Friday, May 04, 2007

Bernie Sings and Plays

Bernie got a call to sing and play the piano at a hotel lounge for one night.  He asked, of course, if the piano needed tuning, hoping to get two jobs in one.  "Oh no, we're all set," replied the manager, "we get it tuned regularly."

Bernie arrived at the hotel a good hour before he was to perform.  The lounge was pretty empty, so he wandered over to the piano and gave it a tickle.  It sounded terrible, way out of tune.  "Aha, I knew it," thought Bernie.  That's why he had packed his tools, just in case.  He went out to his car and got his tuning wrench and a few felt and rubber muting strips.

He knew he didn't have enough time to do a full tuning, so he had an idea.  He muted all the strings in the piano so each note played only one string instead of the usual three or two.  This made the piano sound better already.  He quickly tuned the unmuted strings, as many in the middle of the piano as time permitted.  Then, leaving the mutes in, he started performing.

It went well.  The piano sounded a little quiet but pretty good, and an appreciative crowd grew.  After an hour, Bernie took a break.  Someone bought him a drink, he chatted everyone up at the bar, but he gave himself time to finish tuning the single strings that he hadn't gotten to earlier.

The second set was great, he could play the upper octaves without flinching, he sang his heart out and people sang along.  By the end of the night, he had a lot of new friends.  When he was done playing, he simply pulled the mutes out of the piano and walked away, leaving some strings tuned and most not.  The piano would sound even worse for the next guy.  "Maybe now they'll call me to tune it," he thought, chuckling.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

George vs. Mahmoud

Ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president of Iran, I have been watching the sand-box struggle between him and George Bush.  Mahmoud has really been tweaking George's nose, which makes George rattle his yellow plastic shovel in rage.  I am not taking this fight lightly - I am terrified by the prospect of war, official or otherwise, between the two countries.  But I am astonished that both men - leaders of countries with large populations that they ostensibly represent - act in public like schoolboys with no responsibility for those populations, or for anything else on God's Earth besides their own egos.

Mahmoud is the better actor.  He has decided to fight George by acting like him.  If Iran is evil, then so is the United States.  If George can wear Jesus on his sleeve, Mahmoud will wear Muhammad.  Any friend of George's is an enemy of Mahmoud's.  And so on.  Interestingly, Mahmoud seems to be fumbling his domestic agenda like George, too, and is beginning to see a similar decline in public support.  Probably, as with George, this will not influence his behavior one whit.

Mahmoud is also probably the better tactician.  George has not shown much taste for the subtleties of diplomacy, rendered a fine art in Iran over thousands of years of history.  Here's a good example.  The US Administration has been going on and on recently about Iran's "meddling" in Iraq, hinting darkly (but without much real evidence) that Iran is aiding the Shia counter-insurgency and threatening US troops. This past weekend, Iran's ambassador, Hassan Qumi, announced Iran's plan to officially meddle in Iraq, by helping with reconstruction, opening a bank, and assisting with security training.  This is a lovely counter to George's finger-pointing:  Iran's plans appear benevolent, and either Iraq is really a democracy, like George says, and is thus free to open and expand relations with whomever it wishes, or the US is really running Iraq, and George is a liar.  Further, Qumi couldn't resist pointing out that Iran was prepared to succeed in Iraq where the US had perhaps not been as successful as it could have been.  Nose tweaked.

There is a lot of fear in this country, probably justified, that such brinkmanship will lead to a military confrontation, or that a confrontation is already planned and inevitable.  There is also a desire, in other quarters, for just such a confrontation, as if Iran were just another Iraq.  I think Mahmoud is betting on no confrontation, or maybe something minor, like a missile strike, which would do little real damage and actually strengthen Iran diplomatically.  The US is too mired in Iraq to actually invade, and Iran is too large and strong.  George might even be planning a proxy attack, using Israel, but I hope the Israelis are too smart for that.  Their little dust-up with Hezbollah in Lebanon this past summer certainly made them look like chumps.  Still, George has a lot of warmongering pals giving him advice.

What got me thinking about George and Mahmoud was a news analysis written by Michael Slackman for the New York Times, published almost two weeks ago.  He describes the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, and explains, with appropriate alarm, how it is spreading across the Middle East.  Of course, for many of us, this is not news.  The conflict itself is centuries old.  The Sunni Al Qaeda has made it clear that as soon as it gets the US out of the Middle East, the Shiites are next.  In Iraq, the US Administration prefers the labels insurgency-counterinsurgency, which does nothing to hide what appears to be a Sunni-Shia civil war, a war that could easily spread.  In fact, not so long ago, George seemed to not know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, or maybe saw the difference as trivial.  I'm afraid, though, that George does know the difference now, and is planning on exploiting that difference.

Shia and Sunni Islam parted over a millennium ago, in disagreement about the true line of spiritual descent from the Prophet Muhammad.  There are other sects and denominations of Islam as well, including fundamentalists, and in this regard Islam resembles sectarian Christianity.  Iran considers itself the protector of Shia Islam, whose spiritual homeland is in southern Iraq, and this explains a lot about the relationship between Iran and Iraq, and between Iran and the rest of the Middle East, where Shiites are outnumbered by Sunnis about eight to one.  Mahmoud is making clear that Iran is a long-time player in the region, not just an opportunistic meddler, which might better describe the US.

It would be the height of cynical exploitation to purposefully pit the two sects against each other with the goal of weakening both, but I think this is exactly what George has in mind.  It was his father, after all, whose job it was to oversee the Iran-Iraq war in the nineteen-eighties, ensuring that neither side gain the upper hand, but that both sides fight until exhausted, economically, militarily, and politically.  This may be why the so-called surge of US troops is much smaller than originally called for.  The goal would not be security, but a continuously "controlled" civil war.  For a while, the Sunnis had the upper hand, but now it is the Shiites who need to be held in check.  With any luck, we can get the two sides to fight each other instead of us.  So part of controlling the Shiites in Iraq involves scaring Iran away from thinking they are in control.  And Iran can be controlled by scaring the predominantly Sunni states into believing that Iran has designs on all of the Middle East.  If this starts a regional sectarian conflict, then fine, because we can control the whole region if that happens.

This is an ancient strategy, of course - distract your enemy with a more hated enemy.  It makes for a bloody and protracted mess.  Sometimes you can get a temporary stability, but these hatreds can fester for generations.  Look at what happened to Yugoslavia after Tito died.  In the end, you can't really control the conflict, let alone make it disappear.  We made Saddam Hussein into even more of a monster by manipulating him during the war with Iran.  He turned on us, perhaps justifiably, and we've been fighting him, one way or another, for almost two decades.  Even now that he's dead, we're fighting him.

England tried the same strategy centuries ago in Northern Ireland, "cleansing" it of ethnic Catholics, repopulating it with Protestant Scots, and then eventually pitting them against each other.  How well did England control that situation?  And for how long, and at what cost, to themselves and the inhabitants?


Tuesday, January 02, 2007


I'm sure by now you've all read the whale vomit story, about the lady who gave her sister a grotesque lump of God-knows-what as a gift.  That's actually the best part of the story - the lady had found the lump on the beach, and had kept it for decades as a conversation piece on her knick-knack table before deciding that her sister needed it.

How the ambergris theory arose, I don't know.  What its new owner has is a big crazy-looking waxy green blob that certainly doesn't look like ambergris.  If it were ambergris, it probably would have stunk up that lady's living room with a scent either strangely alluring or downright revolting.  So it's probably not ambergris, and not the pension she is hoping for, but just the worst gift from a relative ever.

I also don't know how ambergris came to be called whale vomit either, though it probably accounts for a lot of the popularity of the story.  Ambergris is no more whale vomit than an owl pellet is owl vomit.  Ambergris is much much weirder, and even more disgusting than whale vomit.  It's a fatty, smelly deposit related to the kind of stuff that comes out of a gall bladder, secreted into a sperm whale's intestine, perhaps to isolate and help pass an indigestible obstruction.  It exits the whale (probably not at the mouth end, as is often said, since it forms in the intestine) and floats around in the ocean until it beaches and some lady finds it.

Until people knew it came from whales, people did look for it on beaches.  Once they realized it came from whales, they harvested it right from the source, which is why it's illegal to sell ambergris now.  Its presence in a whale is a sign of a problem, like the way a pearl indicates trouble in an oyster.

Ambergris is valuable because it is rare and is considered delectable; it is used both as a scent and a flavoring.  This just proves that humans have probably tried to eat everything imaginable, and maybe it's why I'm fascinated with this story.  One of my all-time favorite quotes is:  "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." (Jonathan Swift)

The first food that came to mind as I read about ambergris was durian.  Durian is a fruit grown in Southeast Asia which, when ripe, has a famously disgusting odor resembling sewage.  Only when it is ripe do the creamy insides offer the flavor that is apparently addictively delicious.  So who first figured that out?  Durian is not valuable, however, because it can be grown in quantity, and the odor does dissuade people from eating it.  And it's not weird when a fruit turns out to be edible, since many are.  But ambergris is another story.

Even civet cat coffee isn't quite as odd as ambergris.  Civet cats are weasel-like mammals who produce a musk used in perfumery, much like ambergris.  In parts of Asia some civets like to eat coffee berries.  Their stomachs digest the berry part, and the bean passes through in their poop.  These beans are gathered, presumably cleaned off, and then roasted for brewing coffee.  It's expensive, but still, it's coffee and tastes like coffee.

Raw ambergris is not obviously attractive.  The smell is apparently a little funky, and I'm not sure what would lead you to try eating it.  Its taste is said to resemble chocolate (unsweetened, I assume).  The odor improves as it lingers, which it does for a long time, a characteristic vital for perfume.  Even then, no one says it smells wonderful; intriguing, peculiar, velvety, there's a lot of room for interpretation; again, a characteristic vital for perfume.

At first, because no one knew where ambergris was from, it could be imagined to have a mysterious and wonderful origin, as was the case with the Biblical manna (thought now to be an insect excretion).  The mystery must have added to the allure.  And once its value was established, there was status attached to the use of ambergris apart from its qualities, not unlike the fad of sprinkling gold powder into a beverage to prove that you can afford such a thing.

The value of ambergris made searching for it on beaches a reasonable venture.  If you had no actual experience with ambergris, and you'd been thinking that you could do with a little extra cash, your imagination could lead you to believe that any unidentifiable lump found on a beach must be the fabled ambergris.  The odds would be way against you, but it would make a great story.


Here's a wonderful first-hand account about ambergris, from a 1933 edition of Natural History.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Grimy Guy

My neighborhood is chock-full of characters.  I suppose I'm one of them - this time of year my resemblance to Santa Claus garners a lot of attention.  Little kids look at me wide-eyed, and start tugging at their moms' sleeves; "Mom, mom, it's Santa!"  Older kids yell "Santa" at me derisively from passing cars, as if I were unaware of the resemblance.  Adults will comment good-naturedly.

Some of the characters are elderly, like Slim, who can always be found, cigar in mouth, sweeping or raking or shoveling the sidewalk, depending on the season.  He'll stop to say hello, admire the weather, complain about "people these days," and then get back to work.

The kids are great characters.  They are surprised that any adult takes notice of them, and are happy to tell very long stories.  They come in clusters, stick around for a couple of years, then move away.  Sometimes I bump into them in town as teenagers or adults years later.  I remember Crystal, who played with her pals in the backyard shared by my house and three tenements.  I knew her name because every day her mother would bellow it out the window in the most threatening way.  We never saw the mom, just heard the roar.  One day, Crystal and her friends rang our doorbell to ask if we could come out and play.  While we talked with her, a monstrous woman came charging up the drive, catching our attention with a familiar bellow.  She looked like the Tazmanian Devil of Looney Tunes fame.  Crystal turned to us with a big grin and said in her little voice, "That's my Mommy!"

Even the landlords are characters.  Roy owned a bunch of buildings here once.  I think he broke every law there is about being a landlord, and did so proudly.  He actually assaulted the Mayor once.  He got arrested for evicting a tenant by going into her apartment, loading up her belongings, and dumping them on the side of a road.  He finally ran afoul of the state, and that was more than he could handle.

There's Big Guy ("Hey Bill, wanna see pictures of me wrestling?") and Mr Crack (it's what happens when he bends over), Camaro Boy (with Camaro Dog and Camaro Cat and Camaro Wife and now Camaro Kid), and Grimy Guy, who I just ran into.  I'm not sure what he does for work, but Grimy Guy looks like he's been held in a dungeon for forty years.  He's missing teeth, and fingers, but he's friendly, and not nearly as scary as he looks.  We'll talk about music.  At some point in his life he played guitar, and violin, and cello.  He played classical music.

My brother, the bagpipe player, once entertained the whole neighborhood by playing out in the yard.  People cheered like crazy, and poor old toothless Kenny, the Vietnam vet, was in tears.  Kenny finally drank himself to death not long after.

You may have gathered that this is a poor neighborhood.  I understand why my middle-class suburban friends find this place scary, but people are still people.  They're living a life, fighting a great battle, looking for a chance to tell their story.  Just as it's easy to over-estimate someone who's well-groomed or well-trained, it's even easier to dismiss someone like Grimy Guy.

We had a visitor whose son was clearly terrified by the neighborhood - this was the closest to poverty he had ever been.  He watched the men out in the yard, working on their cars in the middle of the day, and spoke of them scornfully.  I was angry - how different is under-employed men tinkering with their cars from under-employed teenagers tinkering with their computers?  Computers mean smart, and cars mean stupid I guess.

Little Emma next door was sitting on her stoop crying.  The other kids had been picking on her again.  My wife escorted Emma back to the local basketball hoop, where the kids were, and scolded the kids.  The kids yelled back, "Hey, you can't talk to us that way!"  "Yes I can," she said, "because Emma is my friend."  They retorted, but also retreated.  My wife and Emma shot a couple of hoops together.  Kindness starts at home.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dear Classmates,

It has been some time since my last update, my apologies.  My wife and I continue to be quite busy with our project, and I am pleased to report on our success.

As you may remember, we undertook our Downward Mobility Project some twenty years ago, in a determined effort to balance the income distribution for the members of our class.  Though some of you have made the ultimate goal impossible (we would have to have quite a large negative income to achieve any real balance), we have continued to maintain the project.

I have successfully managed to avoid any form of gainful employment for the full term of the project.  Being self-employed has had its ups as well as downs, and though I have had a number of embarrassingly successful quarters, especially during the 90's, I have managed to remain in the lower 50% income bracket.

Despite all the effort of agents and publishers to lower my wife's income over the years, we decided it would be best to break off that income stream.  My wife has, therefore, embarked on selling her own paintings.  I think you will agree that this is a splendid move in the right direction.

We are very excited to report our most recent initiative - becoming professional musicians.  As far as downward mobility goes, this is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, and that's why we held off making this move for so long.  It was simply too much fun, however, to pass up.  Fun is not inconsistent with downward mobility!

Our home, strategically located in the "bad" neighborhood of a small mill city, has until recently succeeded in resisting any appreciation in value.  The recent run-up in house values has brought us in line with the rest of the state, unfortunately, but we look forward to a correction in the near future.

I know some of you may be concerned that the current political climate has made our work too easy.  Though this is partly true, I would like to reassure you that we are not just coasting on the political realities.  We are actively building on what has been a strong political foundation in support of downward mobility.

Please do not be alarmed by some of our recent activities in web design, graphic design, and music production.  Though they are traditionally successful income-producers, we are actively exploring the lower financial reaches of these activities.  We believe that, in time, and thanks to information technology, these activities will become a commonplace in the exercise of downward mobility.

In conclusion, I would like to share with you some of our plans and dreams.  We continue to hone our skills in the exciting field of blogging, which we feel has real, untapped potential in the pursuit of downward mobility, more so even than, say, novel writing.  And we are just in the planning stages of our next endeavor, the Retirement is Impossible Project, which we feel will be a natural extension of the current project.

Downwardly Yours,

Saturday, November 25, 2006


My wife and I began attending a blues jam nearby.  At the time, we were rank beginners, and not a little intimidated.  The first thing you do at a jam is find The List and sign in.  The jam host is supposed to consult The List when he calls musicians up onto the stage.  Some hosts are better about this than others, but usually The List gets ignored after a half hour or so.

The List at this jam was being managed by a couple who we immediately felt comfortable with.  She was pleasant and talkative.  He was clearly a musician, a guitarist, and he would sometimes pluck at his unplugged electric guitar during the evening.  He was quiet, with an impish grin, and when he said anything, it was usually funny.  He looked like he could have been David Bowie's cousin, with a slight sadness around the edges, and a hint of that burned-out look that rockers got from too many drugs in the 80's.

There are a lot of different reasons why players attend jams.  There are beginners trying to learn, experienced players who just don't have a chance to get out, players looking for work, or trying to hire talent.  New bands will sign up as a group, looking for stage experience.  There are quite a few pros who gave it up years ago, and are trying to get back in - they are sometimes the most shy.  We guessed that our friend was in this category.

We became regular participants at this jam, and would usually sit with the couple.  By now we were comfortable being on the stage, but our guitarist friend never signed up, never joined in, playing on stage.  We would encourage him; "If we can do it, you certainly can!"  But he would just smile, and gently beg off.

One night, a couple of ringers walked into the jam with matching bowling shirts.  They were not only pros, but members of a band, and they had come to show off their stuff and advertise their band.  They were pretty full of themselves, handing out cards to everyone.  The leader was a big black guy who sang and played harmonica, and his sidekick was a sax player.  My wife, who is a beginning sax player, was all excited (this jam had not attracted other horn players yet), but this guy brushed off her enthusiasm with a comment that ended in "I'm a professional musician!"

When their turn came up, they got on stage with a couple of the house band players.  They were good, but we had been turned off by their vibe, so we really weren't paying attention.  In the middle of a song, a loud, unearthly sound emerged from the stage.  Everybody looked around, trying to figure out where it was coming from.  The guys on stage lost their focus, but soldiered on, and that's when my wife and I spotted him.  Our shy guitar friend, the one who never got on stage, had finally, after weeks, summoned the courage to get up, and had chosen this moment to plug in and start playing.  He wailed away, oblivious to everyone else on stage.  He had launched into a psychedelic acid-rock solo, as if he'd gone back in time, and he wouldn't let up.  The harmonica player gamely brought his song to an end, and he and his buddy slunk off the stage and disappeared from the room.

Our pal, meanwhile, exhausted by his time travel, sat back down next to us with his guitar, and said, "Wow, what just happened?"  We laughed and clapped, and he asked, "How was that, was it OK?"  "It was great," we cried in unison, "it was perfect!"  He had no idea, but we regarded him as a hero.  Unfortunately, I think it had been all too much for him, as we never saw him again at this jam.


Friday, November 17, 2006


I have thrown the last of the glossy full-color political "literature" into the recycle bin, and my telephone has been relatively silent for the last week, no longer bedeviled by pollsters and robots.  It was an exciting season here in Rhode Island, where we rarely get any national attention for our political races.  We're all sorry to have given Linc the heave-ho.  He's a nice guy, and we really needed the seniority to offset our tiny representation in Washington (why do you think we kept Pell in for so damn long?), but something had to be done, and by golly we did it.

It's been fun to read all the post-election analyses and commentary.  Some of it has been ludicrous, some of it thoughtful, some of it triumphant.  I especially enjoyed The Onion's story about how outraged the Republicans were to learn that the Democrats were deliberately trying to persuade people to vote against Republicans.

I did notice a feeling among Democrats that this was a collective return to our senses, that people had had enough, and that they finally were able to see through the Republican spin machine.  I would like to have that feeling, too, but something doesn't ring true about it.  The Republicans have been awfully successful at marketing themselves, coldly and efficiently, and I don't believe that people all of a sudden developed a resistance to that marketing.

It's a common and well-known conceit that each of us thinks of himself as resistant to or unaffected by marketing.  There are even specific marketing techniques that work by taking advantage of this conceit.  Marketing is a science, and it builds on research.  And we have all been willing participants in that research, largely by devoting our time to watching television and then running out to buy stuff.  Believe me, the marketers have us down cold.  We're not that complicated.

So when I read a post by Billmon well before the election, explaining why he thought the Republicans might lose this one, I caught a whiff of truthfulness in what could be taken for an air of cynicism:
The Rovians have always acted as if constant, mind-numbing repetition was an absolute virtue - the key to drowning out any competing message.  But the problem is that this gets really BORING after awhile.  And thanks to the invention of the remote control, modern TV is all about changing the channel as soon as the flickering images fail to entertain.

-  -  -

There are two things you can do when a series goes stale:  You can shake things up with new characters and new situations, or you can accept that your appeal is now limited to a gradually shrinking core audience and focus your scripts on delivering what diehard fans really want.

The Republicans may have misplayed an important marketing strategy - keeping your brand fresh.  It's true that the Bush brand has been static for five years.  Staying the course is consistent with the reliable, steadfast, righteous cowboy character Bush has been playing.  And maybe we did get bored, or annoyed, and simply switched channels.  Was this the victory of one marketing team over another?  Is it cynical or is it realistic to think this way?  Possibly both.  Still, I'm enjoying the afterglow, like when the Red Sox finally won the World Series.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Bernie Has a Night Out

Bernie arrived at the shop with a bundle of clothes.  He explained that he was going out that night with his wife.  She was going to pick him up at the end of work, which was unusual, but this was an important event, and she was going to make sure Bernie didn't linger at the shop.  He'd brought clean clothes to change into before leaving so they wouldn't lose any time.

At the end of the day, Bernie's wife arrived, and he stepped into the bathroom to change out of his dusty shop duds.  When he emerged, he looked great, but for one detail.  "Bernie, you can't wear those shoes!" said his wife.  Sure enough, Bernie had forgotten to bring dress shoes.  His shop shoes were filthy, banged-up and worn at the heels.

Bernie thought for a second.  "Oh, I'll fix that," he said.  He wiped his shoes down, and then went over to the shelf where the cans of spray lacquer were lined up.  He picked out the gloss black, and commenced spraying, not even bothering to remove his shoes first.  After the lacquer dried, the shoes looked pretty good, if you didn't look too closely.  "See?  I've got a fix for everything."  Bernie and his wife stepped out for their evening of dining and dancing.  He left behind the black outline of his feet on the floor.

The next day, we asked Bernie how his evening went.  "Oh, we had a great time.  You shoulda seen all the food, they had everything, and there was a whole band playing, we danced all night!"  We looked down at his shoes.  They didn't look too good, big brown splotches showing through the broken black crust.  "Bernie, what happened to your shoes?"  He laughed.  "Well, you know, the lacquer held up OK at first, but as soon as we got dancing, it started to flake off.  I left little flecks of black all over the dance floor."


Saturday, October 21, 2006

My French-Canadian Moment

When I moved to Woonsocket, I already knew about its history as a mill city dominated by French-Canadians.  In Rhode Island, Woonsocket is famously French.  Just don't come here, as someone I know once did, expecting French cuisine.  You'll get meat pies and pea soup (both quite good, by the way).

I knew that my mom was half-French, whatever that meant.  I would ask her about it, and all she knew was that her family came from upstate New York, where it had been for a long time, apparently.  Were they from-France French?  She didn't know.  Her mother could speak French, her grandmother spoke nothing but French, and pea soup was a part of her childhood, but she didn't know where they had come from.  Canada was never mentioned.

In Woonsocket, my wife and I became friendly with the older couple across the street, Marcel and Terry.  Marcel, born in Quebec, was a musician.  We would occasionally catch him playing at local events.  His big hit was the song "Charlie Brown," which he would sing in French.  It was pretty funny, especially the "Why is everybody always picking on me?" part.  Marcel was close with some other musicians we knew, a fact we learned only after Marcel had fallen ill, and was confined to his home.  My wife called up our other friends, and arranged to have the gang of us visit Marcel at home one afternoon.  It was great fun, and it would be the last time we saw him alive.

Woonsocket is home to the largest American-French genealogical library in the country.  It happens to be within walking distance of my house.  In time, I formed a habit of walking over, notebook in hand, to discover the history of my family.  One odd thing for me about living in Woonsocket was that many women in town seemed to resemble my mom for some reason.  Not until I started researching my family's genealogy did it begin to dawn on me that my mom's family was not just French, but French-Canadian.  I was a bit nervous asking her about it, but she really had not ever heard Canada or Quebec mentioned overtly.  She supposed it could be true.  There was a story that her grandmother had been born in Montreal, for instance.

The term "French-Canadian" is confusing.  In the US it is used to mean those Quebec-Americans whose ancestry is French-Quebec, or Quebecois.*  But Canada, like the US, is a melting pot, so "Quebec" isn't really an ethnicity.  To get the ethnic sense of a person, you refer to him as French-Canadian or English-Canadian (or Pakistani-Canadian).  In the case of French-Canadians this is misleading, since the actual connection to France is about three or four centuries ago.  As with African-Americans whose families have been in America for three centuries, the cultural connection with the "ancestral homeland" is pretty abstract.

I do think that "Quebecois" can be used as an ethnic term.  A relatively small number of French came to Quebec during a relatively short period of time, then lived together in relative isolation, intermarried, and created a unique culture over three centuries.  The people are no longer strictly French, any more than meat pie is French cuisine.  And though their language is obviously derived from French, even the French can't understand it.  So why did my mom know she was French, but not Quebecois?

We went to Marcel's wake at the funeral home down the street.  His mother and many of his siblings were there, some having journeyed from Quebec.  The room was lit an eerie pink, and packed with older people who all seemed to be speaking French.  Some of the people we recognized from the neighborhood.  It was lively, like a giant family gathering.  We introduced ourselves to Marcel's mother, who spoke to us in French until my wife explained that she only knew "un peu," which made everyone listening laugh.  Then a priest called for attention, and conducted a brief service.  This was followed by a statement, a reminiscence, read by one of Marcel's friends.  All of this was in French.  We were immersed in a part of Woonsocket that we normally only glimpsed.

My mother grew up in Barre, Vermont, as did her parents.  Her grandparents, both sets, had come to Barre in about 1890 to work in the granite industry, an industry so grand at the time that stoneworkers were regularly recruited from all over Europe.  Though a small city in the middle of Vermont, Barre hosted several ethnic communities.  These communities arranged themselves socially based on the status of their work in the granite industry.  Italians were the prized stonecarvers, they were at the top of the ethnic ladder.  The Scots were trained stonecutters, right below the Italians in status.  At the bottom were the unskilled laborers, more often than not French-Canadian.  In fact, French-Canadians were recruited as strike-breakers whenever there were labor disputes.  This did not help their status.

My mother's mother came from a line of French-Canadians who had left Quebec generations earlier, before 1840.  They had worked in New York's Ausable Valley, had fought in the Civil War, and generally regarded themselves as Americans.  When she married another Barre native, a Presbyterian Scot, in 1923, it was a scandal, but hadn't her family been in America longer than the Scottish family?  Hadn't her family been in America long enough to be called American rather than Canadian?

A couple of weeks after Marcel died, his friends and family held a musical tribute for him.  The tribute took place at a performance hall run by one of the musicians we knew.  The hall was packed, and there were several different groups of musicians who played fiddle tunes, French songs, and Country-Western songs.  The MC kept everyone entertained in French, sometimes translating into English (but not the jokes).  What most impressed me was when the entire audience sang along with the French songs.  The songs reminded me of songs my mother had learned from her mother.  I don't know if they were French songs, she never sang them in French, but the melodies had a similar lilt to what I was hearing that night.  It was dawning on me that I, too, was French-Canadian.


* I am using the word "American" here to mean someone from The United States, though technically anyone from South, Central, or North America, including Canada, is an American.

Friday, October 13, 2006


While reading about the attack at the Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, a detail caught my attention.  This is from the New York Times,* October 5th:
Lil Nissley, whose daughters had been playmates with one of the victims, said she was at the farm where those fleeing the schoolhouse - the male students and the adult women - had taken refuge.  "Any outsider would have said, what's wrong with these calm people?" she said.  "I mean, we were crying, we were praying, but we weren't hysterical."

But Ms. Nissley and her husband, David, who are not Amish, said the composure was a matter of culture and training, not suppression.  "Their blood runs red," Mr. Nissley said.

This couple is apparently addressing a comment or criticism that was made about the Amish, but not mentioned in the article.  The comment must have been about the apparent lack of emotion expressed by the community, a lack that must have seemed a flaw in Amish character:  perhaps the Amish were emotionally cold, the effect of isolation or of a cult-like element in their religion.

The response deserves attention.  The Amish do not lack emotion, of course; "their blood runs red."  But their calm is the result "of culture and training, not suppression."  In other words, calm is a refined skill, and does not indicate a lack of something.  If you practice calm, you should expect calm as a general response to life.

Conversely, if you practice hysteria, panic, and emotionality, don't be surprised if you have hysterical, panicked, and overly emotional responses to everything.  You can't simply add a little calm on top of this and expect it to work.  And overly emotional responses, however satisfying as drama, are not the same thing as healthy emotion.


* link here, subscription needed to view entire article.
Here's a lovely and sympathetic take on the Amish response to the attack.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ye Olde, Gone Berserk

I've always loved the affectation "Ye Olde . . ."  The attempt to establish venerability is laughably misguided.  And as a marketing strategy it isn't even remotely convincing; therein lies its charm.

I remember going on vacation as a child, before interstate highways existed.  You could travel a hundred miles - it would take three hours - and wind up in a world utterly different from where you began.  My family really wanted to get away, so we would drive 6 or 7 hours to spend a week at a cabin on a Vermont lake.  Inevitably we would pass through two or three ye olde tourist havens.  There would be "authentic" rustic trading posts and Indian villages, general stores and log cabins.  There would be larger-than-life wooden statues of bears, Indians, and lumberjacks.  One particular trading post had an outdoor platform advertising a live dancing bear.  The traffic would always be terribly slow, giving us kids plenty of time to harass our parents to please stop and let us watch the bear, or buy salt-water taffy.  Mom and Dad were not fooled by "ye olde."

"Ye", as an alternative to "the," is an accident of technology.  Old English made use of an Anglo-Saxon letter called "thorn" to indicate the sound we know as "th."  It looked like this:  Þ or þ.  During the Middle Ages, "þ" was eventually replaced by "th," except in common words like "the," which looked like this:  þe.  When printing came to England, printers looked for an alternative to "þ," which they didn't usually have in their lettersets.  A handwritten "þ" looked like a capital "Y," and so "Ye" was born (often looking like this:  Ye).  It was still meant to be pronounced "the," but eventually everyone came to pronounce it "yee."

So "Ye Olde Clock Shoppe" is meant to signify age, and thus authenticity.  The fact that "ye olde" is used for the least authentic establishments gives it its campiness.  Modern usage is meant for sentimentality (those good ol' 1950's!) when it isn't being just plain quaint, or wrong-headed.  One of my favorite modern uses is a window store in Warwick RI that inexplicably calls itself The Window Shoppee, with the extra "e" thrown in for emphasis, I guess.

I met a guy once named Bob whose life appeared to be taking place in the eighteenth century.  He wore period clothing when he could, wore an antiquated hairstyle, and had appropriately remodeled his house, right down to clever ways to hide modern amenities like electrical outlets.  We called him Ye Olde Bob.

Recently I played a gig at a bar in the basement of The Ancient Mariner Inn, in Foxboro MA.  It's one of those old hotels you can still find in some town centers.  Before the gig, I tried to locate the bar in a phonebook or an online listing, but I had no luck until I finally stumbled across it - the official spelling is "The Ancyent Marinere."

I knew it was probably just a local dive, but I sure was hoping that the hotel would have an old, dilapidated, possibly neon sign with "The Ancyent Marinere" in big 1950's letters.  You know the kind of sign I mean.  They used to be all along highways like US Rte 1 and US Rte 6, advertising motels and restaurants and miniature-golf courses.  This was prime "ye olde" territory, though much of it is gone now.

But modernism had taken its toll in Foxboro as well, and to my disappointment I was greeted with a modest, newer sign that said "The Ancient Marinere."  The sign was probably put up the same time as the vinyl siding.  I was cheered by that extra "e," though, and at least in the phonebook you can still find "The Ancyent Marinere."


Here's Wikipedia on "ye" and "thorn."

Friday, September 22, 2006

My Irish Moment

There was a time when friends of mine were hosting musical events in their home.  These home concerts were small, cozy events with food, drink, and traditional Irish music.  This family occupies a central position in the local Irish music community, a community that my wife and I are only peripherally connected to.

I have played traditional Irish music, and I understand and appreciate it, but I've never been crazy about it.  I have plenty of Irish ancestors, but that connection has not compelled me, as it has others, to identify with the music.  In fact, my surname is technically Scottish in origin (Colquhoun).  Add to that the Scottish ancestry on my mother's side, and my family has good cause to identify more with its Scottish roots.

A half-dozen years ago I began compiling and researching my family's genealogy.  The issue of ethnicity became clouded at once:  among my ancestors were Scots-Irish, Irish-Scots, Anglo-Scots, French-Canadian-Anglos, and Scots-Irish-Canadians.  It also became clear that my Calhoun forbears probably came from northern Ireland.  The connection to Scotland (if there was any at all) would have been back in the 17th century.  It made me a bit nervous to announce to my family that we were a lot more Irish than Scottish.  We knew nothing of Ireland, but we had all learned ancient Colquhoun history, we had clothing made from the tartan, some of us had visited Scotland, and one of my brothers had learned the whole kilt-bagpipe thing (he's really good at it, too!)

It was shortly after my father had died that my wife and I began attending the home concerts.  One of the concerts featured a fiddler living in New York but who had been born in Ireland.  During his performance, he told us that he had grown up in the western part of Tyrone County, near Donegal, in northern Ireland.  He mentioned the town, noting that probably none of us had ever heard of it, but I had:  it was the town near where my Calhoun ancestor had probably emigrated from, a fact that I had just recently unearthed.

So I was thinking about my dad, and about my Irishness, while the music played.  One of the tunes was by the famous Irish composer O'Carolan, who was a contemporary of Bach's.  My father loved Bach's music; he probably would have loved this traditional music, but he knew nothing about it.  For my dad, Irish music meant "Danny Boy."  And I could have introduced him to this music many years ago, but the thought never occurred to me.  We were Scottish, after all.

My father grew up Catholic in South Boston, which is about as Irish as you can get.  Our family had been there since the 1870's.  But no one had ever questioned the family's assertion that it was Scottish.  Apparently this concept, based on a technicality, provided solace and identity for a family struggling, like all the others, in an impoverished ghetto.  Certainly my father was eager to escape, and distance himself from his history.

I spoke with the fiddler after the concert.  He was excited that I knew about his home town, and he said I was lucky to know, even if only roughly, where in Ireland my ancestor had come from.  A lot of Irish-Americans have no idea.  Yes, I thought, I am lucky, and lucky to have realized, before it was too late, that this beautiful music actually applies to me.


Monday, September 18, 2006

The Neanderthals are Coming!!

Neanderthals are back in the news.  Evidence has been found that seems to locate Neanderthals in the caves of Gibraltar some 28,000 years ago.  This is news because it was thought that the Neanderthals had become extinct two thousand years earlier.  There is poignancy to the discovery; the researchers describe the caves as the "last stand" of the Neanderthals in Europe, and thus on planet Earth.

The last stand against what?  No adversary is named.  The press release describes the caves as providing shelter and "last refuge" from eventual "displacement," but the question remains.
The findings, which show that Neanderthals lived alongside modern humans for thousands of years, bring fresh evidence to the debate on what happened to our evolutionary cousins, and whether modern humans drove them to extinction.

"Living alongside our cousins" sounds so neighborly.  How sad that somehow our neighbors the Neanderthals were "driven" to extinction.

I've encountered this language before in writings about the Neanderthals and their extinction.  The extinction is usually described as just happening over the course of time, coincidental with the appearance of Modern humans in the same regions.  Were the Moderns responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals, and if so, how?

When I was younger, Neanderthals were depicted as hairy and primitive.  They were the typical cavemen, grunting, low-slung, and hitting things with clubs.  The Moderns, so obviously more sophisticated, "advanced" into West Asia and Europe, "displacing" the hapless Neanderthals, who apparently just withered away at the sight of such superiority.

Today, the picture is a little different.  Neanderthals are understood to have been much more complex than we thought.  They weren't as hairy, were excellent hunters, had a social organization that cared for the injured and elderly, and practiced burial rites.  They might have had some language, they created and possibly traded cultural artifacts, and even learned from the Moderns. 

The shortfalls of the Neanderthals are described in much more technical terms:  they were less able to adapt to the cooling climate of the time; their hunting techniques were less effective than those of the Moderns; their diet was less adaptable maybe; they didn't migrate as readily and thus engaged in much less trade than did the Moderns.

So it wasn't that the Moderns were so superior, it's just that the Neanderthals didn't quite have what it took to "compete."  They simply dwindled away, died off, the poor things.

Here's a typical way the story is told*:
Jan. 27, 2004  -  In a prehistoric battle for survival, Neanderthals had to compete against modern humans and were wiped off the face of the Earth, according to a new study on life in Europe from 60,000 to 25,000 years ago.

-  -  -

"My general take on Neanderthal extinction was that they were in competition with anatomically modern humans at a time when there was increasing severe cold stress that was not only affecting them, but also the food resources they relied on," said Leslie Aiello, head of the University College London Graduate School, and an expert on Neanderthal response to weather.

-  -  -

Paul Pettitt, a Neanderthal expert at the University of Sheffield who agrees with the new study findings, said, "[Early Modern human] toolkits reveal a very sophisticated range of weaponry.  Far from general purpose spears deployed in the hand, we now see specialist projectile weapons (javelins) perhaps thrown with the aid of spearthrowers to increase effective range," Pettitt told Discovery News.

-  -  -

With such technologies, our ancestors won the prehistoric battle for survival.

Notice that there is no overt mention of how the Neanderthals were "wiped off the face of the Earth."  They simply failed to "compete."  As if the little Neanderthal children just didn't score as well in school.  Or they couldn't afford to keep their caves heated.  And yet there seems to be some gloating about the "sophisticated range of weaponry" that allowed Moderns to "win."

Given your own understanding of modern Modern humans, and what they tend to do with sophisticated weaponry, can you begin to guess how the Neanderthals became extinct?

Paul Pettitt, the Neanderthal expert quoted above, writes less equivocally for his peers**:
It must have seemed, in some areas, that Neanderthals had little to offer modern humans - except competition.  In these areas, the attitude may have been to kill first, ask questions later.  For too long we have regarded the extinction of Neanderthals as a chance historical accident.  Rather, where Neanderthals and modern humans could not coexist, their disappearance may have been the result of the modern human race's first and most successful deliberate campaign of genocide.

So not everyone is afraid to come right out and speak the obvious:  Modern humans killed off the Neanderthals.  There is no mystery to their extinction at all, and I'm afraid that any poignancy we express is just alligator's tears.  But why would we be so circumspect about human behavior that is so obviously evident?


*Discovery Channel news brief, 1/26/04.

**Paul Pettitt's essay in British Archaeology is excellent, but revolves around a finding that is somewhat more in question now than it was back in 2000.

Jared Diamond (author of the wonderful Guns, Germs, and Steel) also brings up the genocide argument.
Here's Wikipedia on Neanderthal extinction.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Not For Nuthin'

My favorite Rhode Island-ism is the phrase, "Not for nothing."  Aside from the unique pronunciation (full of glottal stops and omitting the "g"), the phrase has a particular meaning in Rhode Island discourse.

"Not for nothing" does have a regular, literal use.  It means "for a good reason."  Consider:  "It's not for nothing that ducks have webbed feet."  The phrase is a little inelegant, with its Yiddishe double-negative, but it has a certain rustic appeal.  It can carry a shade of derision:  you'd be stupid not to know why ducks have webbed feet.  It can also convey obviousness:  everyone knows why ducks have webbed feet.  (Rhetorically it is called a litotes.)

In Rhode Island, however, it usually goes like this:  "Hey, not for nothing, but . . . "  The phrase invariably precedes a statement of opinion, and seems intended to prepare the listener for that opinion.  Its literal meaning lost completely, the phrase becomes a mere signal, a flag:  hold on, something's coming.

There seem to be many colloquialisms meant to buffer the blow of a direct opinion, particularly of an opinion that might be unwelcome or uninvited.  I think of the Minnesotan opening:  "You know, some guys would . . . "  You can see the need for this.  "You know, what you oughta do is . . . " can be too direct, almost insulting.  What follows could be taken for fighting words.  So instead there's a softening first, a show of respect, a sign that no hard feelings are intended.  The recipient is free to take or leave what is said.  "You know, some guys would wear a coat in this weather."

The Rhode Island "not for nothing" is necessary because the opinion to follow is usually blunt and unflattering.  It announces, "I am about to state an opinion, and my apologies if it is a little strong and brusque, but I feel I must have my say."

Thus:  "Hey, not for nuthin', but your brother's an asshole."


PS  This use of the phrase is not limited to RI, of course, but can be found in working class neighborhoods up and down the Eastern seaboard.  Here's a great take by a New Jerseyite.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Tale of Two Keyboards

This story is true, but with altered names.

I went to play music at an open blues jam recently.  I arrived at the club expecting to see Percy, a friend and fellow pianist.  Sure enough, he was there and had already set up his rig.

Every keyboard player has a rig, and it varies from simple (and easy to carry) to mind-bogglingly complicated and big.  I tend towards simple, and Percy weighs in a little above average.  There's widespread camaraderie among keyboard players, mostly because there aren't so many of us, and because our playing styles vary so radically that the competition tends to be friendly.  If we run into each other at jams or gigs, we tend to compare rigs in the way that men compare cars.

I was familiar with Percy's usual rig:  a full-sized and heavy keyboard on a regular stand, a folding bench, and a huge amp on wheels (he also carries a second full keyboard in his car).  This particular night he had replaced the amp with a big PA head and an even bigger speaker cabinet.  It had taken him a while to set it all up.

There is usually a host band running the jam.  This band will start things off, then manage the coming and going of guest musicians, then finish the night.  It is generally understood that some of their equipment is available for use by the guests, but it is still polite to ask.  When the host band does not have a keyboard, as was the case this night, a guest can set his up, but he is not usually required to share it.

Percy had had a bad experience at this club.  His keyboard is specialized and expensive, and someone had once turned it on and started playing without his permission.  He had gotten pretty sore and told the manager that his keyboard was to be, henceforth and forevermore, off limits.  Percy and I are friends, and I've played his keyboard before at other venues, but tonight he was apologetic in explaining that, for the sake of consistency, the keyboard was still off limits, even to me.

Here's my rig for open jams:  an itty-bitty keyboard controller on a regular stand, with the sound provided by a Hammond organ module velcroed inside the stand.  I play it standing up, with a volume pedal.  I run it through the house PA, so there's no amp.  It's simple and effective, and small enough to set up and break down quickly, and not get in the way.  Nonetheless, in this small club, it would have been one keyboard too many, but I thought I would ask Vinny, the manager, anyway.

The host band this night was, as it often was, Vinny's band.  He also books all the weekend bands, and manages the open jam each week.  Vinny is a true crazymaker.  He means well, but he has too much energy and too little judgement.  One time he pulled me off the keyboard in the middle of a song so a pal of his could play.  Put a guy like that in charge, add a little alcohol, and you have a recipe for a lot of upset musicians.

Vinny seemed to have forgotten about Percy's off-limits policy, and since there was yet a third keyboard player in the house, Vinny declared that Percy's rig had to be either shared or removed.  Strong words were passed between Percy and Vinny; there was pushing, but no fisticuffs, and Percy began breaking down his unused rig.  All this was happening while music was being played.  I felt bad - it took every bit as long for Percy to remove his rig, with smoke coming out his ears, as I knew it had taken to set up.  Maybe if I hadn't said anything to Vinny this wouldn't have happened, but I understood that this was about some unhappy history between the two men.  As my clear-eyed wife explained, I had stepped on one of Vinny's land mines, and it wasn't my fault.

So finally it was time for Raoul, the other keyboardist, to set up.  I had never met Raoul before, so I watched closely as he assembled his rig:  full-sized keyboard, stand, bench, laptop computer, MIDI/firewire interface, mixing board, amp head packed with effects, giant speaker cabinet.  Assembly took as long as you could imagine, plus endless fiddling with the computer.  Finally, Raoul's piano sound emerged from the speaker.  It sounded terrible.

Vinny wanted to make amends, so he quickly invited me up on Raoul's keyboard.  I took my position on the bench, dropped my hands on the keys, and there was no sound.  Someone had inadvertently pulled the plug to Raoul's rig.  When he reconnected, there was still no sound.  He twiddled knobs, messed with the computer, switched things off and on, to no avail.

"Listen, I'm sitting right over there.  Just let me know when it's working," I said.  Musicians got up on stage, played a few songs, were replaced by other musicians who played a few more songs.  Finally, I could hear that the piano was working again, and Raoul signaled to me.  I sat down at the keys and jumped into the song being performed, but something was wrong.  There was a delay between when I hit the keys and when there was sound.  About a quarter of a second, I guessed.  I tried again, and the drummer glared at me.  "Raoul, what's with the delay?" I asked.  He fiddled with the computer.  Now the delay was about one second long, which was entertaining but no help.  "Listen, I'll be sitting right over there.  Let me know when you get it fixed."

Vinny was concerned; "Why aren't you playing?"  "I don't think he knows how to work his rig," I answered.  But then Raoul waved me over.  I sat and played, and there was the delay again.  I looked at him, and he shrugged his shoulders.  "I guess I've gotten used to it," he explained.  My jaw dropped.  I stared in disbelief.  "You mean you play ahead of the beat by a quarter second?"  I asked.  Without waiting for an answer, I just said, "Well, thanks for trying man, but I can't play your keyboard." 

So I was done for the night.  Vinny had not redeemed himself, he just had gone from The Keyboard That No One Was Allowed To Play to The Keyboard That Was Impossible To Play.  I wasn't upset.  I don't get to witness karma working that quickly every night.


Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bernie Gets the Job Done

A woman brought her piano to Bernie to have the finish touched up.  She also brought her favorite houseplant.  "Please change the piano's color so it matches my favorite plant," she instructed.

Bernie worked to clean up and prepare the surface of the piano.  He also remembered to water the plant so it wouldn't die.  Finally, days later, Bernie got out his cans of colored lacquer and commenced spraying.

It was quick work at first.  He was able to get a close match, but it wasn't quite right.  He tried adding a little more of this, a little that, but it still wasn't right.

"I know what I'll do," he muttered.  He picked out another color, and sprayed the plant.

"It's perfect!" cried the customer when she came to inspect the work.  She took her plant home, and Bernie delivered the piano.

About a week later, the customer was back in the store to buy some music.  "The piano's beautiful, but you know that favorite plant of mine?  It died soon after I got it home.  Funny - did you remember to water it while it was here?"

Oh I sure did," replied Bernie.  "But you know plants - they'll die on you no matter what you do."


Sunday, August 27, 2006

Fear as Entertainment

With the recent scares about airline safety, the discussion has come up (again) about the use of fear as a way to manipulate and exploit people.  Here's an example of such a discussion from Glenn Greenwald's blog:
Personally, I don't blame anyone for having irrational thoughts and fears prior to flying.  Our brains generate irrational fears in all sorts of different situations, and particularly with the fear-mongering and relentless media hyping of every rumored terrorist threat, it is hardly surprising that people will have these thoughts.

But the point here is best illustrated by analogy.  "Courage" is not the absence of fear, but is instead the taking of action notwithstanding that fear.  Identically, "rationality" is not the absence of irrational fears or thoughts, but is instead the choice not to allow those fears and thoughts to dictate behavior.  The blame lies not with those who entertain such fear, but with those who allow it to govern their conduct, and more so, those who purposely stoke and exaggerate those fears due either to their own fears and/or because doing so is to their advantage.

Why does it seem so easy to agitate people, thoughtful, well-meaning people, with fear?  One explanation is often overlooked – fear is entertaining.

Actually, any strong emotion can be entertaining.  People enjoy the stimulation of a strong emotion even if the emotion (or the event that triggered it) is regarded as negative.  This is, of course, a built-in attribute we share with many animals.  My dog once quite dramatically charged a plastic lawn deer until she realized it wasn't going to move.  I was pretty embarrassed (my vicious little doggie!) but she wasn't.  She wagged her tail and was obviously invigorated and pleased by the whole event.

We are entertained by fear when we watch a scary movie, or ride a roller coaster, or imagine terrorists sitting next to us on the plane.  Television provides such a wealth of entertaining fear, especially on the news, that I call it The Fear Machine.  We seek out such entertainment, and actually invite specialists (entertainers, salesmen, politicians) to entertain us.  If we train ourselves (through, say, daily television viewing) to expect constant entertainment, we can become obsessed.  We can actually believe that something isn't important or serious or necessary unless it is entertaining.  We work to extract entertainment out of our most mundane, or most sublime, experiences, and in the process miss out on more subtle, important benefits.  You can eat candy for dinner – it entertains your mouth plenty, but don't expect any nutrition.

So yes, fear mongers can manipulate and exploit us while we are occupied by our fear, but don't discount our own role in accepting and asking for fear mongering, and in maintaining an environment where fear is valued for its entertainment quality.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Ghost of Planet X

Update Below

Recently, a group of astronomers met to begin deciding a weighty question - should the planet Pluto really be called a planet?  (Background here.)  At the end of the day it was clear that nobody was ready to demote Pluto.  Instead, a new definition of "planet" was proposed, a definition specifically designed to include Pluto (without including too many other planetoids orbiting the Sun).  So much for scientists being rational and unsentimental.  I don't care about Pluto's scientific status, but I am fascinated by the sentimentality.  We appear to be haunted by the ghost of Planet X.

Percival Lowell was a wealthy Bostonian who occupied himself as a "gentleman scientist" in the late 1800's.  He had enough wealth to build and run an astronomical observatory in Arizona.  He also had enough money to widely publicize his thoughts and observations, and thus it was that he planted his first ghost in the American psyche - Martians.

Lowell was aware of the observations of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli, who had published drawings showing surface details, including what he labeled "canali."  Lowell took the word literally to mean canals, something deliberately built, and convinced himself that there must be canal-building Martians.

Now, the idea of Martians is so imbedded in our culture that it can seem odd that 1) we are unique in this regard, and 2) one person started the whole idea of Martians.  Of course, in the 21st century, no one really believes that there are Martians, but just to be sure, we have been sending spacecraft to Mars for some time now, looking for them. As I write this, there are two rovers ranging about the surface of Mars looking for signs of water.  Why water?  Water supports life, and life means Martians.  Maybe the life is just microbial, or maybe we'll just say that Mars could have supported life in the past, but we're still looking for Martians.

During Lowell's life the planet Neptune was discovered.  Neptune is invisible to the naked eye, and its existence had to be inferred.  Locations were calculated, and eventually the planet was spotted by telescope.  There also seemed to be evidence that maybe there was one more planet out there, and Lowell took the bait.  The great American astronomer would attempt to find Planet X.

Lowell did not find Planet X in his lifetime.  The task was passed on to Clyde Tombaugh, who never once questioned the existence of Planet X in spite of nobody ever finding it where it was supposed to be.  To be fair, no one knew then what we know now - the evidence was flawed, and there is no Planet X.

But what about Pluto?  When Lowell envisioned Planet X, he pictured a giant gas planet like Uranus or Neptune. He had calculated where it should be, and it wasn't there.  Tombaugh gave up this particular search, and just systematically started looking everywhere remotely possible.  It was almost miraculous that he was able to find a tiny ball of ice smaller than our Moon, and of course he assumed it was Planet X.

So the idea, the ghost, of Planet X, a great planet out in the unknown, just beyond our seeing and our calculating, infiltrated our imaginations.  When it became clear, over time, that Pluto was not the Planet X Lowell had hoped for, the idea of Planet X still remained.  If Pluto, a small planet, was all we had for now, well then all right.  When Michael Brown discovered the planetoid he calls Xena, and it turned out to be bigger than Pluto (by a hair), wasn't all the tenth-planet excitement really about the unfulfilled promise that there must be a Planet X?

To demote poor Pluto further would be almost admitting there is no Planet X, and that would be like denying Martians.  How many other ghosts comfort us like this in the night?


Update: 24 Aug 06

A larger international body of astronomers have decided that Pluto is not a planet after all.  However, in deference to Pluto's former status, they have created a category called "dwarf planet" to which Pluto now belongs.

Here's Mike Brown's homepage where you can read his reaction to all this, plus his op-ed for the NYT.
And here's Wikipedia on Planet X.

(My friend Mike has alerted me to the possibility that Rhode Island might now be classified as a dwarf state.)