Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cracks In Various Edifices

After a rather hectic Christmas, I can report that peace has returned to the Manor. All the kids had put in an appearance, along with their friends and sundry acquaintances of mine. One dinner party was particularly memorable, involving as it did a wide-ranging discussion on the trends most likely to be prominent in 2012.

These trends were numerous, ranging from a committed PETA supporter on the importance of 'swine rights' to a biologist arguing forcefully about the critical nature of nematodes and their role in advancing agricultural production. A host of other trends were mentioned, but the group managed to winnow the list down to three.

The first is the coming into being of what Marshall McLuhan called 'The Global Village'. (The man was truly prescient.) The edifice containing nation states that remain separate and distinct is beginning to crumble.Technology has made possible a sharing of information that could only be dreamed about in earlier ages. The effect is dramatic, allowing oppressed people in dire circumstances to see and comprehend that not all are so oppressed, and, indeed, being free and relatively left alone by government or dour religious authorities, create little 'flash mobs' that feature joyful singing and dancing. If them, why not us? The group was unanimous in seeing this question as achieving real impact in 2012.

All also agreed that the second edifice showing cracks was the theory that 'Global Warming' was a hoax and not of any significance. Yet all present concurred that the last Ice Age was still in retreat, things were getting warmer and the weather getting more and more unpredictable. Our efforts at capping carbon are paltry, but this pales in significance when one considers the effect of methane currently bubbling up in the Arctic and Antarctica as the ice sheets decline. Methane is a far more formidable greenhouse gas than carbon, and life on planet Earth is going to get very exciting indeed, with at least some if that excitement scheduled for 2012.

Finally, cracks are beginning to appear, after some 10,000 years, in the role organized religion plays in life. Richard Dawkin's book, The God Delusion, has sold two million English language versions, and has been translated into 31 others. Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great' has become a best seller. This, in my opinion, is all to the good.

I do understand why our paleolithic ancestors invented all manner of gods and goddesses to explain the things that, given the state of knowledge at that time, were mysteries. There even was a birth goddess who was called upon when a man and a woman united. She, however, faded away when the tribe learned to count to nine.

It was, however, when patriarchy grabbed the religious reins that things really took a turn for the worse. The 'holy' religious texts used to browbeat various populaces into submission have foundations with no basis whatsoever in fact. Yet these texts allow religious leaders to wage war, curtail all manner of freedoms, and see women as chattel. AND IT IS STILL GOING ON. Science and reason should have brought all this to an end long ago, but the staying power of religion is formidable.

This could, and probably is, a result of fear of death. Woody Allen puts this well (as he usually does) when he stated "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying."

Cracks are, however appearing in the religious edifice, and not before time. As for me, I take solace in the following advice from Victor Hugo: "It is nothing to die; it is frightful not to live."

Discuss among yourselves.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Irony And An Incident In Berlin

Just arrived back from Berlin in time for the annual Christmas gathering at the Manor. The event I most looked forward, the Great Snowball Fight involving the staff and kids, unfortunately has been cancelled. The problem? Snow. There isn't any.

Well, these things happen, and not all was bad. Team Simone will hold the Snowball Championship Trophy (a crystal icicle designed by Claes Oldenburg) for another year.

As for my trip to Berlin, it came more or less right out of the blue. The Compte de Rienville had been staying with me at the Manor, but had received an urgent request (an order, really) to attend a meeting in Berlin. "More Euro gnashing and flossing of teeth" he said, annoyance in his voice. Then he brightened. "Perhaps you could come with me? For"

"Always glad to supply both," I replied. "And a chance to keep up my German."

"C'est si bon."

The Compte made arrangements. First class on Air France, to which I reciprocated by booking a suite at the Adlon on Unter den Linden. Then we were off.

It had been some time since I had been in Berlin, but it was in this city that I had first really practiced The Trade. Not without some mishaps, including some nasty run-ins with the Stasi of the then DDR. Thus when the Compte sallied forth to his meetings, I took the opportunity to roam about. The Adlon is centrally located, and close to the Brandenburg Gate. I went through, thinking that at an earlier time this would have taken some time and not a little courage.

The changes in the former East Berlin were remarkable, and the rubble that had all been too evident at that time had disappeared, with new edifices everywhere. I searched for, and found, a back alley off Karl Marx Platz where I had almost been captured by the KBG. I shuddered at the memory. THAT venue hadn't changed much.

The Incident occurred as I was making my way out of the alley. Three skinheads entered. They spotted me, pulled out some wicked-looking knives, and one snarled, "That purse. We'll have it!"

That 'purse' was my Louis Vuitton, and they definitely weren't having it. I thought of using the martial art known as Tai Chi Chuan, but this was a killing technique, and would be like using a hammer to kill a flies. Instead, I opened my purse, pulled out my small Smith & Wesson J-Frame, and said calmly, "Well, lads, now you've done it. You've fallen victim to a cliche -- you've brought knives to a gun fight. Bad idea."

The tallest of the trio, and the obvious leader, said, "That puny little weapon? Bullshit. Let's take her!"

I shot him in the leg.

That brought proceedings to an abrupt halt.

"Now, lads, those knives. Schnell, bitte!" That shot would have been heard by someone, so time was an issue.

The two left standing complied, thoroughly cowed. (Bullies always tend to collapse when confronted by someone eager to fight back). I gathered all three knives, and said bluntly, "Now think about all this. And do something with your lives. Drive a truck. Make a shoe. And always remember, expect the unexpected. Oh, and you friend will need medical attention. If he is indeed your friend." That choice I would leave to them. The one thing I was sure of was that I would never be implicated in the attack. Brought down by a woman? An admission that would never be made.

I left the alley, dropped the knives into a nearby catch basin, and returned to the hotel and a serious Grey Goose over ice. The Compte arrived in a bad mood -- Euro meetings have that effect on him -- but the Grey Goose treatment, my recounting of The Incident and some play (our business, not your's) soon put that right.

The Compte said he had a connection at the Berlin Staatoper, and if I liked, we could attend. But I could tell he wasn't overly keen on the idea.

"What is the opera?" I inquired.

"Wagner's Gotterdammerung."

"Oh, let's not. Why attend an opera when Europe appears to be well into the twilight of the gods in any event?"

"Point taken," replied the Compte.

And here we come to Irony. It amazes me that Germany in the first half of the Twentieth century set about wrecking Europe, and largely succeeded. In the early Twenty-First century, however, it is Germany that has the power to save Europe. Odd. Exceedingly odd.

So concludes my little sojourn in Berlin.

Fitting, then, to wish all readers a truly Frohliche Weihnachten.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Veil Of Tears

Sorry -- a bit late with this one. Christmas at the Manor can be hectic, and throughout all the running to and fro, Wordsworth's line kept thundering in my head: "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." But finally came a lull, along with a welcome visit from the Compte de Rienville, who somehow had managed to extricate himself from a myriad of European meetings involving frantic hand wringing about saving the Euro.

We were relaxing in the kitchen, enjoying a fine quiche laced with truffles whipped up by my cook, Henri, all washed down by an excellent Chablis. Both of us were absorbed in various newspapers. It was then that I noticed an item, and said to the Compte, "What if I were to apply for citizenship in Saudi Arabia?"

This question resulted in a huge "Hah!" as well as spilling of a good dollop of Chablis.

"What's so funny?"

He replied, "Oh, I just had a vision of you in a naquib trailing behind some bearded loon of a guardian, all meek, Islamic and submissive. Not really you, Cherie. Not by a long shot."

"Yet, were I actually to apply, then I would have to agree to abide by Saudi culture, mores, and their strict interpretation of Islam. This I accept -- it would be my choice, my responsibility."

"And your point is....?

"My gorge simply rises at --"

"And a beautiful gorge it is --"

"Stop it. I am talking about the reverse of the medal. What is profoundly irritating to me is that several women, daughters of Islam if you will, are refusing to remove their veils when taking the citizenship oath and receiving their papers. One went so far as to say she would be more comfortable swearing allegiance to Allah than the Queen. Now the Queen is an actual personage as well as a symbol, while Allah really is an imaginary friend. The whole thing borders on the ludicrous."

"So what occurred?" asked the Compte.

"I am glad to say that the good Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration, would have none of it. This is Canada, not some country under the sway of self-appointed religious lunatics. I mean, if I were to flounce about Mecca in a tight sweater and mini skirt, I would probably lose, not only sweater and skirt, but my head as well."

"An appalling thought."


"You losing your head."

The Compte can be charming, but from time to time can safely be ignored, and I continued my little rant. "What I have trouble grasping in all this is that if these women are so uncomfortable with the Canadian way of life, why don't they just up and leave for whatever religious hellhole they came from?"

"A good question," said the Compte. "It is as if these women want to keep some of their traditions, but not all. Your word 'hellhole' sums it up well. I suspect, when push comes to shove, veils will be removed. Now I have come across a newspaper item that gets at another type of veil, a kind of vale of tears."

"What are you talking about?"

"I notice that Christopher Hitchens has passed away. A loss -- he always put forward interesting stuff".

"He did indeed", I said, "and I am sadly aware that he is no longer with us. His attacks on the horror of organized religion are to me essential reading. One quote from his God Is Not Great stays with me, a title from an etching by Goya: 'The sleep of reason brings forth monsters'. Hard to top that."

"And I won't even try," replied the Compte.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Family Update And The Imperfect Perfect

During my recent wrestle with the Illness Corn God, it was heartening to note that all my brats fluttered in from various parts of the globe, all full of concern. Lord Strunsky and I must have done something right. As I perked up, and they saw that I was well enough to cope with Newt Gingrich and his dandruffy head, fears were greatly allayed.

All were doing well.

My oldest daughter,Isolde, she who performs miracles with the violin, had flown in from Vienna, where she had gained the position of concert master at the Vienna Philharmonic. It was good to see her happy. Sebastian, my favourite dress designer, came in from Paris and was also doing well. Very well indeed, of which more in a moment.

My second daughter Victoria, an historian who supplements her income with portraying girls in all manner of peril in television and film, flew in from Los Angeles. Vicky, however, was in a spot of trouble. Apparently she had written an article for some prestigious magazine, the thesis being that the Old Testament of the Bible contains only one actual historical reference -- there really was a King David. All other instances are either folklore, hearsay, myth or priestly invention. The storm of criticism from infuriated divines this evoked was massive This thesis I will have to research myself, but if true, I told her in no uncertain terms to not apply the same technique to the Qur'an. Having one Strunsky on a hit list was enough.

Mark, my youngest and now a physicist, arrived from Geneva where he was involved with the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. Grateful that he had taken the time to come, I refrained from getting into our usual argument about whether consciousness or matter was at the heart of the universe. To my mind, smashing things to bits simply leads to smaller bits, but that's an issue for another day.

Now back to Sebastian.

He was, to put it mildly, ecstatic. He had just completed his Paris showing, and it had been a resounding success.

"And," I asked, as any mother would, "just how was this success achieved?"

"Well" he began, "about a month earlier, I came across a poem by Robert Browning, Andrea Del Sarto, to be exact."

"Andrea Del Sarto," I said. "Sixteenth Century. A Florentine. Called 'the faultless painter.'"

"Exactly. He painted perfect pictures, symmetrical, everything in its proper place. This made him popular in his time. But now...not so much. Then I went to the Louvre and looked, really looked, at Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The imperfection, if that's what it is, is in that smile. It draws you in, and holds you."

"Your point being?"

Here Sebastian got somewhat animated. "Long story short, Mum, I took this accent on imperfection and applied it dress design. Sheathes with oddly placed zippers. Skirts never with a perfectly rounded hem, slightly askew, but never outrageously so. Just enough to raise interest. Buttons and fringes where buttons and fringes rarely are. All of which, when shown, riveted the audience, Or so I am told. I left soon after the showing when I heard about your illness."

"I guess the proof will be in the orders."

"You're right. Although I hear that two have already been placed."

By whom?" I asked.

"Well, Lady Gaga was one."

"And the other?"

"The Duchess of Cambridge."

"Really! Can't go wrong there."

Sebastian smiled, and said, "You know, it was something you said that encouraged me, that Dorothy Parker quote."

"And just what quote was that?"

"Nothing succeeds like a dress."

Friday, December 2, 2011

Eye Of Newt

I have just dealt with a rather unusual request from the Americans, received from my CIA friend, Matilda Hatt. Apparently someone in some Department or other had read (and, surprisingly, understood) my analysis of the European debt crisis, and wanted my thoughts on the upcoming American election. Given the sea of Republican candidates that keep bobbing up, they apparently were at sea themselves when it came to assessing who would run against Obama next November.

This does not surprise, given that the confusion does not spring from politics, but rather from the media. You see, the media knows full well who will be contesting the election, but if they declare this, there would be nothing to write about for almost an entire year, and blank pages or screens are every media manager's nightmare. Moreover, receipts would fall, subscriptions lapse, and monetary rewards would shrink drastically -- a scenario to be prevented at any cost.

Hence great attention is given to a variety of Republican hopefuls. First to be so honoured was the former Governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman. This attention, however, did not last long. Mr. Huntsman advocated sensible and workable policies, had great experience in government, and was even appointed by Obama as Ambassador to China. (Huntsman is fluent in Mandarin.) While Huntsman is the one candidate that terrifies Obama, there was no need to worry -- most Republicans shunned him. After all, good sense is not what they're about.

Next to be promoted by the media was Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who wanted to eviscerate the Federal Government, save for the military. It was as if he was channeling the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, whose answer to any problem America might face was "Bomb'Em!" This was even too much for the Tea Party.

Then the media turned to Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, who appeared a very attractive candidate until she did an extremely foolish thing and spoke out loud. One example might serve: "Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows carbon dioxide is a harmful gas." Bye, Bye Michelle.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas then had his turn, and was doing well until, at a televised meeting of candidates, he emphasized that he would shut down three Government Departments -- Education, Health Care, etc. etc. Thus fell Governor Perry. [Note. The third forgotten Department was Energy, which has jurisdiction over America's nuclear initiatives and plants. What would happen to these if Perry's proposal ever came to be is unknown.]

Next comes a black challenger to Obama, Herman Cain. Mr. Cain runs a successful pizza business, and sees this experience as a springboard to America's highest office. He may be right, but it was all for naught, as a slew of sexual assault charges came to light. All Mr. Cain could do was to deny that he had had sex with that woman, or that woman, or that woman, and so on. The denials didn't work, and Mr. Cain's run was over.

Finally we come to the current front runner, former House Leader Newt Gingrich (real name Newton). We have seen Newt before, having success with his 'Contract With America' a contract that was quickly broken once Americans had a chance to see just what was on offer. Newt will put up a good fight, but the fact that he is a philanderer and an adulterer will be more that most God-fearing Republicans can stomach. After all, even as he was bringing impeachment charges against Bill Clinton's trip down the primrose path of dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, Newt was romancing his mistress while his wife was dying of cancer. A bridge truly too far.

So it will be the sensible Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama. Yes, Romney is a Mormon, a religion founded by a con man, Joseph Smith, always fleeing authorities across a multitude of state lines. At some point, however, he invented the Book of Mormon, and found an imaginary friend, the angel Moroni. This will work against him, but should not be insuperable to overcome. And as far as I know, no Mormon has flown an airplane into a building or maimed and killed on behalf of his imaginary friend.

The media, though, will still need things to write about, so there could well be other Republicans that are pushed into the limelight. And as for Newt, well, the election occurs in November, and the holiday season begins to loom. There would be few Democrats that could resist making the point that Newt really would be "the Gingrich that stole Christmas".

Couldn't resist that myself.