The Sixth Extinction

September 27, 2017

How do I say this?

Elizabeth Kolbert is a national treasure. I had arrived at that conclusion from reading her numerous magazine articles and interviews, but I knew I was really on to something when I mentioned my feelings to a daughter who replied, almost reflexively, “Oh my God, yes!” It turns out that there’s almost nothing as affirming as finding out that some idea you reached on your own is also held by your super-intelligent children. I may be old, but I can still have good ideas! (It helps to ‘share a brain’ with your child.)

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Immigration Fairy Tale

September 13, 2017

My wife is a book shark. She needs to read constantly to survive, and so she (we!) take precautions to make sure there is always an unread book nearby just in case, when she finishes her current read, she still feels that gnawing hunger…

To my surprise, something like this hit me last week. We were spending a week at the coast avoiding hot weather and wildfire smoke as best we could when I unexpectedly finished the only book I had brought with me. Suddenly I felt the hunger so I had to comb through our shelf of “beach books” to find something to keep me occupied. That’s where I found Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford’s first novel from 2009 (Kirkus review).

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I’m too scatter-brained about money. Thinking ahead to retirement, I worry “will there be enough?” I studiously refrain from major purchases, but I’m profligate when it comes to the smaller expenses, $20 lunches, $80 concert and play tickets, $60 dinners (for two).

It wasn’t always this way. Early in my College teaching career I would watch carefully for the emails from the College Bookstore announcing one-day end-of-semester sales. My shopping tastes were simple: a quick peak at the software rack, scan the clothing on sale (my drawers and closet are filled with cheap t-shirts and not-so-cheap sweatshirts sporting the College’s name in various designs, and my family hasn’t been spared either), and then step over to the book bins. Clothing wears out so I still shop the Bookstore sales, but I’ve noticed that I no longer glance at software, and the “$5 or less” book pile seems less appealing too. Here are two book reports from my “sales” period.

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I Am a Cat

July 5, 2017

I fell in love with San Francisco, and with Northern California generally, while a postdoc at Berkeley in the early 80’s. It was a tumultuous period in my life. Adding to the usual hassles of new job, new home, there had been a recent death in the family, and my marriage was on the rocks. Quickly settling down to professional responsibilities just wasn’t in the cards. For several months, a daily battle was fought between the lab and the Bay, a battle the latter often won, particularly if the sun was already breaking through the clouds by early morning. This pattern couldn’t continue forever, aided by my research mentor’s gentle prodding, I eventually returned to steady work, but the allures of walking through San Francisco, hiking the Marin headlands, and driving Highway 1 towards Mendocino and Big Sur, have stayed with me.

Fortunately for me, my wife, a Berkeley grad, and my younger daughter, currently a Berkeley grad student, are more than willing to join me in SF adventures. This explains why I was able to lead them over to the Japan Center in October 2015 and the Kinokuniya bookstore, and why no one protested when I made my way to the cashier with two books, one of which was I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume.

The book’s cover advertises everything that might be said about it, “Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature.” Here are two reviews, Kirkus Review and a compilation of Goodreads reader reviews.

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Astoria

June 28, 2017

I don’t recall when our family made its first trip to Astoria, Oregon, but I can still bring to mind the glum, puzzled expressions on the faces of my sweatshirt-clad daughters as they emerged from our new, white Previa van. Each face seemed to ask, “Dad, why did you bring us here? What is there to do in this cold, gray, dismal place?” Thinking back to the rundown Astoria of the early 90’s that greeted us, I can’t say what exactly had motivated the trip, but I’m guessing that, as the fearless instigator of many family car journeys, I had probably gleaned from the nightly 11 o’clock weather forecasts that Astoria was 1) located on the mouth of the Columbia, and 2) a city of some importance and worthy of a visit. Had I paid closer attention, either to a proper map, or a weather almanac, or preferably both, I might have saved our family from making a potentially disastrous trip. Little did I know then that many others had come to this spot before me, driven by a similar mixture of adventure and curiosity, and they had suffered for it.

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Ancestors

February 27, 2017

Do you have time for a story? No? Not even a short one? Never mind then.

I became acquainted with this Philip Whalen poem when I heard it read by Barry Magid (podcast, Ordinary Mind Zendo). I’ve been walking many of the paths Whalen traveled (Portland, Reed, San Francisco, zen) and now we meet again.

“Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis” by Philip Whalen

I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
                         splashed picture—bug, leaf,
                         caricature of Teacher
    on paper held together now by little more than ink
    & their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.

Saved. Next time my mind starts digging a hole, I’ll try to remember that those ancient folks already solved my problems for me. Just look behind the busted wine jars.

Thanks to Mud & Lotus for sharing the poem and calligraphy.

When did I take this book home? January? December? I remember a rainy gray winter Sunday. My wife had told me that she was “out of books,” so, ever the gallant provider, I had suggested that we swing by the Central Library on our way to dessert. I forget what she checked out, but she grabbed her usual handful, and I latched onto a single thick paperback that I had spotted in a special display.

Why had I taken this book? Simple. I judged it by it’s cover. The title appealed – I had just received a set of calligraphy pens (still unopened) for Xmas.  The cover drawing was beautiful as well: a series of elegantly inscribed Middle Eastern doorways that promised layers of meaning. The author’s name, Rafik Schami, sounded like music from my past, and the dust cover promised, “the Great Arab Novel.” Sigh. Just one book in my hand, but quite enough, yes?

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My longtime Portland friend and Fulbright scholar, Geoff Hiller, has a talent for taking pictures. He has traveled the world, most recently in Asia, collecting scenes from temples, mosques, weddings, open air markets, art schools, you name it. Now he’s turning to Kickstarter to launch a very special book: Burma in Transition.

This is something very special to see and share with others and support. There are just 28 days to go on this campaign so please help.

One summer, two books – both from 20th century English authors, both dwelling on love and hate, and yet they couldn’t be more different.

P.G. Wodehouse brings the lighter touch. He spins words into elaborate gossamer webs that seem completely insubstantial, and yet they have the power to ensnare. Consider this description of an late morning lack experienced by Wodehouse’s hero, Psmith: “For, though he had celebrated his first day of emancipation from Billingsgate Fish Market by rising late and breakfasting later, he had become aware by now of that not unpleasant emptiness which is the silent luncheon-gong of the soul.”

I have never had to escape an uncle’s fish market, but every summer I shift my rising and breakfasting to later hours than are possible during the school year. And that ‘not unpleasant emptiness’ that Wodehouse identifies seems like a daily occurrence.

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Unni Chacko has an idea: Thousands of years ago in the history of man, a great darkness has fallen. The war between good and evil has ended. And it has ended with the complete triumph of evil and a total, irrevocable extermination of good. Evil is cunning, it quickly splits itself into two – into apparent good and evil, so that mankind is under the delusion that the great conflict is still raging and it will not go in search of the truth.

Unni also has another idea: Every delusion has an objective, and the objective of a delusion is not merely to colonize one brain but to transmit itself to as many brains as possible. That is the purpose of every delusion, that is how a delusion survives, that is how it succeeds. By spreading, maximizing its colony, like a virus. Any philosophy that can be transmitted to another person is a delusion. If two people believe in the same idea of truth, it is a delusion. Truth is a successful delusion.

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