07 March 2014

Old-Style Haying on the Farm

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In the 1950s, in the old days before my father started harvesting his annual hay crop in the form of compact bales, he gathered the hay loose and filled the bigger (west) haymow with it.  I was too young to help out, but I often went along for the ride.  These farm practices are long gone (except maybe among the Amish). 
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My father used a “buck-rake” bolted to the front of his pickup truck to scoop the loose hay up off the fields and bring it to the barn.  It was like a huge comb, with many long wooden iron-tipped pikes as teeth sticking out in front at about ground level.  He could lower it to graze the ground and pick up the hay, or raise it up a bit for the transport of a full load, by manipulating a large lever just outside the driver’s side window of his truck. 
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The hay was first prepared by a couple of archaic two-wheeled machines that were originally designed to be pulled by a horse team but were now adapted for towing by my father’s pickup truck.  First the hay was cut with a two-wheeled mower contraption that had a seat for a man on it to manipulate the right-side mechanical cutter blade arm via levers and gears, thus raising it, lowering it, putting it into cutting gear, etc.  The wheels of the unit drove the cutting blades, which were like a wide giant hair clipper throughout the length of its long arm. 
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After the hay was dried a bit by the sun, a second similarly wheel-driven, truck-towed unit was used to dry it further.  This was the “tedder,” and it went over the fresh-cut hay to ted it, i.e., to scoop it and fluff it up for better air-drying with mechanically rising and falling forks that tossed up the hay in its wake.  My grandfather Wesley C. Barlow sat on the seat of each of these machines, controlling their levers and gears, as my father pulled them with the truck.  I remember in later years playing on and around that old, now-retired, tedder as it rusted down out behind my grandfather’s old poultry Incubator Cellar.  My sister has a photo of her on it as a little kid. 
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Gathering the hay in the field was exciting, and I loved to ride along.  The tedded and dried hay would lie in rows, and my father would collect it into bigger piles with the buck-rake on the pickup truck.  When he had a full load all lined up, he would gun the engine and ram the pile fast – boom!  The impact with the huge pile of hay was a great thrill!  He would then lever the buck-rake’s teeth upward to transport the hay to the barn, and he could barely see around the load, craning his head out the window.  When crossing highways, he had to ask me, riding shotgun, if the automobile traffic was clear or not. 
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Once at the barn, he would drive into the barn floor’s center then lower the buck-rake teeth to the floor, and then back the truck out, leaving a big pile of hay.  The barn had a rail up at its peak, going east-west along its ridge.  From this rail a huge pulley system with a hay-fork array was lowered, a cluster of big hay blades that were driven and kicked deep into the bottom of the hay pile from all sides and somehow locked to clutch it. 
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The barn had a system of ropes (big old hemp ones over an inch-and-a-half thick) and big wooden pulleys.  The hay-fork with its big load was hoisted straight up by a rope tied via pulleys to our 1953/4 Chevy automobile, which my mother drove the dozen or so feet away from the barn necessary to haul it up.  My father stood by watching to yell “Whoa!” at the appropriate moment. 
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When the hay-fork had reached the barn’s peak, it then traversed laterally on the rail over the big mow on the barn’s west side.  And there it hung.  A smaller rope was attached to the hay-fork and was its trip-rope.  My grandfather always authoritatively manned this rope.  One yank and it dumped the whole load of hay.  Whoosh!  One time I conned my grandfather into letting me pull the rope to dump the hay.  It was a small child’s thrill to control this spectacular part of the work, and I remember seeing the immense clouds of hay dust rise in the rays of late-afternoon sun coming in the west window.  
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However, I got carried away by this new-found sense of power.  I decided to play a joke on my father because, after all, he always played jokes on everybody else (and if you knew him, you know this is true).  He would get into the mow both before and after the fork dump to manually fork and re-distribute the hay.  I thought it would be great fun to dump the load on him when he was under it.  (In the years since, every single time I think of this episode, I am aghast:  I could have killed him, broken his neck!)  Eagerly anticipating, I timed it until he was right beneath the fork, and I tripped the rope.  My grandfather, who was standing right beside me and who had given me this job, was aghast. 
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My father emerged from under the pile of hay looking, not quite angry, but a bit embarrassed and uncomfortable.  That job of working the trip-rope was my first experience of being fired from a job. 
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One more early memory from those long-gone days of loose hay gathering stays with me.  It has to do with a frightening lightning storm and the entrance on the scene of a local hero who was mostly a stranger to me before. 
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My father was out in the field across the road, picking up hay with the buck-rake, and I had wandered up the street towards town.  It may have been one of my early runaway exploits or just an example of my curious rambling nature; I cannot remember my motive.  But I was a little guy who was blocks away from home when this tremendous thunder and lightning storm blackened the afternoon sky.  I had never seen anything like it and was frozen in place with fright. A big storm was coming in fast. 
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The older kids in town, those old enough to ride bicycle, decided that someone should take me home.  Ray Abbott didn’t hesitate.  He told me to sit side-saddle on the cross-bar of his bicycle (first experience of this for me) and hold on tight, and he pedaled me home.  I remember looking straight upward as we went down the street, and I saw brilliant, flashing, intertwined forks of lightning in a display like nothing that’s ever impressed me since, followed by deafening cracks and booms.  Chilling cosmic chaos!  Ray saw my father about to leave the field with his last load of hay and rode me right up to the truck.  Safe inside it, I was still mesmerized by the storm. 
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Years later, Ray was also known as the bravest diver in town at our old swimming hole, “The Willow” on Stillwater Creek, and he mastered the art of the high shallow dive off a tree limb.  The control and raw courage he showed in his dives was awesome to behold, and I never saw anyone duplicate them. 
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Ray was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967 serving in the 7th Marines at An Hoa.  This tragedy sent shockwaves through the entire town.  Two-and-a-half years later I was out at An Hoa with the 1st Marine Division, and it was still a wild untamed combat zone.  Ray was a few years older than me and very quiet, so I never got to know him well, but I wish so much that I had.  I will always associate him with those days of old. 
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That old time era of loose hay gathering ended when area farmers started baling hay.  The solid square bales stacked well in the lofts, and you could get a lot more hay packed into the barn.  My father’s operation wasn’t big enough to justify investment in the new baling equipment, so he hired out that job to neighboring farmers. 
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When I came of age for heavy lifting, we picked up the bales from the field and loaded them on the back of the pickup truck, 45 bales per load, tied on tight.  Then we manhandled them up to the top of the loft.  When the green season ended, from Halloween to Beltane, my job was to climb the lofts and toss bales down to feed the cows.  That seasonal fodder cycle is still timeless.  Only the specific technology changes. 
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-Zenwind.

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27 February 2014

Review: Cato: a Tragedy (1713) by Joseph Addison

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I had a delightful surprise when I finally got to read Addison’s Cato:  a Tragedy in Five Acts on my Kindle recently.  It was much better than I’d hoped.  This short drama was first staged in 1713 in London and was a big hit in the 18th Century.  Said to be the favorite play of George Washington, he had it staged for the troops during the bitter winter bivouac at Valley Forge.  Now I can see why. 
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Cato is a concise but immensely powerful classic of the struggle between liberty (represented by Cato the Younger) versus tyranny (that of Julius Caesar).  I had always heard of the fame and influence of the classical-liberal (i.e., libertarian), radical Whig pamphlet series, Cato’s Letters (1720-23), by the Englishman John Trenchard and the Scotsman Thomas Gordon, but only now do I appreciate exactly why they chose the pseudonym of “Cato” for their revolutionary publications:  in those days every reader knew that the name stood solidly for individual freedom against authoritarian power.  This latter pamphlet series was said to be the most widely read of political writings in the American Colonies in the decades running up to the Revolution.  And, of course, today’s libertarian think tank, Cato Institute, famously takes its name from the Trenchard-Gordon series. 
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One thing that jumped right out at me as I read Cato was that a couple of the most famous quotations from the American Revolutionary era must surely have been proclaimed while knowing that the contemporary audience also was well-versed in Addison’s play.  I’m thinking of Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale. 
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Another thing that struck me fully was how much, in Addison’s era, the name of Julius Caesar was tied to villainous tyranny.  Caesar’s ambition for power led to the destabilization and end of the great Roman Republic, a republic with a rule of law, strong checks on government power, and strong institutions protecting the freedom of its citizens.  Cato and the Republic represented liberty, while Caesar brought in the age of empire, rule by conquering generals, endless war, the end of liberty, and the establishment of absolute power in one man. 
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The history of Caesar’s ambition for power was blasted by 18th Century thinkers.  Addison was born in 1672 and witnessed England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, a milestone in human history so far as chaining down government power.  This revolution in political thinking was articulated best by John Locke and Algernon Sidney, and was furthered by Addison, Trenchard and Gordon, and on through the American Founders.  Remember Henry’s other famous speech:  “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First had his Cromwell; and George the Third may profit by their example.  If this be treason, make the most of it!” 
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My point:  the very idea of ambitious power-lusting tyrants such as Caesar was abhorred, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the 18th Century Enlightenment (except for odd collectivists like Rousseau).  But, tragically, Anglo-American thinkers started to worship the memory of the dictator Julius Caesar by the latter half of the 19th Century, at the same time when libertarians like Thomas Jefferson were no longer admired as much as before.  This was the time when Statism, i.e., the conceit that state power can be “good” and that “great men” should be allowed great power, was becoming the new political god.  To objectify the predictable result from this new surge in statist ideology, witness:  the 20th Century, with its bloody totalitarian dictatorships and gruesome total wars; Caesar triumphant!  Cato forgotten. 
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Is there hope for the true freedom of individuals in the modern world?  Probably not in my lifetime, as the rot of slavish worship of government power as a cure-all is still rampant.  Yet, there is always future hope in education.  There are the timeless libraries of liberty.  E.g., after being unavailable for more than a century, Cato’s Letters is now back in print as well as online here. And Addison’s Cato:  a Tragedy in Five Acts is available online here
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Cato the Younger was famous for his love of liberty, his integrity, his refusal of any bribes, and his opposition to Julius Caesar.  One reason Caesar had so many allies is that he gave out the goodies, the spoils of war and power, to both his cronies and the populace, making the corruption surrounding him remind us in Thailand of today’s (exiled) big boss of ambition.
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-Zenwind.

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09 February 2014

50 Years Ago Today, The Beatles Taught Us How to Play

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In February 1964 the British Invasion of America began with The Beatles appearing on the universally watched Ed Sullivan TV Show.  Beatlemania hit our shores, with excellent British bands following shortly after, and American youth were never the same again.  It was a revolution, indeed. 
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The Beatles broke into phenomenal popularity in the UK in 1963, unbeknownst to us in the States.  My first clue was on Christmas Day 1963.  I was a 13-year-old wannabe hipster trying to tune in my brand new AM transistor radio.  (No FM pop or Rock in those days; FM was still only for Classical.)  That afternoon I heard a radio DJ announce the next song with a bit of surprise in his voice.  He said that this was a song by a band “from England”!  I was surprised too.  We didn’t know that the British even listened to Rock n Roll, let alone played it.  Man, were we ever surprised in the coming months! 
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That song was She Loves You – “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”  Totally unique like we’d never imagined music could be sung and played.  I heard the song again twice in the next week to New Years.  Then in January 1964 a series of Beatles’ songs assaulted the American pop charts and radio slots.  I remember sitting at breakfast on a school morning with the AM radio next to my ear at our old kitchen table.  Just before finishing breakfast I had the immense joy of hearing the radio pump out I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the Number One hit in the nation!  Wow!  Their music was so Happy!  It was more upbeat, honest, innocent, and fresh than anything we’d heard before. 
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Within two months time The Beatles completely captured the American pop charts.  They always had 5 songs in the Top Ten every week for weeks and weeks, and they always had a lock on the number 1, 2, and 3 spots, new songs replacing the earlier ones.  It was indeed a Phenomenon. 
In February 1964 The Beatles came to America and played on the most popular variety show of that time, The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday evenings.  They taped enough music in New York and Miami to play for three weekly shows – delighting and enlightening the youth of the USA.  Here is a BBC article about that time, with an excellent 29-minute video of the complete Sullivan performances.  My own favorite part of this video is on their third appearance, at minute-22, when they launch into Twist and Shout, followed by Please Please Me and I Wanna Hold Your Hand.  
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On the evening of their historic first performance, I had gone (i.e., I had been forced to go) to Sunday night church with my father, the end time of the service being the exact start time of the TV show.  Church ended, and we had to look forward to the inevitably painful delays of shaking hands and meaningless chat with fellow parishioners at the back of the church before escaping – too late – to the parking lot and home.  I would miss much of the show. 
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To my delight and total surprise, my father – knowing how much I wanted to see the Beatles TV show – furtively suggested to me that we quickly exit the church via the door left of the pulpit down to the parking lot, thus escaping the glad-handing mob.  For this, I am eternally grateful to my father’s perceptiveness and kindness in that simple humane gesture.  He truly understood me at that moment. 
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We got home just minutes after the Sullivan Show had started.  My mom had the TV on and tuned in.  As we entered the living room, still in our winter clothes, The Beatles had started to sing and the crowd went absolutely bonkers!  Pop joy!  It really was an historical event. 
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The first record album I ever bought was the 33-RPM vinyl Meet The Beatles, the first album release in America by Capitol Records.  Cousin Bonnie bought an even earlier album, a British release on another label with their earlier songs. 
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The “British Invasion” had begun.  The first Rock group to knock the Beatles off the number one in England were The Dave Clark Five with Glad All Over, an exuberant ode to joy.  My next album purchase was of theirs.  (In later years they had radio hits that I listened to while sleeping out in the yard under the stars, my favorite music venue, in 1965, I Like It Like That in the summer, and Catch Me If You Can in the autumn.) 
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Then the 1964 British group The Searchers hit the top of the British charts, with a cover of Needles and Pins.  As 1964 turned into summer, we had even more bizarre and beautiful music from the UK.  That summer American radio heard The Animals (a Newcastle working class band with Eric Burdon singing) playing The House of the Rising Sun, a mournful old American Blues standard that few in my generation had never heard.  Thus was the main theme of the British Invasion:  American Blues, Rock, and pop songs recycled back to us through British interpretations. 
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That very same 1964 summer week we also heard for the first time a new British group called The Rolling Stones, playing Tell Me, and later, It’s All Over Now (now a standard that I have heard still played in Bangkok bars).  My late great best friend from my youth, Ron Diethrick (1948-2011), and I sat in my parents’ living room beside an ancient cabinet phonograph, playing these Stones songs over and over again to try to decode the lyrics; Ron had pencil and paper, and he got down to serious business.  (We also decoded the lyrics to “Monster Mash” with the same methodical technique.)  My mother drove Ron and me to a theater in the nearest city where we saw the Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night
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I will never forget being in the barn one day when my cousin Dan was working.  The radio was on, and as The Beatles’ Twist and Shout came on, we just looked at each other and nodded – “Oh, Yeah!” 
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As 1964 turned over into 1965, I remember a classroom discussion in 9th grade.  I was in a Civics class and was seated with class members, basically good decent folk, who later became preachers and leading members of their communities.  I.e., I was mismatched.  The Beatles had been popular for over a year now, and one of my classmates remarked to another, “I think the Beatles are okay,” to which another nodded in tentative agreement.  Then I put in my own two cents, “I like the Rolling Stones.”  To which they visibly shrank away in horror, implying that the Rolling Stones are “not acceptable.”  Always the heretic, I still love the Stones. 
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In the summer of 1965, my poor suffering mother drove my good friend Dick Hale (1950-1973) and me to a drive-in movie theater to see the Beatles film Help.  My mom was ill (perhaps a gall stone attack) and lay uncomfortably groaning in the back seat while Dick and I sat up front reveling in the music.  (Mothers do endure so much self-sacrificial agony for their kids.  I think some kind of sainthood is in order.) 
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But if you think Rock was good in early 1965, you should have heard the incredibly new sounds reaching America in the summer of 65 (e.g., The Yardbirds, the band that had a history of great guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page), and into 66 (The Who, “Talkin’ bout my generation!”), and 67.  It just got better and better. The entire decade rocked.  My life’s soundtrack. 
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For me it started 50 years ago today. 
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-Zenwind.

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11 January 2014

Movie Review: Rush (2013)

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Hear the roar, the scream, and the whine of the engines!  Formula One World Championship auto racing in the 1970s.  Wow!  I wish my father was still around to see this film.  Rush was directed by Ron Howard, and it follows the story of the personal duel between the notorious British playboy driver James Hunt and the technical Austrian driver Niki Lauda, focusing on their 1976 fight for the Formula One World Championship.  (There is also some very good 70s music.) 
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My father was a fan of Formula One, mainly of the Memorial Day classic of the Indianapolis 500.  The Indy 500 was not a part of the Grand Prix circuit, but it was a big American tradition.  Memorial Day was one of our family’s biggest holiday get-togethers, the beginning of the summer season and right after my paternal grandparents returned each year to the north, with a picnic at either Pike’s Rocks or in our back yard.  The AM radio would be tuned to live coverage of the race. 
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I think my father closeted within himself a secret desire to drive that fast among those daredevils.  His Marine ferocity was (usually) very well controlled and suppressed, but sometimes it came close to bubbling to the surface.  He would tell me of great drivers of legend, such as Sterling Moss (active racing from 1951-1961) and even earlier drivers, with a gleam in his eye.  He relished the exploits of these men on the edge. 
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Rush stars Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as Lauda.  Music is by Hans Zimmer, with a couple of well-placed classic 70s rock tracks in the mix. 
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Voorrroooooooooomm!
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-Zenwind.

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01 January 2014

Book Review: Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1st century BC)

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The philosophy of Epicureanism – of which this book by the Roman poet Lucretius is a classic account – has been very dear to my heart and mind for some 45 years, since I first discovered it in my explorations in philosophy while in high school.  But I never completely finished reading this long poem On the Nature of Things until this year.  It is not an easy read, mainly because of some rudimentary – although astoundingly ahead of their time – physics in the early chapters. 
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The Greek thinker Epicurus (341-270 BC) was my kind of philosopher.  Unfortunately, his reputation has been scandalized through millennia by quite outrageous lies from those of opposing worldviews.  Epicurus’ ethical goal of “pleasure” meant the dispelling of pain and anxiety, and then achieving “tranquility of soul” or “imperturbability” while living a simple life of scholarship and conversation among friends.  His philosophy is not one of over-indulgence or gluttony, as his detractors allege.  Quite the opposite. 
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In this long poem, On the Nature of Things, Lucretius presents Epicureanism in Latin to the Romans, and the philosophy became very popular among them. Lucretius’ work is one of our best sources on it, but the poem itself barely survived.  One copy was discovered in 1417 in a monastery by Poggio Bracciolini, an avid document hunter from Florence, and then re-copied.  Its re-discovery gave a big stimulus to modern science.  Thomas Jefferson – who wrote that “I too am an Epicurean” – had five Latin editions of this work plus translations in English, French and Italian.  Montaigne also loved the poem. 
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Epicurus had developed Democritus’ materialistic theory of atoms, the entire universe being made up of their interactions in a void.  Natural laws rule the universe, not supernatural causes.  For us, it is Chance, not deities, that explains many of the things that happen to us, and we should abandon all superstitious fears.  The gods do not interfere in our lives, so we shouldn’t worry about them.  Death “is nothing to us” – since our soul/ consciousness/ mind dies with our bodies – and so we shouldn’t fear it.  We are all mortal, but we should enjoy life without worry or anxiety.  This kind of tranquility they called ataraxia in Greek.  Reminds me of some Buddhist traditions. 
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If you do wade into On the Nature of Things, here is a rough outline.  Of six books, the first two treat the physics of atomism – and these always stalled me out.  But they grade into book three which I find very good, tracing the materialistic roots of living things and of consciousness.  It is very modern in spirit.  Book four speculates on the senses, dreams, and sex.  The last two books again talk about natural phenomena.  
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I’m looking forward to reading it again someday. 
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-Zenwind.

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30 December 2013

Book Review: Ayn Rand Explained (2013) by Merrill/Enright

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This book was originally written by the late Ronald E. Merrill under the title The Ideas of Ayn Rand (1991).  In 2013 Marsha Familaro Enright revised and updated it under the present title. 
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Rand was one of my earliest philosophical teachers, waking me up to the awareness of rigorous rationality as an all-important human virtue and to a new respect for science (for this poetic mind).  I had already been a radical individualist, contemptuous of coercion against any peaceful pursuits of happiness, and from early on I have been an extreme advocate of equal freedom for all, as well as a lover of heroic esthetics (e.g., Zorro, Robin Hood, etc.), so those parts of me were only reinforced by her similar tastes and her writings. 
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I still am fond of reading about Rand’s life and the cultural movement created in her trail.  Since I have read most of her primary published works, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as a lot of the secondary literature of Objectivism and its history, her heritage is one of my main specialties on both philosophical systems and in the study of mass movements. 
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Objectivism has had its cultic, true believer aspects right from the start – but that contradicts the very heart of ‘objectivism’ as a standard of sovereign individual judgment and intellectual honesty, doesn’t it?  Rand herself is not above criticism here, as she helped create that culture of ideological ‘conformity’ sometimes seen within this movement of ‘individualists’.  Merrill/Enright sees this and doesn’t brush it aside, but they instead balance their portrait of praise and blame rather well – rather ‘objectively’, I think.  No one will agree with everything they say – and I certainly don’t – but the book is a good read for anyone curious about Rand or already knowledgeable about her ideas. 
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Spoiler Alert!  Merrill/Enright gives away important plot details from Rand’s fiction, so if you haven’t already read her major fiction you might put reading this book on hold until you do. 
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The book’s chapters are:  The Controversial Ayn Rand; Who Was Ayn Rand?; Ayn Rand in Person; The Young Nietzschean; Scourge of the Second-Handers; The Book that Changed the World; Rand the Philosopher; Rand’s Politics; and Ayn Rand’s Revolution. 
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I stalled out at ‘Rand the Philosopher’.  I had already read and digested so much of this in my youth – and, since technical philosophical arguments and logical entanglements are not my favorite part of the discipline, they often bore me to death.  (Yet the chapter is very well done.)  I got distracted and read other things before returning to the book.  I must read this book again to savor the parts I liked most and the information that I’d never heard before.  I may revise parts of this review later. 
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-Zenwind.

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28 December 2013

Book Review: Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (3rd century AD)

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I just finished reading a book that I started browsing randomly over 40 years ago.  Diogenes Laertius lived in the early 3rd century AD and wrote in Greek, drawing his biographies of the Greek philosophers from an immense number of sources available to him but of which a vast amount are no longer extant.  He is one of the few sources we have about many of these thinkers. 
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Reading Diogenes Laertius, I get the sense of the huge irreplaceable loss of most of the writings of the ancient Greeks.  He catalogues extensive lists of the books that they wrote and that we will never see, and he also quotes or makes reference to numerous other (lost) ancient biographies of these philosophers.  But what really knocked me over was that, while we see him as a rare ancient voice from the distant ages, he looked at many of his own biographical subjects as ancients, with many of their works lost to his own times!  Apparently, even parts of this very book of Diogenes Laertius are lost, as evidence suggests that he wrote about many more thinkers not included in the received book.  How fragile the transmission of human knowledge is. 
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Diogenes Laertius may not have been the greatest biographer or philosopher.  He often seems gossipy and a recorder of trivialities.  He also provides little verses of his own about several of these thinkers, often dealing with their tragic-comic moments of death.  These ditties are a bit trite, but they reinforce in me the sense that he wrote as much for entertainment as for philosophic enlightenment.
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But I really like his treatment of the philosopher’s life in its full biographical sweep, recording them as mortal men, through their lives and including their troubles, illnesses, and last days.  He gives us the texts of many of the wills and letters of the old philosophers. He provides three long important letters of Epicurus, of which the third is my favorite.  I often see – especially in his accounts of the Epicurean predecessors and then Epicurus and his later school, and of the Stoics, the Cynics, and Skeptics – a familiar primacy of achieving “tranquility” that reminds me of the Buddha’s early teachings. 
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Montaigne (1533-1592) said it well for me:  “I am very sorry we have not a dozen Diogenes Laertius, or that he was not further extended; for I am equally curious to know the lives and fortunes of these great instructors of the world, as to know the diversities of their doctrines and opinions” (Essays, book X, “On Books”). 
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I read this work in a textually corrupted eBook version of the 1853 translation by Charles Duke Yonge.  I’m not sure where I downloaded it from, but I will look for another eBook version that is formatted better for my Kindle. 
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I will look for the classic 1925 translation by Robert Drew Hicks (Loeb Classical Library, with the slightly shorter title, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers), originally in a two-volume bound edition (with English and Greek texts), which is said to be now in the public domain.   I will look for the Hicks version because it was one of my favorite books to browse in the old Warren Public Library when I was a young crazed Dionysian recently dumped from war into civilian life.  It eased my sorry soul. 
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-Zenwind.
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12 December 2013

Barbara Branden, R.I.P. (1929-2013)

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I never met Barbara Branden face to face, but I was an occasional online acquaintance and correspondent of hers some years ago on Objectivist e-list discussion groups first hosted by Jimmy Wales (later of Wikipedia fame).  Barbara was always gracious and generous, sometimes answering my questions off-list.  She died 11 December 2013 at age 84. 
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I first encountered the writings of Barbara Branden and her then-husband, Nathaniel Branden, in the late 1960s as colleagues of the great novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982).  I discovered the world of Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism as a 17-year-old, and it was a clarion call for me to knock off my kid shit and get some integrity.  It is a philosophy advocating rationality, ruthless intellectual honesty, passionate vision, individualism, liberty, and love of life. 
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Rand was the solid star of Objectivism, and Barbara and Nathaniel were the major planets in her orbit.  Rand’s work is on record; but Barbara’s was not as well known to many outside the movement.  Barbara wrote Who Is Ayn Rand (1962), the biographical lead essay in the volume by that name.  This was greatly enlarged upon later in her fine biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986). 
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When I was in Vietnam in 1969, I asked my mother to send me books.  I specifically asked for Randian periodicals, and she ordered and sent to me back copies of The Objectivist Newsletter and its successor The Objectivist.  In these back issues I read many of Barbara’s essays, movie and book reviews, and other writings on philosophy and culture along with those of Rand and others. They recommended other philosophers' books, and thus started my wider philosophical education. 
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Barbara was associated closely with Rand from 1950 until 1968, the year she (and Nathaniel) was disassociated completely from Rand due to (as Nietzsche would say) “human, all too human” personal complications, natural in retrospect.  Philosophically, they were all in the same camp; they were all just a bit high-strung.  Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism would never have grown into such a well-articulated movement without the Brandens. 
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At the dawn of the 1970s, the newly born American libertarian movement was influenced as much by Rand as anyone else, and the Brandens were in there personally on its early development.  Libertarians that I know from online contact and who knew Barbara for many years testify as to what a fine lady and intellectual she was. 
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I first ran into Barbara online around 1998 or so on Jimmy Wales’s e-list, “Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy,” or its successor Objectivist e-lists that he hosted on his servers and that were moderated and run by his friends.  We all had questions about the early days of the philosophy’s development, and Barbara was the one with the details and grand overview.  It was wonderful to have her in the forum. 
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On these online forums I once defended Barbara from an extremely crazy series of attacks from a weird female who called herself an Objectivist and who ranted and raved against men, against certain kinds of libertarians, and against Jews (and Barbara, like Rand, was of Jewish lineage).  This same bitch has often appeared and disappeared in Objectivist circles with equal nuttiness.  She ranted against male circumcision and talked about feminist street fighters kicking the shit out of men – or some such raving.  She was entertaining and irritating at the same time, but her savaging and idiotic insults of everyone on the list got tiring.  And when she focused personal attacks on Barbara, on her writing, and on her Jewish lineage, I got righteously pissed off.  I’m ugly when I’m angry.  I have a mean streak you don't want to see. 
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This was in winter of 2001 or 2002, and it was a Saturday afternoon.  My back was killing me from shoveling snow, so I opened a bottle of whisky and did my internet browsing between schoolwork tasks.  Throughout the day I worked off and on writing a post to answer that obnoxious bitch and to defend Barbara.  As the day went on (and the bottle got emptier) I fashioned a reply, editing, re-editing, and cutting it down to two short paragraphs of sheer poetic rant.  I wish I still had a copy of that completed post, because it was one of the best I’ve ever written – a gem:  rude, crude, mean, sarcastic, and with a nasty personal aim, straight for the jugular. 
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All I can remember about the gist of my rant was that it was a mocking pseudo-veneration of the bitch, ending with something like:  “Oh, Bitch! Enlighten us as we kneel at thy feet, oh, thou dominatrix goddess!  Oh!  Favor us with lashes from thy whip!”  (Or something close to that, but much, much cruder.)  I immediately got a private email from Jimmy, who complimented me with:  “LOL.  I haven’t seen a Grade-A rant like that in years!”  I became a bit of a hero on the list for mocking the bitch so savagely.  She became a laughingstock and soon faded away.  Good riddance. 
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So my main acquaintance with Barbara Branden was to defend her from a bully by my own crude, inebriated online rant.  I’m selfish about my friends.  She never mentioned that rant of mine, but she was always exceptionally friendly to me in both on- and off-list conversations from then on.  I believe she appreciated it even though it wasn’t in her style. 
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Barbara kept tabs on many of us, even on those like me who were marginal in her life.  I was surprised and very touched when I received a personal email from her in 2006.  It was immediately after the Thai military overthrew the government here in a coup, with tanks on the streets, and front-page headlines throughout the world.  She remembered that I had moved here and she asked me with urgent concern if I was okay.  That is the way I will remember her – thoughtful, humane, and loyal. 
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Many of us were surprised at her sudden passing.  She had just sent out (on November 30) a mass email to those on her huge contacts list, announcing that her book The Passion of Ayn Rand was now available as an eBook.  As a long-time dedicated Kindle user, she was excited, happy, and proud. 
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Rest in Peace, Barbara.  You helped inspire a generation. 
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-Zenwind.

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31 October 2013

Halloween Readings of Horror Classics on Kindle

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I joined another Bangkok meet-up Book group, a new one that I won’t be able to attend much in person.  But the October book pick was The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde.  I downloaded it to my Kindle and thoroughly enjoyed it. 
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To stay in the holiday spirit of Halloween and all things ghastly, I immediately downloaded and read Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.  Wonderful! 
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Next I downloaded that masterpiece, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker.  It was longer than I remembered, and I’m now sure that I had never finished reading the entire book all those decades ago.  It is definitely a classic of horror that I couldn’t put down. 
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One beautiful thing about the Kindle is that it is well suited for older books that are out of copyright, hence they are free.  Another thing is that Kindle has a dictionary where you can highlight a word and a definition pops up -- this being especially helpful when reading old books with unfamiliar archaic English usages, as in the three books above from the 19th Century.  
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-Zenwind.

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The Sadist Club: A Tale of Macabre Youth

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This is a Halloween Horror entry.  In about the year 1963 or so, four of us in Seventh Grade and one in Ninth Grade formed The Sadist Club.  It was meant to be as diabolically weird as possible.  We were committed to the eerie.  We had a secret meeting place (crawling up a tree and over an old roof, through a chink in a small boarded-up window into the second floor of an unused farm building, my father’s “Double Decker” building).  We had a collection of skulls and skeletons of various animals, usually woodchucks, turtles, mice, etc. 
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We had a secret oath (“Poe’s Honor,” as in Edgar Allan Poe, poet of the macabre and our main saint).  Our sacraments were watching the Friday Fright Night horror movie double feature on TV at 11:30pm, with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and the rest of the Classics of Horror.  We tried to be ghastly. 
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We were:  Scott F., Bob D., Greg D., Ron D. (the Ninth Grader), and me. 
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How do 13-year-olds get so weird?  Well, our Seventh Grade Reading class teacher retired two weeks into the term, and we got a great substitute teacher for the remainder of the year:  Mr. Johnston.  Incredible luck on our part, for he created his own strange curriculum. 
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Mr. Johnston was a romantic eccentric who would never have lasted as a teacher in mid-20th century America.  He told us that this gig was just a temporary stepping stone until he could move to Ireland and marry his Irish fiancĂ©e, his sweetheart.  He played records for us of The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, Irish folk music at full tilt!  Before he played such songs of theirs as “The Rising of the Moon,” he would explain the historical tradition behind the revolutionary lyrics.  Wow!   I am getting goose pimples and my hairs are standing on end just thinking about it now!  Powerful stuff. 
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He also played record selections such as the Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, the March to the Gallows theme, where the hero is ascending the scaffold of the guillotine.  He prepped us for it so that we would hear the part where the severed head rolls.  Are you getting the picture?  This teacher was ultra-weird and a tremendous gift to us. 
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Mr. Johnston told us about the Marquis de Sade, although I still don’t see how that fit into a Seventh Grade Reading curriculum!  We never read de Sade, but we were told stories about him.  No sexual themes were mentioned to our young ears, but we were told mainly that the word “sadism,” as a term partially meaning cruelty, was named after the Marquis.  Tales of torture fit into our monster movie mindsets, so we derived the name of The Sadist Club from this.  We were aspiring heretics. 
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As it was Reading class, we read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe.  I don’t remember much of the other readings in that year of class, but I’ll never forget Poe.  As we went through the stories, Mr. Johnston would explain the gory background and the historical context.  We found that our high school library had over a dozen neglected copies of a very ancient, small, hard-bound edition of Poe’s Poems, most probably from a literature class so long ago that the teacher and many of the students were long gone to their graves.  Bob D. presented to me copy number 13, inscribed, “From the Members of the Club.”  It was definitely not legitimately checked out, and I still have it in my Stateside book collection. 
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I think that The Sadist Club faded out as we started to be interested in girlfriends and Rock n Roll.  But it was a sick and glorious chapter of our youth.  Essential education.  I still thrill when contemplating the Horror Classics. 
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-Zenwind.

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30 September 2013

Two Book Reviews: The Aeneid by Virgil, and Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin

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I’ve always been a bit ashamed to admit that I never finished reading (in English translation) Virgil’s classic epic, The Aeneid -- until reading Ursula Le Guin admit that she didn’t read it until she was in her seventies.  (But I will say this for her:  she read it in Latin.)  I just couldn’t finish it, because I cannot take the strained attempts of many translators to make it rhyme.  I finally found a translation that was readable for me, yet well-metered, the 2002 one by Michael Oakley, and I highly recommend it. 
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It was actually Ursula Le Guin that led me to read Virgil again, as she had written a novel about Lavinia, the last wife of Aeneas, and a character who Virgil only mentioned a few times and with no speaking parts.  I enjoy reading Le Guin’ works, and I knew that to read this novel, Lavinia (2008), I would first have to absorb myself fully in The Aeneid.  Oakley’s translation has a very fine Glossary and Notes.  The day I finished reading Virgil, I started right in on Le Guin’s book.  I enjoyed them both. 
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Lavinia is much like Le Guin’s other light fantasy works.  Le Guin is very true to Virgil’s epic and also to his personal history.  Virgil left his epic barely finished and not revised at the time of his death, and this is relevant to Lavinia’s story. The more that Virgil's epic, and his personal history, is fresh in your memory, the more you will appreciate so many of the little details of Le Guin's story.  
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One big difference from Virgil was that Le Guin’s Lavinia, being an early Latin, has no concept of what we call the “Greco-Roman” gods, with all of their bickering, back-biting, and petty intrigues – which are the driving forces behind Homer's and Virgil’s epics; and those were the gods that, traditionally, Aeneas had only just brought with him from Troy’s ruins.  They were completely absent from this story – much to my relief, as Juno et al are just plain tiring.  
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The mysticism of Lavinia, her father, Latinus, and their people is an older pastoral one, more about the deep forests and the silent sacred spots found there.  My kind of places.  Ursula Le Guin re-creates those places for us. 
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-Zenwind.

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