are actually quite passionate about teaching people to drive safely and responsible.

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Blind Spot

K., a friend of mine, was a chemical engineer before taking an early retirement. A few weekends ago we sat around and talked about beer and he told us all about how it’s made, how it goes off, how it’s preserved and transported. (He used to work for Heineken.) It was all fascinating.

He’s very intelligent and has a very scientific frame of mind. He knows a lot about a lot of different things, is inquisitive and has a good memory. (He’s a good story-teller in general, and a good person to invite to a social event if you’re worried people won’t hit it off and have much to say. He’s also, it’s important to note, a funny guy too.)

But it’s interesting how people who excel in technical and scientific things can sometimes have blind spots in other areas. Their scientific thinking can actually get in the way.

K. was asking me about my driving lessons and I told him that I find the “difficult” things easy, like going into first gear on an incline, parking, reversing around a corner, but when I simply change gears I get nervous and grip the steering wheel too hard. I’m not so aware of being nervous; my body simply reacts by tensing up.

“How do you hold the steering wheel?” he said.

I told him I put my hands at ten and two. He told me that now he keeps his right hand at seven o’clock.

“A car in good condition,” he said “should continue going straight unless prevented from doing so by something like a bump in the road. At 7.00 your hand is closer to your body and you’re more in control.”

He told me he had done a lot of driving over the years. He often had to drive to Holland for work. He gave me some figure, how many hundreds of thousands of kilometers he’d driven in one car alone. I told him about my father’s Toyota Corona, which he bought in 1981 and which he kept till 1995, a very long time for a place like Canada, where salt is thrown on the roads in the winter. With that car he drove from Toronto to Florida and back a few times.

K. explained how that sort of driving, without much starting and stopping, did not wear down the car much.

Then I remembered a Newfie joke. I explained who the Newfies are (there’s a Greek equivalent, as I’m sure there is everywhere) and told him.

“This guy wanted to sell his car and when his friend took a look at it he said:

“‘Are you crazy? This thing’s got 350,000 km on it! No one’s ever going to buy it. Don’t worry, though, I know this guy, he can change the odometer so that it’s really low.’

“So the guy goes and gets it adjusted so that it says only 20,000 km. A couple of weeks later they run into each other in the street and the friend says, ‘Hey, did you ever sell that car?’

“And the Newfie says, ‘Are you nuts? Why would I sell a car with only 20,000 km on it?'”

“Well, of course,” K. said. “No one would buy it. It’s an impossibly low number. They’d know right away that something was wrong. They’d say, ‘Haven’t you driven this thing at all?'”

I thought about this for a moment.

“K.,” I said, “it’s a joke.”

“Oh,” he said.

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Faces

On the bus last week I stole glances at a woman sitting next to me. She was probably in her late fifties or early sixties and had a somewhat tough, masculine face, care-worn and tired looking. Her eyes were a light grey, the kind that always remind me of spent flashcubes. (When was the last time I even saw flashcubes, the disposable kind?) They made her look cold and mean at first. Her profile was hard, chiselled, manly. She was the kind of woman they used to call “handsome”.

When she got off the bus, I had the chance to get a better look at her face. She went down to the corner of Panepistimiou and Ippokratous (she’d got off in front of the National Library) and waited for the light to change, and I saw her straight on. I imagined her thirty years ago. She must have been a beautiful woman. And by that I mean I imagined her a beautiful young woman. But then I realised she still was beautiful — more dignified than attractive, though. How had I failed to notice it right away?

When I was about 16 I had a conversation with a friend at school, in which we both admitted that we’d first met, we’d each found the other funny-looking. We discovered that we had both realised — independently, and at different times — that one’s first visual impressions of people were almost invariably wrong, even distorted. Almost everyone we’d ever met had been funny-looking, kind of ugly, at first, and then their faces changed as we got to know them.

I’ve also noticed this in films. Some actors and actresses seem to get more attractive as the film goes on, if they’re someone you haven’t seen before. The first time I saw The Double Life of Veronique, my first impression of Irene Jacob was that she was very plain. Before the film was over, I was practically in love with her. (I have seen the film over fifteen times, and I’m always amazed at how different she looks as Weronika, and much more attractive as Veronique.)

Somewhere I once read Ezra Pound’s explanation of this celebrated short poem:

IN A STATION OF THE METRO

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

He described how a face he saw on the Metro was suddenly, immediately beautiful, and then another and another, until it seemed everyone was beautiful.

What is it that prevents us from seeing this truer face of people? It’s not that we need to get to know the person better, because it can happen with people we don’t know at all, once our eyes get used to them, so to speak. Is it the imagination at work? If Pound was affected by a sense of ecstasy, what afflicts the rest of us? What’s the opposite of ecstasy? If ecstasy is standing outside yourself, then the opposite would be a sort of slumber where you are locked inside yourself, locked in your ignorance, not even seeing what is outside, utterly self-absorbed.

Today I asked myself what it is that liberates the imagination so that we can see, even for a moment, behind the mask we have hung on people’s faces.

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Snow

I want to remember these details months or years from now: It is night in Europe. Cold winds descend from Siberia. Snow falls obliquely through the streetlights of Europe. Tomorrow morning cities will be white.

The snow is deep on the ground.
Always the light falls
Softly down on the hair of my beloved.

This is a good world.
The war has failed.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the snow waits where love is.

Only a few go mad.
The sky moves in its whiteness
Like the withered hand of an old king.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the sky knows of our love.

The snow is beautiful on the ground.
And always the lights of heaven glow
Softly down on the hair of my beloved.

Snow at night in the city always makes me think of Kenneth Patchen. Does anyone still read him? I open the book of his poems that I have once or twice a year, maybe. I seem to have found it once by accident, when I was much younger, and I don't know how it's managed to stay with me. I only open it late at night, on nights like this, when it feels like everyone around me, apartment after apartment, block after block, is sleeping, and all is as silent as falling snow.

In Memory of Kathleen

How pitiful is her sleep.
Now her clear breath is still.
There is nothing falling tonight,
Bird or man,
As dear as she;
Nowhere that she should go
Without me. None but my calling.
Nothing but the cold cry of the snow.

How lonely does she seem.
I, who have no heaven,
Defenseless, without lands,
Must try a dream
Of the seven
Lost stars and how they put their hands
Upon her eyes that she might ever know
Nothing worse than the cold cry of snow.

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Absinthe

On Saturday night N. and I invited Jamie over for a couple of drinks. I had bought a small bottle of Absinth, of the Czech variety. We had been planning for some time to try it. (He studied French literature in university, and I was a big Rimbaud fan when I was a teenager, so that should explain it.)

I opened the bottle and took a sniff. It looked and smelled like Aqua Velva aftershave. The taste did not change this impression.

A colleague of mine had told me that she had tried some and had found it very bitter. I thought this was why people poured it through sugar. The ingredients on the bottle said there was sugar, and so we assumed we wouldn’t need to add any. We were wrong, but I only found this out today.

We poured a small amount into a glass and tried it, straight. This is the 60% type, not the 70%. I remember years ago seeing a drunk on the subway guzzling down some Aqua Velva. On Saturday I got an idea of what that must have been like. As soon as I swallowed it, the heat ran through my body. We wondered how on earth people could drink so much of it, and thought it would be better with water. Then we went on to safer ouzo or beer.

Today I’ve read up on how it should be drunk. I knew about the sugar, having seen it in a couple of films. I don’t have the special spoon that is used, or even sugar cubes, so I used a regular spoon and put some of the drink into some cane sugar. I lit it and let it burn for about twenty seconds and then dropped it into the absinthe, stirred it, and then added cold water. The result is at least drinkable.

However, Czech absinth is supposed to be a cheap imitation, a fake, according to the Wormood Society. I’d have to try the French kind that the compare it to to understand the difference. With the amount of water I’ve put in, it’s not at all bad, although nothing special either.

Of course, I only paid eight euros for it. If I don’t drink any more of it, I can always slap some on my face after I shave.


The Wormwood Society’s FAQ page.

The Wormwood Society’s reviews and recommendations.

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Time as a room, or a train, or something

From the notebook, 13.10.05

More often than the feeling that time is passing quickly is for me the sense that time, as a passage, has constricted and become a narrow tube or tunnel. “I have no time” means then that I have no room to do other things than run down this tunnel; I can’t stop, go left or right, relax, do something else.

Today I was lying on the couch listening to some music and watching some afternoon clouds go by, and I wondered what it would be like if I never had to work, if I had no obligations to fulfil. The narrow tunnel would become a round, spacious, vaulted room, and all would be stillness. Time would still pass quickly — perhaps even more quickly now that I wasn’t thinking about it — and death would still come when it would. But now the speeding train would have no windows, and the landscape would never change. If I may mix my metaphors.

Which reminds me of a brilliant essay/convocation address I once read in Harpers by Joseph Brodsky. I’ll dig it up some time soon, when the tunnel widens out a bit.

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Summer’s Almost Gone

I finished the textbook some time in July, and tried to concentrate on my own writing for a while. I started a few blog posts in my notebook, some of which might eventually make it up here.

And whenever I could, I went for little day-trips.

I want to get a digital camera. The one I’ve got seems pretty crappy, and the last batch I took came out worse than usual.

But sometimes, on a beautiful day by the beach, you see a magical scene made up entirely of primary colours, and it seems no camera will fail you. (This one looks great when it’s enlarged.)

I’m starting work now. Perhaps s a punishment for all my lack of employment this year, I’ve been given the position of director of studies at a school, in addition to teaching, and I will probably have more work than I can handle. I’m trying to get used to the fact that I probably won’t have time for my usual creative pursuits.

At least I won’t have the financial problems I had last year. And maybe I’ll find the time to write.

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Death of a Spammer

While it’s true that the internet allows for a great deal of sharing of information and that it has made it easier to communicate with people all over the world, in many ways the people we communicate with don’t really become human beings.

A couple of weeks ago, a little buzz ran through the internet when it was announced that the famous Russian spammer Vardan Kushnir had been found murdered in his Moscow apartment. It was initially believed that the murder was in retaliation to the millions of spam emails he sent out each day, but the latest news has it that he was murdered by robbers.

Even though the murder was not in retaliation for all the spamming, that’s how it was interpreted for a few days, and most papers in Russia were actually saying Kushnir got what he deserved. My initial reaction too was to cheer, and I hadn’t heard of Kushnir before his murder. I was thinking about an annoying spammer who had, for me and for countless others, failed to become a human being.

I was about to stop and devote a few minutes to thinking of Kushnir as a human being, but then I thought of a couple of usenet scumbag trolls I wouldn’t mind meeting the same end. I won’t mention any names, but I’m tempted to post some addresses and telephone numbers.

I started imagining other possible headlines:

USENET TOP-POSTER DRAWN AND QUARTERED

ANGRY YOUNG MAN CHOKES ON SOCK PUPPET

MAN DISRESPECTS “X-NO-ARCHIVE” REQUEST, FOUND STRANGLED IN APARTMENT

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I’ve been busy with the textbook I’m writing, which should be out of the way at last later this week, when I go to Athens to do the CD for the listening sections. As a result, I’ve been neglecting the blog.

I’m a bit late, but I want to draw attention to this post by Dr Zen. I think it’s the most insightful thing I’ve read about what’s been happening in Iraq and other places around the world.

It’s also a reminder of what a great blog the man has. Go through the archives. You’ll see some of the best writing to be found on any blog.

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The City

I was out having some drinks with some friends last week and one of them, David, mentioned that over the weekend he had broken up with a woman he had recently been seeing. “She said there wasn’t enough ‘chemistry’,” he said, shrugging resignedly. Chris commented that at least she’d been honest and upfront with him, to which David merely shrugged again.

“She said she just wanted to be friends,” David continued a little while later. “I said, no. Friends I don’t need. I’ve already got so many I could puke a football field full of them. If she wants to be friends, she can get in line with all the other women.”

David is good at joking about his bad luck, but this time there was quite a bit more bitterness, which is understandable.

Later on in the evening, Chris reminded David that he’d come to Greece from the States to meet European women.

“Except that Greek women aren’t European,” David said. I don’t remember what he said Greek women actually were, but clearly his experiences had left him disappointed. (Never mind what he had thought, back in the States, European women actually were like.)

It occurred to me then that David and Chris are in similar situations in at least one respect. They speak very little Greek. One of them has even lived here for at least ten years. On the other hand, Rob, the third friend there that night, has learnt the language quite well.

Rob is often homesick, in ways and at times he says he can’t quite explain. Like most foreigners living here, he often gets sick of it and annoyed with the natives. But he’s also told me he knows he has to adapt. He says when he goes back to England, he sometimes embarrasses old friends with Mediterranean displays of affection. He says he can’t expect people back there to be any other way than how they are, and if someone went to England and complained he’d tell them, “If you don’t like it, you know where the airport is.” This sort of self-knowledge makes it easier for him to get by here.

But the most important thing is, apart from his easy-going nature, he’s done a good job of learning the language. He’s had long-lasting relationships with Greeks, and he has Greek as well as ex-pat friends. He even likes Greek music now, which he didn’t always use to.

Somewhere in The Alexandria Quartet, probably in Justine, Lawrence Durrell talks about about how fascinating and wonderful a city becomes when you’re in love with one of its inhabitants. This is a kind of emotional projection, which can just as easily turn a city into an intolerable hell-hole when you’re alone and isolated and you don’t understand what’s going on around you.

I don’t know about David, but Chris will tell you he’s tried, he’s given the place a shot, he came here with an open mind, and that it was his experiences here that ruined it for him, having to ride crowded buses with smelly peasants who are rude and even hostile to him. There are days, he says, when he can feel the rage like a pressure on his chest.

But can someone really say they’ve given the place a shot and have come with an open mind or heart, if after at least a decade they have barely learnt the language everyone else is speaking? How can you even begin to approach understanding other people?

When David said that Greek women weren’t European, Chris followed his lead and made a joke. I immediately thought of N., so far from Athens that night, and wondered if she would have been insulted by what they’d said. I felt so fortunate to have her and knew that all the hard work we put into the relationship always proves worth it in the end.

And this is what occurred to me as we sat there. David and Chris don’t seem to realise how much hard work they would be for the Greek woman, European or otherwise, who chose to go out with them. She would have to speak English well enough to go through all the usual courting rituals and games, and then to deal with all the problems you have in a relationship and which can only be solved by clear and open communication. Unless she had rejected such things, she would have to find a way to make the culture and way of life here easier for them to understand, should she in fact be able to overcome their bitterness and decade-long resistance to it. In short, she would have to cross more than half of the cultural gap that separates them, in her own country.

I’m sure they’ve never actually thought of it in these terms. Perhaps they’d even deny it. But I see no indication that they expect any less from a woman. After all, it’s what they’ve been expecting from the country all these years.

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A New Anatomy of Melancholy

I found a new blog today, A New Anatomy of Melancholy, although it’s not so new. It goes back to 2003, although there aren’t nearly as many entries as I’d like.

Back in April of 2003, David Lettvin, the blogger wrote this as part of what can be seen as a statement of policy:

I am tired and I am sad. I look at politics and I see children playing “king of the castle.” I look at religion and I think of Aesop’s fable of the dog in the manger. I am weary of those who know they are right, and I can find no trace of those who know that they may not be.

I am disturbed at the ease with which people stop thinking in order to follow a leader. I am disgusted by the cant of art critics who praise for fear that condemnation will show that they know nothing of their subject.

Discussion has been abolished in favor of certainty. There is no conversation, there is no thought. The new mantra is, “if you do not think as I do, you are wrong.” I have no problem with those who are passionate about their ideas. I am disheartened by those who think that there should be no opposition.

It is so easy to think that you are the only one who knows the truth. It is even easier to think that the person you idealize is the only one who knows it. Blind faith allows no argument. It is too easy to take refuge in the evangelical argument, “If you do not believe as I have been told to, you are damned.”

I place the blame on the complexities of modern society. There is so much to know, so much to understand. Blind faith removes the complexity. It is too easy to dismiss other world views. It is too hard to think for ones self. It is so easy to discard logic. Logic is messy, faith is easy.

(There is no permalink to this one.)

He’s also written some very funny variations of songs from West Side Story, such as this one, to the tune of “Officer Krupke”:

Dear Private Lynndie England,
You gotta understand,
Our faith will not be shattered
Nor vanish on command.
Our mothers all are wailing,
Our fathers all are dead.
Golly Allah, shot right through the head!
Gee whiz, Private England, we’re very upset;
Your country blocked the food and meds we needed to get.
We ain’t no Al Qaeda,
We’re misunderstood.
But still on our head there is a hood. There’s a hood!

Or this one, to the tune of “Maria”:

Scalia …
I just met a judge named Scalia.
And suddenly I find
The Bill of Rights’ not signed
For me.
Scalia
Say it loud and it sounds like braying,
Say it soft and you’d better be praying.
Scalia
He’ll keep me from straying
Scaliaaaaaah …

Go check him out.

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Step back, suckah!

My friend Alice in Nova Scotia wrote me to tell me about having watched “Pimp My Ride” once on television. Her description of it was so funny that I asked her if I could post some of it.

I was flicking through the channels and there was this show. Ridiculous! It’s very boring, really, although there are some interesting characters who actually customize people’s cars. Guys with gold teeth and good MexiCali accents. The one I saw had a young woman with a crappy car and a disabled grandma; they lived together, she took care of her grandma, so I bet that’s probably a factor. Schlocky stuff. The funniest scene involved the woman opening the door for her grandma – they’d changed the door from a regular side opener to one that lifted like a wing. And then the two of them riding along with the massive stereo system playing rap music, grandma sitting there with her purse on her lap, looking stunned but still smiling. The alarm system was customized to play Xzibit’s voice saying “Step back, sucker, this is a warning from Xzibit!”

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A couple of days ago, on the 16th, someone somewhere, probably in the UK, if my sitemeter information is correct, took some magic mushrooms and then asked the Google Oracle, "What is melancholy?"

As you will see, the oracle gave this person my blog as an answer. She looked around at a few pages, and then went to this post and left the following comment:

This may sound bizzare to other men but I am a female. I have been an altered state experience all day having had some magic mushrooms. It was my choice. I wanted to get to know my masculine personality better and I have. My melancholy state started my journey, I am unable to give it peace. My feminine aspect as stepped aside to give me the opportunity to look at my undeveloped masculine aspects – it is a battlefield. I have hated men for so long and realise now that those aspects I hated in them are part of my own inner landscape. I send you all love. From my masculine aspect to yours. Men need to break down the barriers that stop them from having the freedom to love unconditional and let the energy flow once more between men, one man to another, etc…..it is indeed tough times for men. You have been brought up to hide from your more feminine nature, that which you are born with it is inside of you – it is feminine in nature not female there is a different. You may find your melancholy is your inner feminine longing for recognition. We look for the opposite in another but we are already whole, we have engendered a body but we have within both masculine and feminine energy we need both to be in balance.

To the person who wrote this: If you return to take a look, drop me a line. Tell me how you're doing.

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Insomnia

It’s 3.30 am. I went to bed a couple of hours ago. I listened to classical music on the radio for an hour, till it shut off by itself, then listened to my heart beat. Then I got up and made some chamomile.

I have an interview tomorrow, and I’m dreading it because I always thought of this company as my last resort. If it turns out to be like the last one, then I don’t know how long it will take before another opportunity comes along.

I can feel the threads of the safety net unravelling. More than ever before, I feel exposed to danger, like the blind cat hiding in the courtyard next door.

I’ve set my alarm for 7.30. I’ll probably show up for the interview with swollen bloodshot eyes.

I swear, if I get this job, I’m going to buy you all a drink.

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Lateral Research

Here’s an interesting new blog. If you drop by to take a look, make sure you start at the beginning.

It lends a whole new sense to the term “link”.

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Buried Alive

My mother is claustrophobic. Whenever she enters a small space, like an elevator, she becomes short of breath and can’t wait to get out. When I was younger, I thought, with the typical cruelty of children, that it was funny, and that she was exaggerating. Once we went as a family for a hike on the Bruce Trail in Ontario, and we came to this cave with an entrance and exit, called Fat Man’s Misery. My father and I had come once before, but it was my mother’s and sister’s first time.

First you climb down a ladder into a cavernous vault, and then go up some stairs, past a dummy of a miner, into an extremely narrow passage near the exit. I don’t remember if my father and I knew that this would be hell for my mother, but we didn’t tell her what was in store. If I remember correctly, turning around would have meant that we would not be able to meet up afterwards, and she forced herself to go through it.

Knowing me, I probably thought the whole thing was funny. I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time.

Over the past couple of years I’ve realised that, although I’m not claustrophobic, I am able to imagine vividly what it must be like to die in an enclosed space.

Once when we went on a trip through the United States, back in 1984, we spent a horrible night trying to find a hotel, but wherever we went, there were no more rooms. Eventually we found one in the small hours of the morning. I remember trying to sleep in the back seat of the car, and a restless numbness coming over my legs. I wanted to thrash them about, kick things, even break my legs if it meant stopping the feeling. I had to get out, walk around, relieve the muscles in my legs.

A couple of years ago I had a dream that someone had locked me up in a very small safe. I woke with my heart in my throat. Since then, the thought of being stuck in a building that has collapsed in an earthquake (more likely here in Athens than it ever was in Toronto), what was once the ceiling now pressing down on my chest, or the thought of being buried alive, lying there with nothing to do but wait till death eventually comes, will insinuate itself into my head and refuse to go away. It becomes an obsession. I jolt upright in bed, shake my head to free it of such thoughts, but when I lie down again, I’m thinking about it again. The more the thought terrifies me and sends me into a cold sweat, the more I think about it.

The worst part of it, as I imagine it, is being enclosed in a space not so small that you can’t still move. I imagine my limbs becoming numb and fidgety, as they did that night in the car, but I’m in a narrow space, under six feet of earth. I can only slightly bend my knees before they hit the unyielding wood above me. I lie in bed and imagine all this. I’m lying on my back. I can’t turn over, because a quarter of the way, my shoulder hits the wood as well. All I can do is thrash about and go mad till I run out of oxygen.

Who, or what, put these thoughts into my head? Will they go away again, as suddenly as they came?

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Democracy is coming

Does anyone remember wanting to puke during that Kodak moment when Safia Taleb al-Suhail, leader of the Iraqi Women’s Political Council, proudly held up her ink-stained finger, after Bush’s State of the Union address?

Well, try to keep your gorge from rising when you read how the times are a-changing for women in Iraq, at Baghdad Burning.

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Get your head round this one

The Los Angeles County DA has decided that he will seek the death penalty for a man who tried to kill himself.

Juan Manuel Alvarez drove his Jeep Cherokee onto the commuter rail tracks near Compton, supposedly intent on killing himself. (I don’t know if Alvarez has admitted as much.) Apparently he changed his mind as the train approached. He got out and watched the crash. According to the New York Times, “After the crash, officials described Mr. Alvarez as ‘deranged’ and ‘suicidal.'”

Is Alvarez going to be shaken up about this? Will he plead guilty? Can we call it punishment? What if it was all part of some elaborate plan on Alvarez’s part?

I’m just saying, you know?

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Back

I’ve been back since early January, but haven’t posted anything. I haven’t been in the proper frame of mind, and I never wanted this to be a journal.

In December I had become so enthusiastic about them that I registered on Bloglines to keep track of all the ones I was reading. When I returned, there were more posts than I could read. I tried to comprehend, to imagine just how many bloggers there are out there, and I got a wee case of vertigo. My will became a little paralysed, so to speak.

Which is silly, in a way. I’m a newcomer, but already there’s a nice little community of people checking in, which I check into as well.

I haven’t felt like writing anything, but from time to time, I’d be drafting something in my head.

So, who’s the anonymous one who wrote, “Having too good a time to post anything, I hope. Still, some life sign would be nice for us constant readers”?

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Off to Toronto

I’m leaving for Toronto today for two weeks. I hope to have lots of bloggable experiences while I’m there.

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How bleak and lifeless everything seems! How miserable and bereft I feel! All is emptiness. In this pitiful excuse for a life I lead, there is no comfort, no hope, no relief from pain and loneliness.

I followed the instructions, but after more than 24 hours since I dropped the Sea-Monkey “Instant Live Eggs” into the purified water, nothing has happened.

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Instant Pet

My sister mailed me a Sea Monkeys set. You get an aquarium with them. I always thought you put them in a glass of water and watched them for about five minutes.

I’ve filled it up and added the water purifier. In 24 hours I will drop the little critters in.

Meanwhile:

The Bad Fads Museum

Sea Monkey Worship Page


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The Last Page

He has a book with countless pages, beautiful sheets of transparent rice paper, the kind once used to protect frontispieces from yellowing. They are so delicate that each one tears off when he turns it. He is meant to write or draw on them, but for now he only likes to feel them between his fingers, to look at their virginal blankness. When each leaf is torn, it gives him the same pleasure he had as a child when he would violate a field of freshly fallen snow with his footprints.

In time, a fault in the grain begins to appear. It’s a fraint streak that runs across the page. He strains his eyes, but he can’t make out what it is. He’s not even sure if it’s really there, but gradually it becomes more clearly defined, compromising the purity of the pages and his enjoyment of them.

Eventually he realises that it’s a line of words, although he can only distinguish the shapes of them. He tries to concentrate on the paper, but the emerging shapes distract him. By now he turns the pages automatically, without pleasure, thinking only of what is written up ahead.

It’s a message. Even before he reaches it he can see through the pages clearly enough to read it. He tries not to. He doesn’t want to reach it, but he can’t stop.

At last he comes to it. He doesn’t know who’s written it. Perhaps he himself has. He reads it again and again. He wants to cover it, make it invisible again, but all the other pages are gone, torn off. It’s the only page left.

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Uneasy Rider

About a year ago, I came across a site that hosted photos and writing by some “Elena” who liked to ride her motorcycle through the empty streets of Chernobyl.

Today I came across a thread that pretty much settles it that she was lying about a lot of things. Nevertheless, the pictures are still great to look at, even if one or two of them are a bit set up.

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A Downright Moron

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack, or count himself lost. His one aim is to disarm suspicion, to arouse confidence in his orthodoxy, to avoid challenge. If he is a man of convictions, of enthusiasm, or self-respect, it is cruelly hard…

“The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even a mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second or third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

“The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

—H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920

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