R  A  L  P  H   The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy 
and the Humanities 
Early Winter, 2000

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Folio Editor
poo@cts.com


Circumcision
A History of the World's
Most Controversial Surgery

David L. Gollaher
(Basic Books)
Remember that old wheeze about the guy who worked in the elephant circumcision factory:
     "What's the pay?"
     "$50 a week."
     "That's terrible!"
     "Yeah, but I get tremendous tips."

Except in the Jewish religion, circumcision was not much practiced until a hundred years ago. Then, three factors came to bring it into general favor. The first was that it was believed to be a prophylaxis against venereal disease. Secondly, it was believed to curb masturbation. And, third --- with the development of appropriate sanitary and anesthetic techniques, even minor surgery could be performed without destroying the patient. There were various doctors in England and in the United States who got on the circumcision bandwagon, in a manner of speaking, and gave rousing speeches on the subject. They believed that many of our ills, not only physical but mental, could be curbed by the little snip.

Trouble is, it has never been proved that the operation prevents diseases, and some of my friends report that it doesn't do squat to mitigate their non-stop onanism. In fact, far from being a prophylaxis, it may have the opposite effect. In the same way that saliva protects the mouth against certain infections, the substance known as smegma that crops up under the foreskin may do the same for the glans. Smegma, by the way, is one of those words that just sounds revolting. It's from the Greek smechein, which means "to clean." Thus in Athens, your bottled household cleanser might well be labelled "Mr. Smegma." To add to the irony, the word has the same root as "to smite." Tell that to your doctor when he asks you if you want your new-born babe tied down on the cutting table and chopped up a bit.

One chapter that macho men who have been circumcised may want to pass over is one that describes, in exquisite detail, the nerve endings in the prepuce --- what you lost when you were but a few days old, without your specific permission:

    The distinctive corpuscles of the prepuce should be compared to similar nerve endings in the fingertips and lips...the conventional picture of the foreskin as a wrap protecting the glans should be reversed...with the ridged band working not only to intensify sensation but to help regulate the ejaculatory reflex.

This well-wrought volume contains no end of insights. The foreskin has a complex collection of cells, called fibroblasts, which are superb for "skin replacement on burn victims and patients suffering from diabetic foot ulcers." The separation of foreskin and glans does not necessarily occur at birth, but over the next ten to fifteen years. The pain of circumcision has been proved to be of such a nature that babies who have gone through the process show traumatic stress for days --- sometimes months --- after the operation.

The English government stopped paying for the procedure shortly after WWII, and none of the young English boys --- now men --- seem any worse for wear. At one time American doctors were told to perform the operation without chloroform "so that the pain experienced may be associated with the habit [masturbation] we wish to eradicate."And John Harvey Kellogg, father of the Corn Flake and deadly enemy of onanism sans-gêne, wrote: "Without administering an anesthetic, as the pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if connected with the idea of punishment."


--- Rebecca Singer


Living in the
Number One Country

Reflections from a Critic
Of American Empire

Herbert I. Schiller
(Seven Stories Press)
According to Herbert Schiller, American megacorporations are taking over the world, and
  • What we call "the free flow of information" is a scam --- it's merely propaganda for aggressive international capitalism;
  • The Marshall Plan was not an altruistic aid program to help Europe rebuild after a devastating war, but a prelude for economic imperialism as represented by the World Bank and, more recently, the IMF. (The Marshall Plan even tied "grants to a recipient's acquiescence to opening its market to U. S. cultural exports, film in particular," so we could beat up on their cultures with our own).
  • Germany after WWII was rebuilt not because of what we learned from Versailles, but rather to push this new form of colonialism --- one promulgated by the United States of Coca-Cola, IBM, General Electric, ITT and, presumably, Bugs Bunny.

"I gave my attention to those locales around which I had some, though limited, personal experience," Schiller writes. "One was the Western European social order, which was 'threatened' not, as was asserted by our leadership, by Soviet aggression, but by its own indigenous radical movements." Translation: The Cold War scare was cooked up to squash liberal tendencies in the governments of England, France, Italy and Scandinavia.

Some of this may be true, but Schiller has a problem getting his message across. The reason: He's a dogmatist of the first water. And he's a lousy writer to boot. Reading Living in the Number One Country reminded me of that old wheeze, "When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail."

There are nuggets of truth. No one with brains (or heart) could excuse our nation's long love affair with Chiang Kai-Shek, or our not-so-secret support of the overthrow of Juan Bosch and Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. CIA excursions into Iran, Chile and Nicaragua, among others, and our shenanigans in Vietnam have left us with wounds that will, and should, taint American foreign relations for many decades.

But to say that our vigorous support for the anti-communists in Greece, our 50-year containment of Stalinism, our part in defusing apartheid in South Africa and our central role in the birth of democracy in Germany and Japan derived solely from the needs of large-scale capital is tedious and shortsighted.

It's no sin to be a didactic writer --- Barbara Tuchman, John Kenneth Galbraith, William Buckley and Eric Hobsbawm are some of the best in the business, and we read them with pleasure. In The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm (who shares many of the same views as Schiller) gives us a fine exegesis on 20th Century world economic and social history. He may have an agenda, but he sucks us in with a combination of style, wit and astonishing facts.

By contrast, Schiller puts us in mind of a story by the psychotherapist Salvador Minuchin. In one of his more famous videotape sessions, he is treating a family consisting of a whining mother, a noisy father, and a daughter who keeps trying to kill herself. "This family is a violin with only one string," he tells them. "And it's playing a funeral march."

Is there any hope in Schiller's bleak world? Yes. Our "reduced world role" will create "a sharp increase in social conflict between domestic haves and have-nots, a struggle over shares of diminishing resources." To put it more starkly, we're on the edge of a revolution, and the megacorporations will not be able to control it.

It's an interesting if scary theory, but some of us who have been around as long as Schiller can't help thinking otherwise. We see, sometimes with despair, that American know-how has created a subtle and unbeatable system.

Our world is tied up, more and more, with rules and regulations and bureaucratic idiocy. Ask any American who tries to run a business out of his home about the nightmare of paperwork. Ask any poor Mexican who wants to make a living over here about getting over the border and "La Migra." Ask anyone who wants to grow and sell dope for medical purposes what it's like getting busted.

But there's a powerful hook that keeps us going. It shows up every day in the newspapers, on radio and TV and cable. It's at the heart of the very capitalism that Schiller deplores. It's some geezer who bought a home in San Francisco or Washington or Miami thirty years ago who finds himself sitting on a pot of gold called "equity." It's an auto mechanic or garbage hauler who buys Lotto tickets week after week and, despite the odds, ends up with $100,000 in cash. It's those geeks in high school who had moss on their teeth and bad breath who invented something obscure having to do with computers, and who all of a sudden are sitting on a million stock options.

If Schiller thinks his rants about the dangers of international corporate malfeasance can overcome this jackpot mentality, he is mistaken. He's badly outnumbered by all those in line to become the next Bill Gates, or Michael Dell, or Larry Ellison, or Pehong Chen.

It's too bad that Schiller has recently passed on. If he were still among the living, and wanted to produce yet another rant on the evils of American international capitalism, we'd have suggested that he give himself (and us) a break by taking a semester or two at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. A few weeks with the likes of T. Coraghessan Boyle would have taught him how to lighten up a bit so that those of us who might be interested in his message would not have to be driven batty by his miserable style.


--- L. W. Milam

This review first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle


Denmark
Denmark has a long history of doing much with little. The country's only natural resources are seaweed and bird-droppings, which provided the Danes' staple diet until King Christian the Potato introduced his favorite vegetable during the Renaissance. Before that, surplus Danes were exported across the North Sea to the west. There, they found a land of cheerful weather conditions (balmy by comparison with what they had left), invigorating rugby riots, double-decker buses, and exciting food like bangers or bubble-and-squeak. So they stayed and turned into the English. In the 10th century, in fact, the Danish king Canute ruled an empire that included Angleland as well as all of Scandinavia.

Denmark has been shrinking ever since then, and nowadays Danish schoolchildren learn a little song which goes: "Once we were great, but now we are small." Nonetheless, they maintain a vigorous export commerce, sending overpriced (recall the term "Danegeld") butter and bacon to their kinsmen in England, Tuborg beer to their kinsmen in Sweden, and Legos to everybody else. These operations, plus the manufacture of high-tech windmills and an enormous variety of little open-faced sandwiches, is all that appears to sustain the thriving Danish economy. Economists throw up their hands in bewilderment trying to explain it. One has to suspect that extra dimensions are at work.


--- From "The Øresund Fixed Link"
By Jon Gallant


The Innocents Within
Robert Daley
(Villard)
The handsome pilot Davey crash-lands in 1944 Vichy France, in the Massif Central. He is carried by a local farmer to the house of the lovely eighteen-year-old refugee Rachael. Fortunately, the owner of the house --- Pastor Favert, and his wife --- have been called away to the local extermination camp, so Davey and Rachael are free to explore the terrain of their young bodies, in the rough farmhouse, in front of the fire, despite his many bumps, cuts and bruises, and despite her fast-fleeting innocence. It all brings to mind that old Massif chanson,

    O the weather outside is frightful
    But the fire is so delightful
    And since we've no place to go
    Let it snow let it snow let it snow.

Pastor Favert, a Protestant minister in Le Lignon, actually existed (his name was Trocme) and did heroic work to save thousands of Jews, in defiance of the Nazis and the French collaborationists of occupied France. Daley has besmirched the good pastor's heroism by conjoining his works with a storyline hot-box of passion, two mythic characters fondling each other between the sheets --- turning her into a Jewish refugee version of the Valley Girls:

    ...her face got red and her body squirmed and bucked, and when he had finished she murmured, "That was really nice."

This literary fooling around is coupled with some lorky dabs of philosophy on The Reality of Life. Davey is questioning his flight leader on his pre-war life and studies:

    Toft's master's degree surprised Davey. "What subject?"
    "American lit..."
    "That's what I was studying too. You going to teach it, or what?"
    "Maybe," said Toft, "if I get out of this thing." And then after a moment: "We're all in college still. The college of life and death."

"The college of life and death?" As they say in my favorite hamburger joint, Hold the mayo!

You can always tell when the author has researched WWII and the Nazis when he pops up with big words like Hauptfeldwebel or Obersturmbannführer. So, as antagonist to the Pastor, we are given Obersturmbannführer Gerhard Gruber who "was thirty-seven years old, tall and thin though a bit hippy." A bit hippy? Does that mean he smoked dope and wore beads in bed when he wasn't out murdering people in the streets?

His mistress, Claire, is a turncoat Frenchwoman. "Claire needed food --- scarce in Paris --- which he supplied," we are told: "His own needs were something else, which she supplied." Something else? Washing his uniform? Tying Gruber up for his weekly beatings? Tie-dyeing his shirts?

This is their night of passion:

    Having felt for the ashtray on the bedside table, he rubbed out his cigarette. Claire did the same, and when they had slid down into the bed, she reached over and found his hand, which was nice.

As Miss Dillard, our English teacher, would scrawl in the margin,

    What was nice? His hand? Finding his hand? Sliding down in bed? Doing the same? Rubbing out cigarettes? Feeling for the ashtray?

The publishers tell us that Daley has pumped out some twenty-five books previously. It's our guess that they are all the same novel, under different titles, with new names for the characters. Despite the hippies, between the schools of life and death, under the hot, dark covers --- we suspect we'll find the same old shake, rattle, 'n' roll, which must be, he would want us to believe, rilly nice.

--- R. W. Pease


The Ethics of Homelessness
Philosophical Perspectives
G. John M. Abbarno, Editor
(Rodopi)
For over fifty years, the U. S. Naval Training Center occupied a large plot of land next to the San Diego airport. Not long ago, the Navy decided to abandon this land, and offered to turn it over to the city to do with as they pleased.

There were many suggestions as to what should be done with this sizeable hunk of valuable land --- expand the airport, build yet another stadium, set up another Sea World for the tourists, sell it to contractors to build the usual apartments and condos.

I wrote to the City Fathers and offered for their consideration another kind of experiment. Since the homeless population in "America's Finest City" --- as we characterize ourselves --- had soared to over the 25,000 mark, I suggested that we turn the space over to the destitute, since they got little else from the city besides fairly constant harassment from the police and social agencies. I figured they might welcome some peace and a place they could call home, out of the line of fire, as it were.

Save a couple of the Navy buildings for a community center, I said. The rest of the land would be divided into plots twenty feet by twenty feet, which, if done right, could shelter some 1500 families. Lots would be awarded by lottery solely to those who could prove that they were below the poverty level, the very poorest getting the highest priorities.

The city would provide the infrastructure --- water, electricity, and sewer. They would also plant trees, grass and shrubs, and make the walkways. The new citizens of FreeTown (as we might name it) would be in charge of building their own homes on their own plots of land. All zoning requirements would be lifted so that the denizens could design and construct houses to their liking without the usual harassment from the city building and planning authorities. The whole area would be set up in such a way as to permit no cars to enter: it would be a village purely for pedestrians, wheelchairs, skateboards, or bicycles.

The City would provide regular transportation services and, in the early days of construction, vans would transport residents to the city dump, recycling centers and thrift stores so that they could find whatever materials necessary to build their houses.

The citizens of FreeTown would elect their own mayor, their own town council, and serve as volunteers on their own police and fire departments. Individuals would be encouraged to establish businesses in their homes --- small grocery stores, laundries, cafés, cantinas. The Town Council would set the rules whereby the village functioned. Lots would not be sold, but when a home was vacated, it and its improvements would be made available --- again by lottery --- to those who qualified.

Since the homeless don't vote and don't contribute to the campaign funds of the San Diego mayor or council members, there didn't seem to be much enthusiasm for the plan. Airport expansion or tourist malls turned out to be more to the city's liking, and the editor of the OpEd page at the San Diego Union returned the article I sent outlining the details of my idea. He called me and mumbled something about it being "off the mark" or "out of hand" or "beyond the pale" --- I can't remember exactly which.

§     §     §

The thesis was, obviously, that many homeless live in that parlous state not because they want to but because they don't have the finances to buy a plot of land, and they certainly could never meet the onerous construction requirements that are required under current zoning and planning regulatioins. This all-too obvious economic truth barely makes it into the pages of The Ethics of Homelessness. There are dark photographs of the homeless by Janice Agati-Abbsarno, anonymous men and women, smiling at the camera, toting garbage bags filled with old clothes, set against a background of seedy second-hand stores. There is a poem by Dennis Rohatyn, "Poetic Sounds of Homeless Verse,"

nobody heard the Big Bang
or saw the solar system
evicted from a black hole
nobody gave their address
like the young Dædalus
or left out the zip code
nobody froze to death
on a park bench.
Keith Burkum, in "Homelessness, Virtue Theory, and the Creation of Community" discusses, at abysmal length, Kant, neo-Aristotelianism, and the "ethics of virtue" (or is it "the virtue of ethics?") Pio Colonnello quotes Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre to tell us about "the Existential Condition of Humanity in Our Time," but confuses us with quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche,

    the return home of the place from which the individual sets out wandering coincides with the lack or a fixed abode, so that "home" and "homelessness" are seen as one and the same thing.

There is much hand-wringing. Anita Superson, in "The Homeless and the Right to 'Public Dwelling'" says that running the homeless out of libraries, off the streets, and out of public parks is wrong --- they are citizens too, and they deserve to use them as they wish. Uma Narayan argues that the Homeless deserve "Equal Protection" under the Constitution, and agrees that includes a "right to public dwelling," again in the libraries and parks and on the streets.

In the whole book, only Natalie Dandekar comes close to lighting on the economic truth that is at the very heart of homelessness. She does it, interestingly enough, by comparing American housing with that of Bombay. There, old apartments have built-in rent control that permit huge families to stay in living spaces with rents that were established in the early 1900s. Even strangers get to be family, because they are

    forced by the building design to share lavatory facilities, they also share newspapers, telephones, and holiday feasts...The landlord can only get out of the government's regulation of rent if the building is condemned, so the residents pool their money to keep the entire building in good repair.

She quotes from Joel Blau's classic study, The Visible Poor,

    The key here is the establishment of a social housing sector...where housing could not be resold at a profit. Residents would not only acquire rights to their housing; they would also actively participate in its management.

§     §     §

With sixteen contributors, The Ethics of Homelessness is bound to be all at sixes and sevens. There are chapters that include figures on drug, alcohol abuse and psychological problems of those who live on the streets. There are chapters on the most truly homeless --- orphans. There is even a section devoted to Hannah Arendt, who was forced to flee Germany in 1933 and France in 1940.

But we contend that it is irresponsible for an editor to ignore the central cause of homelessness in America. Namely, the cruel economic determinism of a wealthy society that keeps those who have nothing from having anything...outside of being run out of the library or the park with little more than a kick in the pants.


--- Sarah Tindler, MSW


{The Senility Prayer}

God grant us the senility to forget what we used to think absolutely had to be changed whatever that was.

--- Jon Gallant


Sex and Violence
And the Federal
Communications
Commission
According to press reports, the Federal Communications Commission is about to embark on another hearing on "broadcaster's programming obligations to children." William Kennard, Chairman of the FCC, said that as a Commissioner and as a parent he was concerned with the "sex and violence" aired by the nation's television stations.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was operating broadcast stations in this country, there was a similar concern. To address these, I appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee in hearing in connection with license terms for broadcasters. Among my suggestions was one which would address the issue of sex and violence without the government having to venture into the delicate area of censorship.

In brief, I suggested that the FCC create a fee schedule which would be applied to each program that involved mayhem or explicit sexual content. I called it a "Sex and Violence Fee."

Each broadcast licensee would be required to keep a log of all programs in which contained, in all or in part, sexual innuendo, lewd and lascivious acts or descriptions, violence, and/or drug use. The FCC would create a fee schedule appropriate to such broadcasts.

At the end of each fiscal year, station operators would forward a list of programs which fit these categories, and remit the appropriate dollar amount to the Commission, to become part of its general fund.

I presented a suggested schedule of fees, with the caveat that it was not complete. "I am sure that the FCC," I said, "with better investigative resources than my own, can come up with a more comprehensive list." For instance, even now I'm not exactly sure how one should categorize some of the more exotic acts of violence, such as one I saw not long ago on Los Angeles TV, in which a woman was shown in the buff, in a shower, being eviscerated by a portable electric drill.

§     §     §

I herewith list the program categories, with a suggested rate card:

*Class I words would include "damn," "hell," "goddamn," "pantywaist," "pinguid," "saponaceous," "butyraceous," "lardaceous," "kyphotic," "anacreontic," "lubricious," etc. --- and all ethnic slurs.
**Class II words would consist of the remainder.
Language
Sexual innuendo $2,500
Dirty Words (Class I)* $5,000
Dirty Words (Class II)** $10,000
Sex, Nudity
Naked body (above the waist)$5,000
Naked body (below the waist)$10,000
Intercourse (Simulated: Oral, etc)$15,000
Intercourse (Actual: Oral, etc.)$20,000
Onanism$30,000
Incest$40,000
Bestiality$50,000
Drug Use
Smoking$5,000
Snorting$10,000
Injecting$20,000
Violence
Bodily blows with fist or "blunt object"
          First blow$5,000
          Each blow thereafter$3,000
Shooting, knifing, stabbing (without blood)$7,500
Shooting, knifing, stabbing (with blood)$10,000
Bludgeoning, kicking, stomping, garroting, strangling, general mayhem$15,000
Torture: gouging out eyes, eviscerating, beheading, cutting off private parts, etc.$25,000
Bombing
National or International: CIA, FBI, ATF, or U. S. Military None
National or International: Terrorist $100,000

The merit of this Fee-based Schedule is that it neither contemplates nor requires censorship. It is, rather, a system that depends on the good-will of American broadcasters to report their activities honestly --- in much the same way that they report income, expenses, and depreciation to the IRS.

Since, according to the FCC's own records, American broadcasters enjoy well over 25% return, annually, on invested dollar (one of the highest of any industry), they should welcome this relatively elegant method of self-regulation which will have the dual advantage of helping to fund their appropriate regulatory commission and, more importantly, stifling the ever increasing, strident demands for censorship.


--- L. W. Milam


The Ice-Cream Man
In The Works of Love, the old man hires himself out every December to be Santa Claus. The rest of the year, he wanders around town, or stays in the park, or sleeps on a bench in the bus station. He writes postcards to his son who he hasn't seen for fifteen years.

He writes,

    Saw robin in park today. Saw him catch worm. Am thinking of sending you to college. Am thinking of sending you to Yale, to Harvard.

He carries the postcard around in his pocket for months at a time, until it gets worn and bent. He always writes in pencil, and every few days, he erases one of the words, changes it for another. He changes "robin" to "bluebird," changes "Yale" to "Princeton." He never does send the card.

I see the old man on the streets of Puerto Perdido almost every day. But instead of being Santa Claus, he's the ice-cream man. He pushes a heavy blue wooden wheelbarrow up and down the streets all day long. He is always dressed in white, with worn huaraches on his feet.

Hung on the side of the wheelbarrow is a plastic bag filled with cones. When you ask for an ice cream, he stops, puts down the wheelbarrow, opens the top of the round wooden tub, scoops out some of the watery ice cream with a metal spoon, and gives it to you --- the tiny cone engulfed in his gnarled, dark hands.

The wheelbarrow is a homemade one, and I like to think that he built it himself, many years ago, exactly to his specifications. After so many years, it has become an extension of him, like an arm or a leg. When he leans down to pick up the handles, his stooped shoulders draw down a little, his back rounds a bit more, then he starts trudging down the street with his great Oaxacan feet --- those big, hoary feet that look like the roots of the tree they call the tule, roots that lie exposed after a storm has passed.

I like to think, because of the years of marriage between man and cart that --- at night --- when he goes to his tiny shack over in the valley to eat the simple supper that one of the neighbor ladies makes for him (beans, tortillas, rice), and when he finally lies down to rest, he is still somehow connected to his blue cart --- perhaps even has dreams of pushing a dream electric-blue ice-cream cart, light as a feather, through the streets of some bright paradise.

After you give him his peso, he drops it in his pocket, and then lets his hands down, and they pick up the cart, and he plods on. I often catch myself wondering how someone so ancient can make it up and down those steep hills near the bay ---- for I have seen him in all the many parts of town: in the old part of the city up the hill, in the tourist area that runs next to the beaches, and, sometimes, pushing himself and his load across the hot beach.

I wish I could say that he was merry or sad --- but, in truth, his face is expressionless: I've never seen him smile, I've never seen him frown. As soon as I say that, I have to amend it because the lines in his face run so deep that you don't expect a frown or a smile. Indeed, the lines run so deep that you wonder how he ever shaves in the morning. Maybe it's better to say that his face is so rich with history that it cannot be said to be "expressionless." It is, rather, a illuminated manuscript, filled with sad and wise and maybe even funny tales out of his youth.

It is the eyebrows most of all that give my old ice cream man his character. They have taken on the wildness of the white bouganvilla that grow in such profusion everywhere in Puerto Perdido, plants towering up like clouds. His white eyebrows are like that --- growing every whichaway, in wild disorder.

When I see him I sometimes think of that poem of Yeats --- the one in which the poet takes the parents of a newborn child far into the future so they can look in on their boy as he nears the end of his life. The poet lets them see that at the moment of their son's birth they have also created another ancient man, who, in some far off time, will be stooped and bent, shuffling slowly to the end of his days.

§     §     §

He's been missing recently, but then I saw him again yesterday in the public market. The last of his strength must be ebbing away. He was trudging along as before, but more slowly, and, instead of the heavy wheelbarrow, he now carries a small, battered plastic cooler, hung over his shoulder with a homemade knitted strap. Someone has scratched Helados on the four sides of it.

He marches, undeviating, as if he were still shouldering the great wheelbarrow. His eyebrows still are an explosion of white; his face is still an ancient, beautiful, illuminated book. And in his back pocket is the card that he's been meaning to send to his son, the child he hasn't seen for so many years.


--- Carlos Amantea


The
Architecture
Of the
Shakers

Julia Nicoletta
(Countryman Press)
For Shakers, women and men were considered to be separate but equal. In a time of slavery, Afro-Americans were accepted as members. They were called Shaking Quakers, a redundancy if there ever was one. (The name came from the ecstatic trances achieved during their religious services, not unlike those of the dervishes.) Their communities were based on "religious devotion, celibacy, and communal labor." The founder --- a refugee from religious prosecution in England --- was named Mother Ann Lee.

All Shakers lived communally --- and the Meeting House was the center of their lives. Land and labor were donated by the converts. They created mills, workshops, infirmaries, and school houses for their members. The art and decoration were precisely defined in their rule book, "The Millennial Laws." For example, barns and other buildings,

    if painted at all, should be of a dark hue, either red or brown, lead color, or something of the kind, unless they front the road, or command a sightly aspect, and then they should not be of a very light color.

Starting in the late 18th Century, Lee and her followers set up a dozen or so communities in the Eastern United States, spreading, later, as far west as Indiana and as far south as Florida. But the celibacy rule is not a good one for propagating the faith. Most of their communities --- in places as far afield as Sodus Bay, New York, Whitewater, Ohio, and Narcoosee, Florida --- died out, leaving us with but one, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

To those who study it from afar, what is most attractive about Shakers is the humility of their world --- in their lives, in their surroundings. Buildings were of clean lines, the furniture elegant in its simplicity, the tools --- for cooking, for the shops --- plain, and utilitarian.

The Architecture of the Shakers is divided into twelve chapters --- including" "Dwelling Houses," "Meeting Houses," "Barns, Stables and Sheds," "School Houses," and even "Laundry Buildings." There are over 125 photographs, and they are enough to take your breath away. Not only do the structures harken back to a simpler time --- the architectural lines are a perfect reflection of the soul of a people who wanted merely to live simply, work hard, and worship in peace. Of course, part of the romance is in the photographs: nothing out of place, all buildings --- brick, shingles, wood, or stone --- in harmony and in perfect, if slightly time-worn, condition.

Which is as it should be. A gorgeous volume like this captures us through sentiment --- makes us harken back to a time when people weren't murdering each other nightly on television, or indulging in drive-by shootings; a time when the sky was blue, not brown, and when you and I could ask neighbors for a cup of sugar without their thinking of us a rapists or free-loaders.

It was a time when those interested merely in being left alone to pursue their own vision of the divine weren't labelled "cultists;" when someone who built chairs or tables would not be thinking about selling them next week on the Internet. A time when individuals could set up a forge or a mill and not have to worry about a neighbor squealing on them for operating a business in a place zoned residential. It was a time when the United States could be proud of its religious freedom, a time when it was unnecessary to call in the Supreme Court to decide whether our schools were rightly defining our gods for us.

Thus The Architecture of the Shakers astonishes us, as it is no doubt meant to do, with the divine spirit of a simple people in pursuit of simple lives. It thus becomes an understated commentary --- one which forces us to think how far we have gone from such simplicity and trust; makes us suspect, with regret, that we may never see the grace of such folk again in this lifetime.

--- Pat Worley


Dancing Alone
In Mexico

From the Border to
Baja and Beyond

Ron Butler
(University of Arizona)
Butler is a professional travel writer, and many of these articles first appeared in Travel & Leisure, Américas, MD, and Hemispheres, the magazine of United Airlines. Which may explain their rigidity, the feel of formula, and --- ultimately --- their tediousness.

For there is a strict formula to travel writing, especially when you write for the likes of Travel & Leisure. Keep it light. Stuff it with facts. You can be a little funny, but don't shake up the reader, and --- most of all --- remember that travel writing is not meant to discourage the footloose, the foolhardy, and especially those with fat credit cards.

"Night Ferry to La Paz" --- as an excellent example --- makes the journey from Mazatlán to Baja a fun-filled lark, watching "the ship's bow slice through the warm blue water." We get a description of the locals ("La Paz and Mazatlán are perhaps the only two ports of call they'll ever see..."), the usual soupçon of facts ("moving due west along the Tropic of Cancer..."), a dab of color ("a backdrop of mahogany-colored mountains whose base was speckled with the blue, pink, and white colors of beachfront hotels...") and even a touch of philosophy ("I wondered how the lights that seemed so dim inside could glow so brightly from outside.")

It's throwaway hackery, stuffing for the fat ads that fill throwaway magazines. But, unfortunately, it's not only bad writing, it's misleading. For anyone who has travelled on the only boat going between the mainland and Baja, it's a journey from --- or in --- hell: hot dirty cabins, wretched food, and for those of us who are slipping into senility, a nightmare of tiny, narrow stairs.

Getting the tickets is a study in travel-war: jostling people, jammed against the window, vainly hoping to catch the sole clerk's attention, greedy to get their berth. The fact that it takes place early in the morning makes it even less appealing, unless you are into screaming hoardes at 6 am. On top of that, Butler's statement that "several other ships have been put into service across the Gulf of California, serving the peninsula from Puerto Vallarta, Topolobampo, and Guaymas" tells us that his most recent journeys have been either to Mars or to Venus --- since most of those bilge-filled cow-boats went out of business, thank the lord, many years ago.

When we got to "Frieda and Diego: A Love Story," we were thinking the title was a joke. You can call their time together what you want --- A Fight to Remember, Marriage Mayhem, Beat Me Daddy 8 to the Bar --- but, please, spare us: don't call it "A Love Story."

Moreover, he manages to cook down their strange time together into the usual fact-choked, wooden prose:

    Among the many famous houseguests were film star Edward G. Robinson and his wife, Gladys. While Kahlo entertained Mrs. Robinson on the roof terrace of her house, Rivera, always his wife's biggest fan, showed the actor some of her paintings. Robinson bought four of them for $200 each.

It's that kind of breathless now-you-are-there prose that drives us up the wall: How does Butler know where Frieda entertained Gladys? Hell, how does he know she was entertained? Who says that Rivera was his wife's "biggest fan?" And who cares what Robinson paid for the paintings?

Ironically, when Butler drops his clichés, his writing begins to connect. The first essay of them all tells, in simple, direct style, of the breakup of his marriage --- and the resulting strain it puts on his time with his beloved children. Most of his journalistic tricks are dumped --- and we have here a man telling a story from his heart: not something to make a few bucks, but to give us (and him) a touch of humanity.


--- L. A. Bloom


The Buddha Scroll
Introduction by
Thomas Cleary

(Shambhala)
If you set it down on the floor, it stretches half-way across the room. Printed in China on heavy paper, it's a scroll from the Buddhist kingdom of Da Li. You remember Da Li. The funny Buddhist Spanish painter, with the droopy watches and the upended moustache.

Oops. This Da Li is the kingdom of the Yunna Province that it existed from 937 to 1253. The original scroll came from the hand of one Zhyang Shengwen, in 1180. Over the years, it fell on hard times, so 500 years later, it was re-reproduced: and that's what we have here --- a Pop-Up Life of Buddha.

It's filled with hundreds of colorful characters: women with sixteen arms, demons with three faces and flaming hair, dancing doggies and piggies, saints in tree trunks, nursing women, sleeping boys, laughing reindeer, wild birds, and a wonderful grumpy old man with six arms, bow and arrow, four legs, in the lotus position, surrounded by flames --- all resting neatly on the back of a testy water buffalo.

Along with the scroll is a black-and-white reproduction with key, telling us, for example, that our fiery friend is "The Great Victorious Diamond Borer." In the center, or near the center of this wonderful lineage, is Buddha himself, at position #31, surrounded by a bevy of clouds and lotus leaves, "The Shakyamuni in a Giant Jewel Lotus," right hand up, third finger bent, benign face, those notoriously long ear-lobes. And off to the left, his "congregation" --- including some of the most alarming looking holy men, looking like they'd bite you if you messed with them; snarling, we suppose, with delight, at being so close to the master.

And you know why his ear-lobes were so pendulous, don't you? The story is, that when he was meditating, and when he felt himself about to drift off, he would yank on his ears to keep himself awake. Thus you now know that all good Buddhists have earlobes that droop down to their shoulders.


--- R. P. Weise

 


Tales from
Rhapsody Home

Or, What They
Don't Tell You
About Senior Living

John Gould
(Algonquin Books of
Chapel Hill)
John Gould has been a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor for almost sixty years, and he's written a ton of books --- twenty-nine to be exact. Having just passed into his ninth decade, he and his wife have moved into Rhapsody Home, a place "somewhere in Maine" for Senior Citizens.

When people write so much for so long, they are either going to grow and get better and better, like Shakespeare, Thackeray, or Dickens --- or they are going to find a formula that works, and play that old harp over and over again until it's time to hang it up.

Gould has obviously decided that he is going to be neither a Shakespeare nor a Dickens. He is thus a moderately interesting hack writer, kind of an ageing Art Buchwald. His sole uniqueness lies in the fact that he was writing columns when Buchwald was still in diapers: Gould wrote his first in 1942. You can imagine what his political stance and style of writing has been, working for the Christian Science Monitor for lo these many years. I mean, they ain't hiring Gonzo journalists there at the home of Mary Baker Eddy.

Gould writes about small-town New England life with the sentimental style that Garrison Keillor has appropriated to the Upper Middle West. Like Keillor, it's stories of fishing, family, funny neighbors --- all those small-town stories, and small town characters, from so long ago --- a world that we find, with nostalgic dismay, has disappeared.

The solution of local, national, and world problems are, for Gould, quite 19th Century. All we need is less talk, less whining --- and more honesty and hard work. However, for him, a soul change comes about when he and his wife enter Rhapsody Home, which, as we read more and more about it, turns out to be nothing more than a warehouse for geezers (or, as a local delivery man has it, "God's Waiting Room.")

It's a sad environment, and instead of mildly amusing stories about the neighbor who built a windmill, or a grandfather who farmed alone and sold honey and talked to the bees, we are presented with the closed world of a nursing home where the food is awful, the conversation is about spleens, liver, and bladder, and the management is --- as typical in such places --- cold, distant, and totally unresponsive to the needs of those who have to live there.

The very first night Gould was buffaloed by the window in his bedroom: there was no way to open it. All these years he and his wife lived with the windows wide, the fresh air of the night blowing through the bedroom, for when he was growing up,

    Fresh air was promoted as being good for us, and to insure longevity, the child must learn to endure the rigors of nighttime winter...As I recall, my bride wore earmuffs on our wedding night...we opened the window onto the sea to hear the breakers and get a breath.

In Rhapsody Home, the window was never meant to open, making it a fitting symbol of the No Exit world they have been moved into.

§     §     §

For those of us they laughingly call Senior Citizens, there are several ways of dealing with extreme old age. One is, obviously, and most commonly, what we might think of as the Lawrence Welk Solution: abject surrender (paint a smile on your face and be a good patient, a very good patient --- until one needs to be patient no longer). There is, alternatively, mystical calm: I'm old, and sick, and dying, I might as well get used to it (at which time one abandons oneself to the divine). Another possibility is rage: taking on the world, not lying down and surrendering ("rage rage against the dying of the light," etc.)

Finally, there is Gould's approach...neither surrender, nor sputtering outrage, nor mysticism. It's, rather, a timid anger, which, in his case, translates into carping. Carping about the insurance agent that drops him after insuring his house for all these years. Carping about the food --- Rhapsody Home serves beef for supper five days in a row. Carping about the window that will never open, and the noisy fan that is sent in to take its place. Carping about the extra $15 he must pay to have his wife bathed: she can't get into Rhapsody Home's bathtub --- they live in place for old folks, they have made the choice to live in a place where the bathtubs are inaccessible.

For some of us, this stiff-upper-lip school of writing just won't do. Here we have an experienced writer, one, obviously, with a gift of words. In response to the insults dumped on him and his fellow ancien régime prisoners, we want to read that he organized protests --- stirred up his peers, called in lawyers, manned picket lines, communicated with the local newspapers, notified the stockholders, the legislators, wrote bitterly about a system that brings obscenely high returns to those who are insensitive to the needs of those in its thrall. This book, for example, would have been a fine place for him to question this darker side of our society: why we are so eager to salt the old folks away, out of sight, out of mind.

It's time for a polemic: J'accuse! With his talent for words (almost three-quarters of a century of daily writing!), with his connections (judges, legislators, the Maine power people he names in boring detail), Gould has the ability to shake up the world of geeze warehousers.

But what do we get? Gould writes meekly, "after our own children were grown, my wife's parents came to live with us. In those days the elderly where not sidetracked into Rhapsody Homes." Instead of a serious diatribe about a culture that holds its old in such scorn, he contents himself with a melancholic whisper: "They've taken me out of the Maine woods and buttoned me up in the new wilderness of tranquil senility."

--- Lolita Lark


Fishers of Men
Kate Gale
(Red Hen Press)
Kate Gale specializes in poetry about love, men, women, sleep, war, dreams, religion, death, myths, fights, abuse, children, Mexico, drinking, sleep, good soup, lime and milk, knives, dogs, prayers, Prozac and "The Joy of Sex:"

    Thongs, garters, silk scarves,
    high heels, flash lights, toe rings,
    glow-in-the-dark condoms
    plastic noses, maple syrup,
    masks with extra facial hair,
    nipple rings, clothespins
    orangutan photos,
    that Rabbi mask you used to wear.
    scared the hell out of me
    nothing was quite the same.

The power comes from the fact that it is honest, often funny, sometimes weird, spectacularly hard-nosed, always to-the-point. None of this Jorie Graham wimpishness, none of the Guggenheim summer-in-Livorno stuff, none of these show-off references to Ulysses, Shakespeare, Agamemnon. It's here-and-now fist-in-the-nuts poetry. For instance this, "Staying with Corduroy," a mother "alone with her son's body,"

                                 His face is round
    spattered with red dew drops, fingers still curved....
    She takes his hand to her mouth,
    rocks gently, singing to him.
    If he isn't hungry any more, he won't come home
    to eat. She had given him yellow socks for Christmas.
    She pulls them off his feet. His toes
    are perfectly lined up, his body unnaturally curved.

If you want to give it a word, that word would be understatement. You and I contemplating the death of our son would fill the world with our cries and anger, screams of Medea for a system gone wild and wrong. For Gale, it is a world that continues with what the blues singers called "its used-to-be:"

    In the next room, someone is playing a waltz.
    Sunlight rains down outside. A lot of people
    Are going to the beach, the radio says.
    When she opens the door and sees someone
    sleeping on the steps, the heat and light swirling
    though the legs of the palm trees seems unbearable.

Understatement, and that literary calm, the calm that seems so peculiarly American --- the calm of Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein.

The title poem, unusually didactic for the author, has to do with the twelve apostles, who are, in this case, followers of "the Grateful Dead/or the Doors." In the context of her writing, it is, too, a sly reference to the unabashed and sometimes overwhelming sexuality driving the women she describes, so winningly and so well.


--- Judith Sessions


{IMPUDENT LETTERS
OF THE MONTH}

Dear Lolita:
After reading Salon and Slate and McSweeneys, I conclude the problem with web zines is that there is no limitation of space out there on the web. Instead of a limit to words in an article, a limit to articles on a page, and a limit of pages in a magazine --- writers of articles in the zines just go on and on. What would be an interesting little squib becomes an article the length of The Pentagon Papers; what would be a sharp and pointed review is so padded in words it loses its sting.

Who do the editors think reads this bowl of pabulum? Endless stories on a daily basis, based on a passing thought, written without much research, fact or effort. Unlike news stories, these pieces strive for a style, a tone --- a voice as in E. B. White or Joan Didion; the New Yorker's Gênet. They strive but they do not arrive.

This is not real writing; this is all Styrofoam and ReddiWhip.

--- HG1932@aol.com


Mr. James Macpherson, ---

I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall not be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian.

What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the public, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable: and what I hear of your morals inclines me to pay regard, not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove. You may print this if you will.

--- SAM. JOHNSON
February 7, 1775
From The Life of Samuel Johnson
James Boswell


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