Fire and Fury reviewed

Trump and BannonDysfunctional. Childish. Self-centred. Narcissistic. Ideologically myopic. Illiterate. Cranky. Capricious. Arrogant. Scheming. Petty. Ill-educated. No, I’m not writing about our local council (although, yes, all those words apply equally to The Block). These are some of the words that came to mind as I read Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Dysfunctional popped into my mind most often as Wolff described the lurching, staggering, fumbling and bumbling of Trump’s staff and family advisers after their unexpected – and for some unwanted – victory. (I know: curiously coincidental how that description also echoes our own council’s meandering, aimless and destructive governance, but let’s not talk about The Block right now…). Not that it’s surprising: the amount of political experience among the core group and family that stuck together through Trump’s campaign combined was less than an hour’s worth.

It’s like reading about a train wreck described in excruciatingly minute detail: the trajectory of every rivet and bolt as it shakes loose from the engine and flies off into space is chronicled, measured and examined. Or perhaps it’s better described as reading about the antics of an entire kindergarten class where cranky children fed on high-sugar treats are not given sufficient nap time.

And despite my initial expectations, the book is less about Trump than about his minions and the limpets who cling to him. While it’s not flattering about the Ignorati-in-Chief, it scorches the hangers-on. There’s a point made that American democracy could survive Trump and manage well enough if the White House had a competent, experienced, educated and literate staff of professionals to mitigate his inabilities. But with its cast of amateurs and grasping opportunists it hasn’t a chance.

I had already read much of what Wolff described online and in newspapers and magazines (such noteworthy publications as the Washington Post, New York Times, Maclean’s, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others which Trump labels ‘fake news’ because they fail to tug their collective forelocks and genuflect to his self-described “very stable” genius). The madcap antics, the sordid affairs, the flailing and failing of Trump’s staff are already as well documented as the president’s own erratic bumbling governance and noxious tweets. But I’ve not had it all served in a single dish before, nor had I been aware of the backgrounds of many of the players. That’s the strength and delight – and fright – of this book.

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Remembering those who served

Lest we forgetIt’s at this time of the year, as we approach Remembrance Day, that I think most about my family, especially those who have died. I wish I had known when I was younger what I know today, so I could have asked them more about their lives, and about their service in the military, about their wars.

I have read a lot about those wars, about the military and political history of the last century; it’s a topic I never tire of reading about. I wish I could have learned more from my own family about what it was like, then. No amount of reading – and I do a lot – can really give me more than a glimpse of how it must have been for them.

I am of the generation whose grandparents served in the First World War, and whose parents served in the Second. Both grandfathers were veterans, both parents were veterans. None of them talked much about it, at least not to me. It wasn’t something they wanted to relive and I was too young to know about it. Over the years I pieced together a fragmentary view of them in those years, but it’s only a gloss. A century of shadows. Some faded photographs, brief conversations towards the ends of their lives.

I am the oldest son, so my thoughts go most to my father and grandfathers because like them I would have served in similar roles, had I been alive then. And that makes me wonder more, about being in their shoes. How would I have reacted in similar situations? Would I have volunteered? Waited to be called up? Would I have survived in the trenches, in the air raids, in the desert? Under fire? I’ll never know. I am thankful that they served to protect my peace, my prosperity and my democracy so I never had to find out. 

But I wonder, too, about my grandmothers, both young , married women in 1914. How did they react when war was declared, knowing their husbands of only a few years would be going to war, possibly never to return? How did they feel knowing their plans for life and family were abruptly interrupted? My father was born in January, 1914. How did my English mother feel, knowing she’d struggle to raise a young child alone, while his father went to fight in foreign lands? How did they carry on during those dark years?

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Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief

Religious tolerance?“Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief” investigates one of the last frontiers in civil liberties and human rights: Atheism. So reads the opening sentence on the website of a new film about atheism and society. It asks, “can you be good without god?”

Well, yes, you can. That’s the whole point of secular humanism, philosophy and the entire Buddhist faith. Morality is a choice we make, not a divine command.

It also hides another question within its folds: can you be good and still have free will? If you need a god to be good, that suggests you don’t have free will. You’re simply some deity’s meat puppet. If you have free will to be evil, then morality is clearly a choice, a human construct, not divine.

Despite what the religious right say, being good is not necessarily a part of being pious. I briefly mentioned this in the footnotes of my previous post on Horace’s Ode 2.14. The two attributes may be complementary (in some people), but history is equally replete with examples of pious people who were predatory, con artists, killers, torturers, rapists, thugs and murderers. They call their evils “doing God’s will.” Atheists never have that hypocritical motivation.

The two attributes of goodness and piety don’t always coincide, and as noted above, religious belief can even make it worse. Just think of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch hunts of the Reformation or anything ISIS does. As Blaise Pascal, said, “Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”
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Eheu fugaces, Postume…

Old ageAlas, Postumus, the swift years slip away. Those words are one translation of the opening line of the 14th Ode in the second book of Horace’s carminas, or songs: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume/labuntur anni… *

For me, it’s his most moving piece, a bittersweet acceptance of mortality; the inevitability of age and death. Something no one in his or her sixties cannot help but think about. And about which Horace wrote several times.

Many of Horace’s poems are moving; very down to earth. His most touching odes read not so much as poetry meant for a wide audience, but rather as personal meditations on life. Perhaps that accounts for their continued popularity.

I’ve been reading a lot of Horace of late, thanks to a very personal and entertaining book about the poet by Harry Eyres (I reviewed it recently and more about it, below). Being an unlettered autodidact struggling to look ad fontes (to the sources), I find it helps to be introduced into the classics by those who know them better. Once there, I may find my own way or search additional help in understanding.

(Why, I ask myself, did I not take these in school, why was my education so thin on the classics? Remedial self-learning is required…)

For me, these poems also cement a connection across the millennia that divides us. There’s a comfort in knowing that the Romans and others in the past were concerned about the same, basic things that still concern us today, that they wrestled with the same thoughts, worries and joys that keep us awake at night. Once stripped of our shell of trivia, technology and consumerism that often cocoons us, our core focus is still small, biological and deeply personal: life, death, love, sex, relationships, friendships, pleasure, pain, food. Horace writes about them in a very matter-of-fact manner.

And while the ancient Greeks and Romans were also deeply immersed in debating faith, politics and war, Horace for the most part ignores them. Sure, he mentions people, battles, gods quite a lot, but they appear as (for him) common cultural signposts on the journey, not matters of deep concern or belief. Which helps both his continued relevance and allows modern writers (like David Ferry) to translate the poems into something that speaks to us now. Perhaps the continued rewriting for a new audience is why, as Horace wrote, his poems would outlast bronze.

Viktor Frankl wrote that our most deeply held drive is our search for meaning. We all to greater or lesser degree, question why we’re here. What differs, I suppose, is how we choose to deal with that questioning. Do we accept a fixed ideology, a faith, a belief as the unalterable bedrock of meaning, and stop looking further? Stop questioning, stop diving into the dark, unanswered depths? Or, as the Buddha admonished the Kalamas, do we question everything, build our own meaning from the individual blocks of knowledge like some philosophical Lego set?

I prefer to find my own way, even if it means stumbling in the dark for some time (and, yes, I have stumbled, and continue to stumble because it’s a journey with no real end). I personally like to look into the mirror of what others have found to see if I can find my own reflection. Sometimes I can recognize the face peering back. Other times it’s a fun-house mirror that stares at me. What matters is that I keep looking, keep peering into the glass. True my personal, philosophical Lego construction looks a bit dodgy and unstable a lot of the time, but at least it’s my own.

Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” So I keep looking, keep walking into the dark passage using for a light the works of someone who went before me. Horace is just one of those candles.

But a comforting, increasingly familiar one these days.
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A cup of mao jian

Mao Jian teaThe tea bag is an example of remarkable serendipity; an unexpected, simple invention that changed the world. But it was entirely unintended.

Tea, from the camelia sinenis tree, is the most popular beverage in the world after water, and the most popular hot beverage period. Before the tea bag appeared, barely over a century ago, all tea was sold loose. Today more than 90% is sold in bags (if you include tisanes, or herbal “teas” that figure is about 70%*). For what is arguably the most popular drink in the world, that’s quite a change in a few decades.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York tea and coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan was shipping samples of his product to customers in small silk bags. He expected them to pour the loose tea out before brewing it. But customers didn’t know that and instead plunked the bag into the pot with the tea inside. They quickly found it easier and more convenient than messing about with measuring and cleaning. Sullivan saw the opportunity, and worked on perfecting the design. By 1908 he was selling his bags.

A century before social media accelerated ideas and products, tea bags went viral.** Other American companies started selling hand-sewn fabric tea bags around the same time as Sullivan. In 1930 Salada brought out the first heat-sealed, paper fibre tea bags. The design – a thin flat pouch either round or square – didn’t change much until the 1980s when the pyramidal design was invented in Japan (although not widely used, the design is gaining popularity for whole-leaf teas through companies like Tea Pigs).

teabagWhile big in the USA, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the tea bag took off in Britain, in the post-war, post-rationing bloom of convenience and newness. In 1953, Tetley was the first British tea company to offer bags and the rest quickly followed. Even in the 1960s, tea bags represented only 3% of all tea sales. But by 2007 that was at 96%!

(The Brits have many tea habits that are well described here and you should read George Orwell’s essay on tea here)

Tea bags meant convenience: tea became easier to buy, store, and to shelve. Speciality store sales gave way to supermarkets. The image of tea as an elite drink was eroded by the democratic nature of the easy-to-use tea bag. ***

What changed in the tea world was not just the packaging. The bag changed the way consumers saw, evaluated and purchased tea – by brand as opposed to actual product. This meant marketing became an overriding factor in sales.

Tea leaf readers went out of business. Who reads tea bags? The whole art of tasseography has pretty much vanished. (okay losing some cons and carnies isn’t a great loss to society, but we also lost a useful literary trope and cliché…)

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Neanderthals: a love story

Squat, hairy, broad shoulders, a big nose, beetle-browed with a low forehead. As Blind Willie McTell wrote in his classic song, Statesboro Blues, “I know ain’t good lookin’, but I swear I’m some sweet woman’s angel child.” That line might have been written for early Neanderthal cousins. First described as dim-witted and brutish, our more recent assessment of them is far less critical, especially of their tool-making and culture.

But even the most complimentary of modern descriptions still make them out to be rather lumpish, heavyset characters. Barrel-chested. Robust, we call them today. Big brains, though, and better eyesight than we have. Nice personalities, too, I bet.

And it seems some of our own ancestors loved them for it. You never know what makes the heart strings sing, after all.

Humans and Neanderthals had sex. But was it for love? That’s the title of a recent article on Vox by Brian Resnick. It addresses the complexities behind human-Neanderthal coupling.

And couple they did. The results of which are bound within us, wrapped into our DNA even now: between one and four percent of our genetic strands are from Neanderthal sources.* And they had about 97% of their DNA in common with ours. Who’s your daddy now?

(That Neanderthal DNA is most likely responsible for our plucky immune system, by the way…)

Resnick asks, And asks, “Could a human and a Neanderthal fall in love?” And I reply, “Why not?”
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