Thursday, March 26, 2015

Poetics of Keeping Three Wishes Ready

The other morning it was a touch below freezing, and despite small patches of snow far off to the side, there was no snow beside the sidewalk, only frosty grass. It felt like the world was young and I was on a fresh morning walk to elementary school. (Of 1¼ miles or 2 kilometers) It felt like back when I memorized the start of that fairy wishes poem. Today I “search engined” for it, finding a most delightful blog posting (footnote) where two friends have experienced posting wishes on their refrigerator—with two different results.

As for my own wishes—
Today I wish to do my every-25-posts summing up…

Why? Because today the time has come around: My administrator’s page of 25 essay titles has filled up again. What have I learned? Maybe a bit about human nature. I have previously found out several times, always by accident, that I’ve been translated into several languages. That’s fine. Yet I don’t think I’ve been translated at all ever since I put into my About Me sidebar a request for translators to leave me a comment. (I believe one of my translations was into Turkish, but I can’t tell for sure) Maybe it could be easier for humans to not translate if this must involve the effort of typing in a couple lines to say, “Hello Sean, I’m translating from Xanadu for the benefit of my fairy ring…”

I imagine my site as a modest blog with modest readership, one where I might have to close one eye to the blog statistics, to avoid discouragement, saying to myself “Maybe some day it will get more readers.” Sometimes I click to see the titles of my “top ten” posts for “all time.” It’s nice to look… but I find no guidance for what makes a hit.

Well, the other day I finally thought to click on the “overview” graph for “all time.” Surprise: I have really increased my stats over the years—sweet. I guess I have been mislead by the ongoing hit counts. Due to technical reasons, the experts at Google, who run Blogger, can never register the hit counts for my latest essay: They can’t count home page hits. Don’t you wish there was an app for that? I suppose I could whip up a home page, (it’s easy) and then have people click through it onto my latest essay, and then count the essay hits, but no—I’m not quite so egotistical that I need stats. Not if it means an extra click-through for people. Not for a modest blog.

When it comes to blogs, some folks would say a blog is a requirement for everyone in the public eye. Then again, folks used to say that everybody should get a citizen band (CB) radio. My brother had one at home. The CB craze long ago died down, and I don’t miss it. Similarly, I suspect the public’s passion for blogging has begun to decline. …By the way, (BTW) Paul Brant, who remade the CB song Convoy, is a local. My client, as a patient, met him when Paul was working at the children’s hospital. …By “in the public eye” I am not thinking of singers and realtors and such, but of my fellow writers.

For various reasons, beyond the scope of this essay, writers are now being very strongly advised by agents and editors to have a blog as their “platform.”—I might not agree with this new wisdom. In the publishing trade, a platform is what implies a certain number of sales you could hope for, from your blog readers, as opposed to you putting a book out there as a complete unknown. 

My favorite platform was the one proposed by Chuck Norris, for his excellent book, which is not about fighting, entitled The Secret of My Inner Strength: My Story. As Chuck explains, when the skeptical publisher asked if there was any proof anyone would buy any copies, Chuck said he’d just won the championship for Karate-do. And so if all the practitioners of karate bought his book, well, that would be a lot of people.

In his book, Norris comes across as modest, like me and my writer friends. It must have been complete strangers who began making T-shirts showing his silhouette over slogans like, “The dark is afraid of Chuck Norris.”

As for me, let’s be clear: My blog is not my platform, because I am well aware there is almost no market for books of essays. To know that, I don’t have to seek out the teensy weensy essay section in a giant bookstore or big central library—it’s enough to say aloud, “I have a hobby of writing essays…” and then watch people’s eyes glaze over. For me, my blog is my chance to seek self-mastery… like attending Chuck’s dojo.

If I’m mentioning writers today it’s because writers are on my mind. Last week, for the first time in my life, I found out I’m on someone’s home page blog roll—wow—and wouldn’t you know, it’s a blog by a local fellow writer. Here’s the link.

And here’s the first verse of the poem, written in 1932:
I Keep Three Wishes Ready
by Annette Wynne

I keep three wishes ready,
Lest I should chance to meet
Any day a fairy,
Coming down the street.

Here’s the whole poem, on that delightful blog.

Sean Crawford
~For those who skimmed fast, here’s that blog again.

~Myself, I disagree with skimming.

~I’m still not saying I agree with blog platforms—but if you’re thinking of starting one, for any form of art, there’s an exciting New York Times best seller called Show Your Work! By Austin Kleon, subtitled 10 ways to share your creativity and get discovered. 

~As for me, I wrote My Blog is Not a Platform archived back in February 2016

~I wonder if my essays are being read by avid readers and writers, because for the past month my most popular essay, by hit count, is Not to Be Robert Heinlein, analyzing the reputation of the dean of science fiction writers, archived October 2014. If that essay keeps getting so many hits, then it will soon become one of my top ten posts. 

~Update to below's note: My last 25-title post was in May of 2014 called Acid Blog, Stupid Yankee University where I suggested a reason for how, during the war, a university could dis-invite someone with valuable military intelligence to offer.

~Following the above, another 25-blog post was a denser, heavier piece called Measuring So People Matter in November of 2014. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Poetics of Puritans and The Pobble Who Has No Toes

This week’s poem is a lengthy fun piece. It makes sense to pair it with a short sober piece on our Puritan heritage. I like Puritans—you know, like the smiling man on the package of Quaker Oats. In fact, during my precious two-week holiday in London I invested time in attending a Quaker meeting—and I wish I’d paid a second visit.

I must admit that our Puritan heritage is a mixed blessing: We can use it either way. For instance, for the sexual revolution of my childhood, we could be anti-Puritan, repudiating that side of our culture, and getting our menfolk out of those hideous long plain bathing trunks. For the counter revolution, we could invoke being pro-Puritan again to justify getting men and boys out of striped jockey style bathing suits and back to the old style, a style made new again by adding some color and a new youthful label: surf-board shorts. How the wheel of time turns. Revolves. Like a revolution.

Incidentally, today you can still wear nice comfy jockey style—provided you’re willing to wear speedos. The other brands are lost in time.

The only puritan thing I want to address today is the guilt thing. I don’t mean modesty-guilt, but task-guilt. In colonial times Benjamin Franklin said, “Be always ashamed to catch thyself idle.” We have, I think, some shame if we are idle with a long-term project still not done… Well of course it’s not done—It’s long term!

I can’t remember the name of the professor or the title of his book—the cover was green—called something or other. Time management? Anyways, he studied graduate students. As you know, grad school is for folks who already have a degree, but they want more education. They have to do a thesis, one that gets bound into a nice fine permanent volume placed in the University archives, there to gather nice fine dust. Many students, Puritan-style, would feel wrong having fun if their work wasn’t done. The prof learned he could divide the students into two groups: Those who felt guilty, and those who didn’t. But a thesis takes years.

The guilty ones finished no sooner than the others, and, in fact, I think they finished later. In their case, guilt was truly a waste of time.

The trick to success, according to the prof, was “an unschedule.” Besides scheduling your time everyday, as would a sensible Puritan, also take care, everyday, to “unschedule” something fun to do. As a Scottish clown once sang, to get us to indulge in fast food, “You deserve a break today…”

I used to do the prof’s trick. Then, as with all tricks of wisdom... I forgot to keep doing it. Or, then again, maybe I came to unschedule unconsciously. Yes, maybe so—that’s a happier thought.

Here’s this week’s unenlightening, un-self improving poem—A poem that years ago I unscheduled time to memorize.

The Pobble Who has No Toes
by Edward Lear

The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said, “Some day you may lose them all;”
He replied, “Fish fiddle-dee-dee!”
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said, “The World in general knows
There’s nothing so good for a Pobble’s toes!”

The Pobble who has no toes
            Swam across the Bristol Channel;
But before he set out he wrapped his nose
            In a piece of scarlet flannel.
For his Aunt Jabiska said, “No harm
Can come to his toes if his nose is warm;
And it’s perfectly known that a Pobble’s toes
Are safe, — provided he minds his nose.”

The Pobble swam fast and well,
            And when boats or ships came near him,
He tinkledy-binkledy-winkled a bell,
            So that all the world could hear him.
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side, —
“He has gone to fish, for his Aunt Jobiska’s
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!”

But before he touched the shore, —
            The shore of the Bristol Channel’ —
A sea-green Porpoise carried away
            His wrapper of scarlet flannel.
And when he came to observe his feet,
Formely garnished with toes so neat,
His face at once became forlorn
On perceiving that all his toes were gone!

And nobody ever knew,
            From that dark day to the present,
Whoso had taken the Pobble’s toes,
            In a manner so far from pleasant.
Whether the shrimps or crawfish gray,
Or crafty Mermaids stole them away —
Nobody knew; and nobody knows
How the Pobble was robbed of his twice five toes!

The Pobble who has no toes
            Was placed in a friendly Bark,
And they rowed back, and carried him up
            To his Aunt Jobiska’s Park.
And she made him a feast, at his earnest wish,
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish;
And she said, “The whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes.”

Sean Crawford


Update: The above mentioned book is now yellow, at least the “teacher mastermind editions” (sic) is, and it’s called The Now Habit, henceforth called the “book.” The aforementioned author is Neil Fiore, Ph.D. The “book” is subtitled “A strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play.”

Actually, the “book” uses all sorts of upper case letters in the subtitle, but since they also tried to capitalize the “h” in “Ph.D” I subjectively feel little need to follow suite. At least, such is the logic in THO (the humble opinion) of the undesigned,
Sean Crawford.

epi-thought: If ever you see me among grad students, with those painful "seaweed on the legs" board shorts, I will be the one wearing a French-boy bathing suit, sans guilt.

Note: My computer is not set up for pen and ink signatures, so just pretend I signed it, OK?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Poetics of Humble Soldiers and Media Ethics

Despite a certain classic poem, featured in my previous post, I don’t expect very many people to know about mercenaries, of course not. But I sure wish everyone would know about “journalist ethics.” Maybe most people get it, I can’t exactly judge…. Meanwhile, before I cover media, I must say:
I get a strong impression that most leftists —and eco freaks, longhairs, sandal-wearing vegetarians, commie-pinkos and—you know, the whole nine yards—I think they can’t judge whether the rest of us, in or out of uniform, know whether war is glorious or not, or judge whether soldiers/sailors/air crew are arrogant or not…

I would tell leftists that at one level, our servicemen and women are humble: My dad, who served in WWII, referred to his medals as his “gongs.” (Clanking like bell)   

While mercenary troops might need to believe in glory, to do what they do, risking their warm blood for cold cash, free men can effectively oppose them, and Nazis, and Communists—the whole eight meters—without too much belief in glory. Here’s what George Orwell said (How unlike an Islamic state) about the British people:
No politician could ever rise to power by promising them conquests or military “glory,” no Hymn of Hate has ever had any appeal to them. In the last war the songs which the soldiers made up and sung of their own accord were not vengeful but humorous and mock-defeatist. The only enemy they ever named was the Sergeant-Major.

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally sound is that in time of war they are ready to get themselves killed. Several dukes, earls and whatnot were killed in the recent campaign in Flanders. This could not happen if these people were the cynical scoundrels they are sometimes made out to be.
(When Orwell said “Flanders” he meant the WWII retreat to Dunkirk: He was writing during the Battle of Britain.)

Things haven’t changed since my dad’s war. I read that when the common Argentine soldiers were standing in the cold windy Falklands, with more shells, more bullets, more weapons and more men than the British would send against them by sea, they nevertheless knew they had lost as soon as they heard the British were going to fight. This, I read, was partly because they knew that in Britain the upper class, even the royal family, believes in military service. The implication being: Britain had effective armed forces.

The Junta of Argentine colonels, replacing their community’s strength and fairness with corruption and weakness, ruling at the price of weakening the backbone of the common man, faced the classic dilemma: choosing a strong democracy or a weak anything else, a dilemma at least as old as Confucius.

The sage was well respected in ancient times. Back when China was a number of small kingdoms, Confucius traveled around to various courts as a consultant. Each king wanted Confucius to use his wisdom to strengthen the state’s agricultural and military might. As for defence, Confucius always advised each king he would be unconquerable if he gave his people a fair deal: The very peasants of the fields would rise up to fight. History is clear: No king ever took his advice.  

The old Chinese states are still with us today: States like Kuwait where the rich young men, in exile in London, were notoriously going out to discos every night rather than enlisting for Desert Shield to take back their country from Iraq.

 Or States like South Vietnam, where, of course, the army officers would come from the educated class. In the Vietnam War, by the time the Americans had lost several generals the Army of the Republic of Vietnam had lost no senior officers at all, no majors or colonels, let alone any generals. Fighting “for their country,” the South Vietnamese went from one enemy contact per 100 patrols, to one per 200 patrols. The U.S? One contact per 38 patrols. This according to Senator Robert Kennedy, at the height of the Vietnam War, shortly before he was assassinated…

When reading the history of that war, our sympathies are with the South Vietnamese, of course, not the communists, but we must admit the South Vietnamese, in contrast with the North’s motivated  “people’s army,” may have deserved what the Carthaginians deserved: National defeat. The Vietnam years may have been an agony for us, but they weren’t a total waste because at least we learned something about whether people will fight or not if they don’t have a fair democracy—right?

Well. A fair and ethical democracy needs an ethical media. Everybody knows that.

Being ethical means: If a reporter has a science degree, and if there’s a “needless” outbreak of measles at Disneyland then of course the Center For Disease Control should be quoted. And then, even if the reporter privately thinks, “May the anti-vaxxers rot in hell!” the anti-vaxxers (ant-vaccination) will also be quoted. The reporter will show faith in free speech.

Putting it another way: Journalists are taught to have balance as part of their ethos, in order to avoid editorializing. For example, suppose a river is to be dammed for irrigation, and the reporter heartily agrees with all the government experts, and with all the farmers, who think the dam should be built. Nevertheless, the reporter should seek out someone who disagrees, perhaps a university soil expert (such as my roommate who could tell you a thing or two about salt leaching up after such dams) and present both sides, and then allow an informed public to decide.

As for the intersection of media ethics and soldiers, recently I read yet another US newspaper article implying the Iraqi army will finally become effective, real soon, because the Iraqis will be receiving more training from the U.S. army. When I observe the poor news reporter has not been able to ethically “balance” his article, because he or she has been unable to find anyone to quote who disagrees that for the Iraqi army training is the issue, then I have to wonder if Vietnam, for Americans, somehow never happened—such a waste… Such a waste.

…Sometimes, late at night, I reflect that, like the British, we don’t need to glorify war, but we do need to be appreciative of our land, sea and air armed forces, of civilians in the Peace Corps, and of local citizens willing to volunteer and participate. Because if we don’t deserve them, we won’t have them.

From my “couch,” (rocking chair) by my “entertainment center,” (cathode tube TV) I say, “Let’s not be like the leftists.” When we watch TV shows glorifying war, the Soprano crime family, young rebels, or some galactic space mercenaries, then let’s heartily enjoy our fantasy… yet still keep our sense of reality.

Here’s a poem fragment about non-arrogant soldiers.
 They are somewhere “east of Suez.” I imagine them temporarily sheltering on the lee side of a hill, sheltering not from less rain but from less bullets.

“The ‘Eathen”
by Rudyard Kipling

And now the hugely bullets, come pecking through the dust,
An’ no one wants to face ’em, but every beggar must;
So like a man in irons, which isn’t glad to go,
They move ’em off by companies, uncommon stiff and slow.

Here’s the link for the whole poem; this verse is at line 55

Sean Crawford

~Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, has one of my favorite opening lines: “As I write this, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” Here is a link to a lengthy Part One of his essay.

~ For my reasoning on TV violence, using the lens of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, see my essay of July 2013, Morality, Boys and Hollywood.

~My university, even after the fall of the Berlin wall, still had a weekly Marxist-Leninist study group, (They’d get angry if you simply called them “communists,” as they wanted nothing to do with Moscow’s party line, you know, the Stalinist-Khrushchevists) but I was attending another campus group at the same time: I regret missing out on a bit of history.

A couple posts back I mentioned some Mainland Chinese causing trouble at Harvard, at the model United Nations. To the communists, both here (as I remember well) and over in China, if the non-communist side is disrupted and prevented from speaking, then that is “free speech.” The Americans, complained one Chinese person, don’t believe in free speech. Here’s a link to that quote.

~Here’s a less scary glimpse of the horror of communism, less scary because it documents an easing of conditions: the Khrushchev Thaw.

~Incidentally, most of the hits for my old November 2012 essay on Media Ethics (One of my top ten posts, by hit count) are from Mainland China. Maybe Chinese student-journalists are preparing for China to thaw during our lifetime… do you think so?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Poetics of an Epitaph for Mercenaries

Poetry, like a certain Epitaph For Mercenaries, is nice escapism. Meanwhile, in our 6 o’clock real world, here is an essay:

My dad’s war resulted in the practical creation of the United Nations, an organization doing as well, I think, as might be expected. Today my father, spending his twilight years in a pavilion at the hospital, depends on the newer generations to manage the world. (Who, me?) Nobody said citizenship was easy. At least we don’t have to go fight like he did. (Thank God) Scared? We can be overwhelmed, scared, from learning about the world and the armed forces, but I think we can relax a little by remembering that the original meaning of “manage” was “cope.” The world is too big to manage, but I guess as long as we are coping enough to avoid a major war, we must be doing something right. (OK, carry on)

Maybe, in this brave new century, a part of being an “informed citizen” could mean knowing about mercenaries. The historical definition of “mercenary,” of course, is someone who fights for pay, not patriotism: It implies someone brought in from outside the country.

The various high school history textbooks I grew up with always included the war between the two city-states of Carthage and Rome: The city fathers of Carthage were businessmen, merchants, part of an elegant civilized city, set in North Africa on the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. The senators of Rome were from a practical city of simple farmers on the river Tiber, a city with a habit of imperializing other city-states. One day Carthage, suffering under Rome's imperialism, decided to put a stop to it. And so a decadent city tried to fight a virtuous city. How decadent? When the army overseas in Italy asked for reinforcements, the city fathers, in order to save money, said no.

Carthage used a mercenary army, enlisting only a few Carthaginians. Rome used unpaid volunteers. (Rome supplied the army rations, catapults and so forth).

In school textbooks, the children’s sympathies are with civilized Carthage, not rustic Rome. The Carthaginian army went to Italy. At first things did not go well for Rome. In fact, their army got wiped out. Like the battle of First Bull Run, just outside Washington in the U.S. civil war, the people back in Rome were terrified—and with good reason: Rome’s casualties, unlike Union forces, were nearly 100 per cent. So they raised a new army, and tried again. The result was like the Second Bull Run, except for, again, nearly 100 per cent casualties.

Hannibal led the Carthaginians; the Romans had no one comparable. But unlike, say, Iraq or South Vietnam, the Romans didn’t lose heart. They kept at it, and at last Rome was like a sports team that comes from behind to win the series. The high school texts would always end the story by saying that, despite having our sympathy, in the end Carthage probably deserved to lose… Because they used mercenaries, while the Romans fought for their country.

Modern U.S. servicemen, while not fighting for free as the Romans did, are certainly not regarded as mercenaries. I remember back when President John F. Kennedy was commander-in-chief: Of course his servicemen were lowly paid—How low? Unlike Canadian forces, they critically depended on having a base PX, with very low prices, to get by. When Kennedy sent military advisors to hot steamy Vietnam they went off with low pay but high standards.

Similarly, Kennedy’s civilian Peace Corps, where people went off to help the Third World farmers dig irrigation ditches, saw themselves as serving. Of course they could make more money stateside, and of course they were putting their civilian careers on hold, but— “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Needless to say, this was before things like “market fundamentalism” (meaning: no oversight by government and citizens) and before “Let’s shrink the government to bathtub size, and then strangle it in the bathtub.” What happens when the context changes? If no one “gives a care” about civil servants serving the public, then why would other folks, nongovernment, “give a care” about serving either? Why go off and suffer in the Peace Corps? Easier to “give up” and trust that an elegant Wall Street, without oversight by any volunteers, will run a good marketplace without any meltdown, without leading the rest of the globe into a recession. 

Modern low paid servicemen, unlike highly-paid hypothetical mercenaries, are no warmongers. Kennedy himself was a peace-lover. He was criticized by some folks for not supporting the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, but to me his holding back the U.S. forces was common sense: He knew the horror of war. His brother Joe had been killed in the war, and John had his patrol torpedo boat destroyed by the Japanese at night, with no one around to help him and his crew, as he towed a burned sailor by holding his life preserver strap in his teeth. It was a very long, very lonely swim.

I remember when Kennedy was shot—I was watching TV when it happened. I grieved. Had he lived, I am sure he would have been disappointed at how there has been a steady movement to disparage government, and citizen service, to the point where the public was not asked to get off their couches for Iraq. I think this doomed Iraq in advance to be, as an early book on Iraq was titled, a Fiasco. (Good book, by the way) Not like how Americans got involved in the cold war.

Kennedy, I think, would have been dumbfounded at the very idea of the U.S. using mercenaries; I think he would have been scandalized at the use of highly-paid armed “contractors” in Iraq. It was well established, even before the Americans had the guts to begin honestly using the term “occupation,” that contractors such as Blackwater were doing very great harm to the U.S. goal of winning the hearts and minds for teaching democracy. But without effective oversight nothing at Blackwater changed. (At least, not until the occupation was nearly over)

Thinking of marketplace fundamentalism, I might say the American people, for that war, had “Whitehouse fundamentalism”—oh, if only Arabic-speaking housewives and students had been encouraged to volunteer to go to Iraq to be gentle translators on those terrifying (to Iraqi households) night raids.

My concern with knowing about passive civilians, citizen-soldiers and mercenaries, is: “Drift happens.”

If the impoverished First World republic of Rome drifted into an elegant-for-the-rich Third World empire, and declined into using only non-Romans as their soldiers, it was because the Roman sense of noble citizenship declined. At the end, just before the fall, no one in Rome was saying that a citizen’s duty is  “to be informed” …let alone “to serve his country by fighting for it.”

Here’s this week’s poem:
Epitaph On an Army of Mercenaries
by A. E. Housman

These, in the days when heaven was falling,
            The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
            And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
            They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

Sean Crawford
February 2015

~I documented, by using old copies of Readers Digest, how U.S. citizens were involved in the cold war—such a contrast—in my essay No War archived April, 2014.

~An angry former Vietnam Reporter observes U.S. economic and cultural decline in David Halberstam was a Harbinger archived June 2015. It's one of my denser, gloomier essays.

~Again, through the lens of The Assassin’s Gate (Another good book) I validated some sorrowful theories of U.S. decline, archived September 2012.

~Reminder: As I say in my blog’s “about me” it’s OK to comment on these older essays.

~To me, the thought of Carthage trying to save money in war time, when you should be fighting with all your might, is as crazy as declaring War on Terror and then giving the biggest tax cut in modern times, and trying to send in the absolutely smallest army possible to Iraq... and silencing any army experts who disagreed.