Monthly Archives: January 2010

E/F – the glass of knowledge

halfglass-apple-1

E.  “. . . the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked . . .”   Genesis 3:6

F.  “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism,” ll. 215-18

For some, knowledge leads down the path to hubris, a “revenge of the intellect” as Susan Sontag warned (ironically, some might say) in “Against Interpretation” (1966).  For others, knowledge is the source of enlightenment.  Know thyself:  as inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and lived by Socrates, for whom the knowledge of anything was only as good as its limits.

However we look upon knowledge or follow where it leads, it’s almost certain we’ll wind up somewhere never intended, with consequences for good or ill that we may barely understand.  Such is the way of truth.

The glass and St. Rita’s Church

The tumbler is half-filled with Apple and Eve apple juice, all natural, no added sugar, of unknown yet possible relation to the juice of the apples of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  At least that’s what I take away from the company’s name.

The etching on the glass is of St. Rita’s Church, Harahan, which was founded in 1950 by Monsignor Roy Champagne, who was a young priest at the time.  The tumbler was part of a larger set created in 2000 for the parish’s 50th anniversary.

I went to St. Rita’s school from the fourth through seventh grades, and Fr. Champagne (he wasn’t a Monsignor yet) was still walking the grounds with the children and saying mass on Sundays.  I attended church there until I left my parents’ home in 1986.  For many years, I performed with, and then led, the youth choir.  My son was baptized at St. Rita’s.  I now attend St. John’s Episcopal Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but St. Rita’s is a cherished part of my life.  It is a place I return to from time to time, to walk in the past and present, and to reflect on the lessons of knowledge and ignorance in my own life.

The desk and a dual journey from Michigan to Illinois

The tumbler was photographed on my desk, a sturdy workshop piece in the Mission Style, dating from the 1920s or 1930s (I am guessing here).  I bought it in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1997 for $100.00 in rough but usable shape.

IMG_3245

a sturdy writing companion

The desk was made in Michigan, by the Wolverine Manufacturing Company of Detroit.  The company was organized in 1887, according to the tag, and at least this one desk is still going strong.  Wolverine Manufacturing was one of the historical suppliers of parlor and other furniture in the Arts and Crafts style.  I wonder sometimes at the happenstance (some might say magic) by which I took a similar route from Michigan, where I obtained my doctorate in 1996 from the university in Ann Arbor, to Rock Island, where I began my first teaching appointment the same year.

Almost everything that has been posted in truth and rocket science was written at this desk.

Notes and credits

The photos of the tumbler and the desk were taken by the author.

This image of the Wolverine Manufacturing Plant was taken from the State of Michigan’s Twentieth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics (Lansing, 1903), as found on Google Books.

Geotag: St. Rita’s is at 7100 Jefferson Highway, Harahan, Louisiana, 70123.  St. John’s Episcopal is at 139 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn, New York, 11217.

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The truth and amoebas

The mighty amoeba

Your body isn’t your own,
exposed for all it really is:
permeable, full of holes,
part of the world.
A floating thing tossed and spit
on tumbling water not always clear,
you become home to others,
little animals here
at play in the world.
You could be a tree, or grass, under
tiny feet that make no sound of their own,
their steps heard in quickened heartbeats
and restless groans
that shake the world.
You’re full of holes that leave
you open, a window lost of glass,
panes rattling, short of breath,
waiting, waiting, hoping to pass
this sense of a world
stumbling moments from death,
moments from life.

____________

The name of the poem is Sickness.  I wrote it in Belém in February of 1993, as I was coping with the onset of amoebic dysentery.  It was rather a rough time, and this, the worst and latest in a cascade of different ailments since my arrival in Brazil the previous November.  I was adjusting to my new home, I told myself, but I began to re-conceive my relationship to the world.  Except for a bout of the flu at age 9 and a one-day bug at age 13, I’d never been seriously ill in my life.  When I met the amoebas, my body-as-fortress gave way to a new understanding of myself as a being in the world, no different really than a bug, participating in the world along with all the other creatures of existence, open to all those creatures, part of the landscape.  In the world – the amoebas helped me understand Heidegger and Sartre.

We’re all part of the landscape here, guests of each other, parts of each other.  Somewhere in the human genome, shot through my body and yours, there is DNA that we inherited from a common of ancestor with amoebas.  According to Richard Dawkins in his lovely The Ancestor’s Tale, our most recent common ancestor (MRCA in biospeak) would have existed between about 1.3 and 2 billion years ago.  This being, some kind of single-celled thing, would have eventually given rise to amoeba and other protozoans, in one evolutionary path, and the things that became plants and animals on another path.

Most recent common ancestor, collapsed tree

All creation is locked in struggle for the limited energy of this world.  This struggle produces rainforests when so many beings stretch to outdo others in an effort to trap the sun.  The struggle produces abundance as well as scarcity, cooperation as often as annhiliation, and a long-standing collaboration between us humans and the hoards of friendly bacteria (and even some amoeba) that live inside our bodies and help us be “human,” as it were.

Notes and Credits

A really interesting article about amoebas can be found here, by Wim van Egmond, and it includes really great photos of amoebas in action.  The photo of an amoeba at the beginning of this posting is taken from the site, Helpful Health Tips, which discusses the causes and treatments for amoebic dysentery.  More detail on the different kinds of amoebas can be found in this piece on Innvista.  Getting past dysentery meant mountains of Flagyl and a lot of examinations and tests, not only in Brazil but also after I got back to the US in 1993 and in 1994.  I never was the same again, but then again, were we ever?

When I was looking around the web for amoeba-related sites, photos, and such, I came across this company, Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC, and it’s blog.  It has nothing to do with this post specifically, except that it’s a very cool name for a company, and especially suggestive for a software firm.  Our computers and their software are, like our bodies, permeable, full of holes,
part of the world
.  We’ve made information systems in our image, both on purpose and by accident, just as it was presumed by some we ourselves were made.

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The truth and the still

Parintins, Brasil 1993

The still photograph is not so still.  The photograph asks questions.  It suggests a story.  It presents an idea in a language without words.  It is even as it signifies. Video killed nothing, and the still photograph survives (even as the radio star carries on).  Unlike video, you can take the still photograph in.  You have a role in your experience of the photograph.  It speaks to you at a speed that you can handle, that doesn’t overwhelm, that invites your participation and imagination.  You can look into its nooks and crannies and seek out all it has to offer.  All this at your own pace, and for your own reasons.

Snow on Sterling Place, Brooklyn 2005

The still photograph is a water that runs deep.  If it seems to sit there, that’s its charm.  The still makes you active, because it’s impossible to just look.  Indeed, that’s the point, and all the while the still is not nearly inert.  It just moves differently, at a different pace, like a tree.

Detail of a rock on the beach, Long Island Sound, 2009

You fill the stillness with motion, the silence with voices.  You hear these people, feel the breeze come across the flowers, sympathize with a long face or smile with happy eyes.  Or you imagine the immediate suspension of all motion and noise and concentrate on only the image and the miracle of capturing time itself.

Intensity . . .Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2009

Video?  Its harsh, grating noise, the motion too fast to keep up with – video steals your ability to think about what you’re seeing and replaces your mind with its own images.  The difference between the still photograph and video is the difference between democracy and dictatorship.

Fixing the sidewalk, Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Brooklyn 2009

Notes and Credits

On December 15, 2009, I had the opportunity to hear two award-winning photographers, Lynsey Addario and Damon Winter, discuss their work at the Museum of the City of New York.  After the panel discussion, one member of audience asked them if they were experimenting with video, given the prominence of video on the Web and current developments in social media and journalism.  Of course they were interested, but they were still committed to the still photograph.  That’s what got them aroused in the first place, and the still continues to drive them today.  Moderater Kathy Ryan, photo editor for the NYT Magazine, chimed in that photos are still much more popular than videos on the Magazine’s website, perhaps because the photos allow the viewer to control what they are seeing.  So that got me thinking . . .

Sidewalk fixed, December 2009

All the photos featured in this post were taken by the author.  Go back and double-click them to see a larger view.  Enjoy.  If you want to see some interesting and incredible photos by others more talented and adept with shutters than I, check out the work of some friends at T’INGS, Chloe, and the No Words Daily Pix on Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.

Astor Place, New York 2009

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Tamba-Tajá, 3

Nego and his little brother outside the family’s house in Moju.  This the final installment of Tamba-Tajá, the story of a trip to rural Amazonia in 1993.  Double-click the photos to see them in original size.

______________________________________________________

We ate our fill at Nego’s uncle’s place.  It was nice, after a long morning of travelling on a hangover.  We had a lot of things to carry, bags of food and drinks, some clothes, and things from the city that Aluízio brought for the people we’d see on the way.  All fed, we started down the path single file, away from the road, the little house, the clearing, and into the woods.  We were carrying a lot, but behind us we left some sacks of food and other things – we’d be back to get them.

The family farm was a couple more kilometers through the woods.  The trees were tall and lush and green.  Leaves littered the forest floor off the path, which began to turn and then turn back again, as if cutting back to go up a steep hill or mountain, only the land was flat.  Flat and densely covered with trees and shrubs.

After a good bit of walking, we came to a creek – igarapé – that had cut a gorge about 6 feet deep and maybe 20 feet across.  It wasn’t terribly deep, but it was enough to slow us down a bit.  Another 20 or 30 minutes and we arrived at the house, which was surrounded by fruit trees of all sorts.  Huge limes hung from one, and we’d use those limes later to bathe in the igarapé behind the house.  The house was shingled on one side, straight boards on another, with windows open to the air and what seemed like a lot of space as we approached.  You could see through the spaces between the boards.  There was no electricity.  The water came from a well drawn by a hand crank, up to a thousand-liter tank 10 meters up atop a scaffold.  PVC piping brought the water down from the tank and into the house.

On the other side of the path, in front of the house, there were fields of manioc and pepper plants.  Pepper was supposed to the salvation of Amazonian smallholders, a marketable crop easy to grow in the climate and soil conditions.  Some folks made money on it, but few were truly saved.

The women settled into the house.   They wiped the dust from the tables and chairs.  They opened the hammocks we would sleep in and hung them from the house’s frame.  They began cooking.  The man who took care of the place while the family was in Belém came round with the horse, and we took the charrette back to the road to fetch sacks of food and other things needed for the next few days.

Cajú

Later, I went off with the men into the forest.  Aluízio wanted to show me his Amazonia.  We brought a bottle of cachaça (ka-SHA-sa), a clear, potent cane liquor, and we walked along pulling cajú from the trees.  The cajú grows as a fruity, pulpy bulb with a nut, the cashew, hanging from its end.  After a slug of cachaça, you suck on the juice from the cajú to dissipate the burning sensation of alcohol on your tongue.  We did this for an hour, stopping from time to time for Aluízio to show me the plants near the ground and explain each one’s medicinal purpose.

After a bit, we reached the virgin rainforest.  The trees were as large around as any I’d ever seen, taking three or four men to encircle a trunk, hand to hand. They grew high in their struggle for sunlight, competing with each other as they threw up ever larger leaves, leaving very little light to filter down to the forest floor, were it was damp and cool.  In the forest, you feel a chill even as you sweat under the leaves.

Vines hung everywhere and swayed with the gentle breeze that ran through the trees.  Bird sounds came from every direction, a dense concert in the round of cackling and crowing, the flapping of wings and stirring of leaves.  Echoing caws of differing pitch and resonance shot through the distance from near and far.  This was the sound of the forest breathing.

We took a twisted path through the woods and then headed back to more settled places.  We stopped to visit neighbors who lived further from the beaten path, in houses of wattled clay daubed onto wood frames made of sapling branches and topped with palm fronds.  The clay dried hard as bricks, but I thought it must take a beating in the rain.

One man was making birdcages from reeds and bamboo, fine little pieces fitted together.  He caught forest birds and sold them to another man, who took the birds in their hand-made cages to Belém, where he sold them to another man, who in turn sold them on the streets of the city to visitors and local people alike.  Of the three men involved, the one in the middle made the most money.

The farmers were talking about the price of pepper and whether or not they’d make any money this year.  Then the conversation turned to the price of lumber, and Aluízio asked one farmer if he was going to cut the madeira nobre – the valuable wood, like mahogany – on his land.  Some of it might wind up going into beautiful headboards and armoires for sale at specialty importers in Chicago.  Some would wind up as yet another wall for yet another room on yet another house in Jurunas.

Back at the farm, darkness began to close in as the women put out the food for dinner.  Beans with chicken and meat, rice, fruit, bread, crackers, coffee and farinha, the raw manioc flour grown right there.  We mixed the farinha into everything. Farinha de manioc isn’t much to speak of in taste or nutrition, but it stretches the food on your plate and lets you “fool the stomach” into thinking you’ve eaten much more than you have.  It tastes good with the beans and brings a crunchy texture to the soupy froth.

By dark, the house was lit with a couple of kerosene lamps not larger than Bunsen burners.  A soft light, it brought out the curves and contrasts in everyone’s faces as we talked about life, the weather, the family.  OOOOOO-go!, the boy’s mother rang out time and again as the he ran about making noise, upsetting things carefully stowed and stacked and, in general, being a boy.  Nego took out his guitar, and we all went outside to sit under the trees and sing.  Nego played.  His brother played.  I played.  We shared our stories and ideas and adventures.

Between songs and laughter, the forest told its own stories as the birds calmed and other noises came.  Nego told of the time he spent a week at the house by himself.  The forest noises scared him so much he would never do it again.  Aluízio told older stories about jaguars and snakes and mythical creatures who came out of the forest at night and are sometimes men in appearance.  Legend had it that the boto, the pink freshwater dolphin found in the Amazon, would turn into a tall white man in a white hat and white suit, showing up at the village dance to sweep a young girl off her feet and take her back to the enchanted city under the river, where the boto made her his queen.

We became tired and went inside.  I crawled into my hammock and pulled up the sheet under a chill.  I listened to the night forest and fell asleep to the sounds of snoring and swaying hammocks.

Crossing the Moju River, Aluízio, Dona Maria, and Nego (Augusto)

Notes and Credits

The photos for this installment of Tamba-Tajá are all from my 1993 trips to the farm with Nego, except for the photo of the cajú, which is from Wikipedia Commons.  The Tamba-Tajá closed by 1995.  Nego got married and moved to a small town in the interior of Pará, a town much like Moju, where he became a school teacher – music of course.  The small town life in Amazônia is what suited him, so I imagined he was, and still is, happy there.

Writing this post has taken me on an interesting journey through my old photos and Brazilian research material, in search of journals and photographs, things to help jog my memory about certain events.  I know I have a journal entry somewhere on this trip, but I can’t find it.  It’s probably on an old 3.5″ floppy disk somewhere in a box under my son’s bed.  I looked through those boxes just now.  Among other things, I found the daily calendar I kept in 1993, showing the dates of the trip recounted in this story:  I arrived at the Tamba-Tajá around 10 p.m. on Friday, January 8 and came back on Tuesday, January 12.  It was the first of a couple more trips, including Holy Week and Easter, April 8-11.  One day I will find the journal entries and figure out how well my memory has recounted these events so many years later.

The land issues encountered by the smallholders who Aluízio talked with in this story are quite difficult.  I deleted a couple paragraphs from an earlier version of the story that got into those issues; they didn’t work for the story I wrote.  But they are real.  The further south you go from Belém, the more dangerous it gets, southern Pará being rife with more land conflict than any other place in Brazil during the 1990s.  Church people and unionists tried to organize the small farmers and ranch hands, but they were constantly harassed by the big farmers and their henchmen, who as often as not were also the local police.

A good up-to-date article on land issues in Amazônia appears here, by Paulo Cabral for the BBC.  The murder of Sr. Dorothy Stang, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international Catholic religious order that works for social justice and human rights, was a major issue in Brazil and internationally.  A lot more could be written and said about these issues, and I’m working on writing something that was inspired by Rosa Marga Rothe and the Book of Daniel.  Coming soon …

For now, I’d like to leave this story with a photo I took of Rosa Marga and Iza that I took in 1998, not too long before Iza passed away.  They started this story, and so they should end it.

Marga and Iza, Belém 1998

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