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November 19, 2015

Feed Thy Soul

When of thy earthly goods
Thou art bereft
And in thy hand
Two coins are left
Buy bread
And with the dole
Buy hyacinths
To feed thy soul.

Muslihuddin Sadi
13th Century Persian Poet
(slightly paraphrased)

My mother gave me this poem on my 16th birthday, along with a hyacinth bulb, a note of instructions on how to care for it, a pot with soil, and a change in house rules allowing me complete freedom of movement (just bring the car home by 7 am) and a raise in allowance on the condition that I buy all my own clothes. I was a grown-up. I could take poetry. Best gift of my life. I still grow hyacinths. Guess why.

Happy trials, Martin

November 13, 2015

20 Days and Counting

We've been without running water here in Messina for twenty days. The aqueduct (a big tube) broke and well, tough shit. You'd think they could fix it, but they say it's on a slope that's sliding downhill so it'll take months. You'd think they could find a temporary solution, a bypass or something, but they're finding that near impossible as well. It keeps breaking. You'd think they would work round the clock, but they keep losing days of work because they can't get the bureaucrat's permission or whatever. You'd think the leaders would rise to the occasion, but they're passing the buck and running for cover. The news is unreliable. One thing we know: the faucets are dry.

Imagine it if you can. No flushing, no showers, no drinking, no cooking, no dish-washing, no clothes-washing, no water for bars and restaurants to cook with, no water in schools and public buildings for the toilets, imagine the sick and elderly, the large families, the stink, the filth, the risk of epidemic. All the plastic bottles of bought water, will they be recycled? All the 10 and 20 liter jugs, bought for anywhere from 3 euros to 18 each, will they ever be used again? Of course they will. The system is broken, a bandaid won't fix it. This happens almost every year, just not for so long.

Actually, we've had a tiny bit of water in our building because an Army water truck filled our tank a couple times. We also bought a lot of water (ya think someone's making big bucks on our suffering?), and we've learned some things in these weeks.

It is possible to shower and shampoo from a 1.5 liter bottle.
Washing dishes by hand in the sink takes several liters but can be done.
The washing machine, however, doesn't work without water.
When you wash your hands from a bottle, one hand soaps the other pours, rinse, repeat.
Tempers flare in times of crisis. Duh.
All the managers and politicians involved should just quit regardless of demonstrable culpability. We are sick of you.
That huge chunk of the world that never has running water and us are closer now. Not feeling it, but feeling it.

Sicilians are very good at some things, though I can't think of what they are right now, but maintenance and fixing what's broken is not one of them. They say it'll be at least another week, perhaps longer. We say, let's hope we have running water for Christmas.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt:  I got some really funny ones today.
Jeff:  I doubt it.
Mutt:  I'll prove it. A bee farm was started by a man who wanted to keep buzzy.
Jeff:  That's not funny.
Mutt:  A Redneck farmer first used a duck as an alarm clock – it woke him up at the quack of dawn.
Jeff:  That's not funny.
Mutt:  A Filipino man was hired by the circus as a contortionist – he was the first Manila folder.
Jeff:  Ditto.
Mutt:  A slab of stone was discovered with a multiplication problem carved on it – it was the first concrete example.
Jeff:  Ditto.
Mutt:  A special pail was invented for electric milking machines because one good urn deserves an udder.
Jeff:  Ok, I got one. A woman invented a glass diaphragm because she wanted a womb with a view.
Mutt:  An artist invented the traverse rod because he wanted to draw drapes.
Jeff:  Huh? At the first Arabian Embassy ball, everyone danced sheik-to-sheik.
Mutt:  Huh? At the first convention of mathematicians, everyone sat around multiplication tables.
Jeff:  At the first flea circus, a dog came by and stole the show.
Mutt:  At the first Kentucky Derby, the announcer told everyone that “Poison Ivy” was scratched.
Jeff:  A&W opened the first drive-in restaurant for people who wanted to curb their appetites.
Mutt:  Those weren't so bad.
Jeff:  Yes they were.
Mutt:  Messina with water.
Jeff:  Now that's a joke.

October 31, 2015

Annual Quiz Award Ceremony, and the winner is ...

The Infamous P.K.s

They called us simply, "The Worst." The worst behaved, the worst attitude, the most rebellious kids who would never conform, "The Worst." See Alice Cooper. Ministers sons are sons of guns.

Of course, some are little obedient angels who know how to shake hands with adults after church, who act like they own the place, who at an early age could take over for Dad (or Mom). Junior faith healers and Bible salespersons who could get those dollars out of parishioners' pockets with an innocent smile.

Then we all had to grow up our own imperfect ways, some remained sincerely religious, even became preachers (Martin Luther King, Jr.), some took other roads. Beyond the stereotypes and insults. But it was a weight growing up, a bad reputation, not making adolescence any easier.

"Hi, wanna go out?"
"Ew, you're a PK!"
or "Hell yeah, you're the bad-ass wild-child preacher's kid."

The song, "Son of a Preacher Man," popular when I was a teen, didn't help. Nor did the fact that preachers are often moved by their churches, so their kids lose all their friends at a moment's notice. Constantly starting over, like military brats.

Maybe the problem comes from seeing the religion show from behind the curtain (the hypocrisy, judgmentalism, parishioner meanness). The leader followed faithfully by the congregation can be all-too-human back at home. Or living in the so-called glass house, where whatever the children do can damage the parents good name.

Beneath the stereotypes of preacher’s kids as either goody two-shoes or devilish hellions lies a tense and sometimes taxing reality, the children of clergy say. Studies show that many PK’s, as the lingo goes, struggle with issues of identity, privacy and morality. There’s even a support group, Preacher’s Kids International, dedicated to the “celebration and recovery of those who grew up in the parsonage.” (Daniel Burke, Huffington Post)

In my list there are also Rabbis' children, you could add Imams' children, Hindu priests' children, etc. (Catholic priests' children?). And, as my brother pointed out, he and I and the other two boys are not listed but should be. And, as if to make a point, two of us four are still very religious.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt:  Hiya, Buddy. Didya hear? My dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
Jeff:  Let’s talk about rights and lefts. You’re right, so I left.
Mutt:  Oh yeah well, when William joined the army, he disliked the phrase ‘fire at will’.
Jeff:  This means war. The man who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
Mutt:  He drove his expensive car into a tree and found out how the Mercedes bends.
Jeff:  A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class because it was a weapon of math disruption.
Mutt:  What do you call a marketplace that sells weird stuff? A bizarre bazaar!
Jeff:  Being struck by lightning is a really shocking experience!
Mutt:  The Hungary Wales Seattled down and Finnished their lunch, Hamburg-ers with Chiles.
Jeff:  My oh my. A bicycle cannot stand on its own because it is two-tired.
Mutt:  “What’s purple and 5000 miles long?” “Ooh! I know! The Grape Wall of China!”
Jeff:  How do celebrities stay cool? They have many fans!
Mutt:  The reason he didn’t become a juggler was… he hadn’t got the balls to do it!
Jeff:  Do you know what the Kung Fu Panda said?
Mutt:  The who? The what?
Jeff:  “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
Mutt:  For the love of Mike!

October 18, 2015

Annual Quiz 2015

Dear Faithful Readers and Annual Quiz Participants,
Spectacular treasures await you if you can guess what the following people have in common.

In music:
Alice Cooper (Vincent Furnier)
Aretha Franklin
Bernice Johnson Reagon
David Ruffin (Temptations)
Duncan Campbell Scott
F. R. Scott
Faith Petric
Greg Brown
Hampton Hawes
Helen Phillips
Iris DeMent
James Carr
Joan Baez’s parents
Jonas Brothers
Katy Perry
Katharine Purvis (When the Saints)
Kings of Leon (3 Followill brothers)
Lee Hays
Lemmy (Motorhead)
Lizz Wright
Marvin Gaye
Nat King Cole
Nina Simone
Paper Lions (MacPhee brothers)
Pointer Sisters
Portia White
Rita Coolidge
Rhoda Scott
Sam Cooke
Sister Rosetta Thorpe
Tori Amos
W. C. Handy
Wilf Carter
Wyclef Jean

In politics:
Aaron Burr
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Angela Merkel
Bernice Johnson Reagon
Cesare Borgia
Condoleezza Rice
Dorothea Dix
George McGovern
George Stephanopoulus
Gordon Brown
Isabella Beecher Hooker
Jesse Jackson Jr.
John Ashcroft
John Foster Dulles
Kenneth Kaunda
Lester B. Pearson
Lucrezia Borgia
Malcolm X (Little)
Michael Chertoff
Norman Thomas
Woodrow Wilson

In literature:
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Amy Tan
Andrew Marvell
Anne, Charlotte & Emily Brontë
Cleanth Brooks
E. J. Pratt
Elizabeth Gaskell
Erich Segal
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Huston Smith
James Baldwin
Jane Austen
Julius Lester
Pearl S. Buck
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Stephen Crane
William P. Young

In cinema/TV:
Adrian Zmed
Anne Heche
Arsenio Hall
Ashlee & Jessica Simpson
Dana Andrews
Dave & Ian Thomas
David Steinberg
Denzel Washington
Diane Lane
Ingmar Bergman
Missy Peregrym
Sam Kinison
Steve Forrest

Albert Schweitzer
Alfred North Whitehead
Carl Jung
Charlie Manuel
Demitri Martin
Frank Lloyd Wright
Friedrich Nietzsche
Harry Houdini
Ivan Pavlov
Karl Barth
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Michael Chertoff
Nicola Tesla
Phil Jackson
Robert Baden-Powell,
Robert Noyce (Intel)
Sir Christopher Wren
Vincent Van Gogh
Wright Brothers

Need a clue?

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt:  Why did the man throw the clock out the window? He wanted to see time fly!
Jeff:  That is the worst joke I ever heard in nursery school.
Mutt:  I know. I'm truly sorry.
Jeff:  Oh, sure.

Mutt:  How do you know if you've met a Korean vampire? He doesn't have a Seoul.
Jeff:  P.U.
Mutt:  Why do bagpipers walk when they play? They're trying to get away from the noise.
Jeff:  So why do gorillas have big nostrils? Because they have big fingers.
Mutt:  If people from Poland are called "Poles," why aren't people from Holland called "Holes?
Jeff:  Careful, racism alert.
Mutt: I'm truly sorry. You know, my daughter has married an Irishman.
Jeff:  Oh, really?
Mutt: No, O'Reilly!
Jeff: You get one ha for that. Ha.
Mutt:  A man wanted to borrow my newspaper, he asked, "Are you finished?"
Jeff:  I know. You said, "No, I'm Norwegian."
Mutt:  I was arrested at the airport. Just because I was greeting my cousin Jack!
Jeff:  You've never been to the airport.
Mutt:  All that I said was "Hi Jack", but very loud.
Jeff:  You've never been to the airport.
Mutt:  Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?
Jeff:  So what is your favourite music group?
Mutt: I love U2!
Jeff: I love you too, but what is your favorite music group?
Mutt:  Say goodnight, Jeff.
Jeff:  Goodnight Jeff.

September 21, 2015

Jest Reading the Infinite

I bet lots of folks did just like me. I recently went to the local art-house theater (Vine Cinema & Alehouse, Livermore) and saw The End of the Tour, a film about an interview (boring) with a writer (zzzz). It will not be a popular film and could have been awful if not for the fact that the writer in question was David Foster Wallace. The guy playing the interviewer did a fine job acting the part, but the guy playing Wallace (Jason Segel) was scary real. He wasn't acting at all; he was Wallace. When they meet in heaven Wallace will say to Segel: you're more me than me.

So I loved the film, and when I got home to Messina I grabbed my heavy copy of Infinite Jest, of which, like most people, I'd read fifty pages. It's Wallace's tour de force/tour de farce and over a thousand full pages of words, almost an avalanche of verbosity. But this time I'm reading it and loving it.

It's a book about America, as Wallace says in the film. Completely crazy characters do crazy things told by a crazy narrator, letting his talkaholism-thinkaholism run wild, all created by an author who was an excellent wordman, stylistically advanced, and crazy himself.

The book is hilarious, which many people don't get. It's very wry, shaggy-doggish, but, for reference, write in your copy: Hilarious. Then imagine the audio version read by Bill Murray or better yet, Fred Willard. The mudslide of words is meant to overcome you and tickle you. Like when I dared talk to girls in high school I always got: I can never tell when you're joking. The trick is to say the absurd with a straight face.

So lots of people don't get it and drop the book on their toes. Ouch. There are other problems: the 100 pages of footnotes annoy many. Take them in Jest and enjoy the beautiful bullshit. A bigger problem is that it is a very slow book to read, a slog perhaps. That is, it takes a long time to get to the end. Months probably. Harry Potter books are big but blur-fast, Infinite Jest is thick and meaty. However, what is your purpose in reading a book? To get to the end? Scarf down the meal to get to dessert? Speed home from work to sit doing nothing? 'Do' Italy in five days? Is that any way to live? Stop that.

Infinite Jest forces us to have a different attitude. Slow down and savor. Stay in the present. Each page is a little dirty pleasure. If you read this book merely to enjoy the writing then you will; it is extraordinarily good. It is a frighteningly monumental work of talent and skill. This is a fantastic book, better than I'd ever imagined.

You have to read it though, but for amusement not obligation. Get through the first 300 pages just to figure out what's going on. Then taste the bitterness of the vision of a culture gone to hell in infinite pain. And laugh. And get obsessed as the narrator is obsessed with everything, including the elegance of our language. It ain't easy to write perfect single sentences lasting several pages. 
"Scleredema adultorum. Them that seep, the serodermatotic. Come one come all, this circular says. The hydrocephalic. The tabescent and chachetic and anorexic. ..." (187)
I don't know all the meanings, but I get the roll-off-the-tongue joy of big words.

The editor, Michael Pietch, who I met once, apparently cut 250 pages out of the tome. But it's still an inclusive book. Not unrevised, very carefully crafted in fact, not a word out of place, but not abbreviated as we're so used to doing.  When Wallace talks about the truths that one learns in a substance-abuse halfway house, he goes on with sentences beginning with 'That' for seven packed pages. It is an incredible section in a jumble of incredible pieces.

Still the writing isn't show-offy, because it serves the book, not merely the plot but the real book that's always between the lines. It's neurotic, it's weird, but it's not a display of cleverness, like I see so often nowadays. It is a coherent whole. A dark masterpiece. The Great American Novel of legend has been on the shelf since 1996. The American Ulysses. I needed the film to kick my butt. To push me in the lake. Now I'm loving the warm water and don't want to get out.

As I get further along through my Infinite Jest/Quest, I'll keep you updated.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Your Jeffness, I've got a query.
Jeff: Har har har.
Mutt: It means question.
Jeff: Oh.
Mutt: What can you make from baked beans and onions?
Jeff: I dunno, but I asked my wife, I said: Dear, must you spend so much money on food?
Mutt: What'd she say?
Jeff: "Sorry, darling, but you and the kids just won't eat anything else!"
Mutt: Well, y'know dieting is a matter of life and breadth.
Jeff: I read a diet book called: Are You Going the Wrong Weigh?
Mutt: Doctors tell us there are over seven million people who are overweight. These, of course, are only round figures.
Jeff: I dunno. I'm on a seafood diet. Every time I see food, I eat it.
Mutt: Have you heard of the Mexican ghost named Jose? They call him, "No Weigh, Jose".
Jeff: I've heard that some people trade TIT-FOR-TAT, while healthy people trade FIT-FOR-FAT.
Mutt: Tear gas.
Jeff: Scuse me.
Mutt: Tear gas.

September 7, 2015

Requiem by Kurt Vonnegut


by Kurt Vonnegut

The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
"Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do."

The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.

August 31, 2015

Back to Basics

I'm back. Thanks to the kindness and charity of a stranger.  I'll tell you the whole story sometime. Samantha is her name, a far-off voice behind a person of good heart, a trail angel. It could have been a terrible disaster. Everything is fine. Thank you, Samantha.

So I'm back, a bit banged up but on the mend. Throughout the summer nearly every part of my body rebelled against the complacency of wellness. It got comical. It also ruined my vacation. There were some good moments though. I enjoyed the company of my family: Dad, Paul, Dave, Don, Karen, Mike, Mario and Daniela. With time I'll forget how lousy I felt and remember the simple good times. Right now, however, I'm in a "give me medicine" mode.

Your question, of course, is: But are you back? Back to writing your so-called blog, back to littering the sea with bottles filled with messages so cryptic even you don't understand them anymore? We shall see. Right now I'm more interested in this personal newspaper than in the Facebook exhibitionism or the Twitter bombardment. There is too much. Must be. Too much means negative excess. "I love you very much" (sounds like an anniversary) is not the same as "I love you too much" (sounds like youthful infatuation). If you can recognise "too much" when you see it, you're okay.

I see everyone at the airport heads down pressing their phones and wonder what they could all be saying that is so vital. What are all those words disappearing into space like clouds? Why can't the man next to me on the plane turn off either of his phones? Laptop, tablet, video screen. I guess my thoughts, brilliant as they always are, need to cook and then cool before they can be offered. Wouldn't want to contribute to the flood of foolishness as this planet quickly dies and we ignore our incapacity to help Mother.

So we post absurd recipes and read about movie stars in bikinis and send messages to improbable friends like "Zup?" which really means I'm bored, entertain me. So much urgent desperation all around and we're bored. And can't sit still silently. Life is short, baby, gotta fill it up, fill it up. Emptiness (death?) is terrifying. But the secret everyone knows is that emptiness slows life down so that we can catch up.

So each summer I turn off the phones, the computers, the televisions and just hang out. Lay on my back in the pool, ride my bike right and left, cook my meals, read at the library, walk down the street. Anyway, I know you don't miss me. And now I'm back. For good? We shall see.

p.s. A huge thanks to all the friends who contributed to this year's California adventure. Couldn't a-done it without ya!

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt:  Heard any good police reports lately?
Jeff:  I was afraid you'd start telling your awful jokes again.
Mutt:  Nope. True crime stories. They arrested the monkey for throwing feces at zoo attendants. His charge? Turd debris assault.
Jeff:  They arrested the bartender for taking liquor home. I believe the official charge was "emboozlement."
Mutt:  They arrested the former chewing gum manufacturer for unlicensed ex-spearmints. 

Jeff:  They arrested the Chrysler salesman and he couldn't a-Ford bail. 
Mutt:  They arrested the owner of a threatening bull; he was brought up on charges.
Jeff:  They arrested a barber for running a clip joint. 
Mutt:  They arrested the hock shop owner for indecency. He was selling pawnographic materials.
Jeff:  Uncle.
Mutt:  Sorry, but crime is crime. Punsters deserve to be drawn and quoted, you know.
Jeff:  And a good pun is its own reword.
Mutt:  And seven days of punning makes one weak.
Jeff:  Have mercy!