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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day 2010

With a special tribute to the octogenarian fathers of the world . . .




Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day 2010




Sunday, May 16, 2010

For those graduating today . . .

The Amaranth

Ah, in the night, all music haunts me here. . . .
Is it for naught high Heaven cracks and yawns
And the tremendous Amaranth descends
Sweet with the glory of ten thousand dawns?

Does it not mean my God would have me say: —
"Whether you will or no, O city young,
Heaven will bloom like one great flower for you,
Flash and loom greatly all your marts among?"

Friends, I will not cease hoping though you weep.
Such things I see, and some of them shall come,
Though now our streets are harsh and ashen-gray,
Though our strong youths are strident now, or dumb.
Friends, that sweet town, that wonder-town, shall rise.
Naught can delay it. Though it may not be
Just as I dream, it comes at last I know,
With streets like channels of an incense-sea.

                                                    – Vachel Lindsay


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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Seamus Heaney's Sequence in Memory of His Mother

In his 1987 collection, The Haw Lantern, Seamus Heaney included a poem in memory of his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney.


in memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984

She taught me what her uncle once taught her:
How easily the biggest coal block split
If you got the grain and the hammer angled right.

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow
Its co-opted and obliterated echo,
Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block
To face the music. Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.


A cobble thrown a hundred years ago
Keeps coming at me, the first stone
Aimed at a great-grandmother's turncoat brow.
The pony jerks and the riot's on.
She's couched low in the trap
Running the gauntlet that first Sunday
Down the brae to Mass at a panicked gallop.
He whips on through the town to cries of 'Lundy!'

Call her 'The Convert.' 'The Exogamous Bride.'
Anyhow, it is a genre piece
Inherited on my mother's side
And mine to dispose with now she's gone.
Instead of silver and Victorian lace
the exonerating, exonerated stone.


Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big --
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don't be dropping crumbs. Don't tilt your chair.
Don't reach. Don't point. Don't make noise when you stir.

It is Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead,
Where grandfather is rising from his place
With spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head
To welcome a bewildered homing daughter
Before she even knocks. 'What's this? What's this?'
And they sit down in the shining room together.


When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives --
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words 'beyond her'. Bertold Brek.
She'd manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she'd tell me, 'You
Know all them things.' So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I'd naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.


The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They'd make a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.


In the first flush of the Easter holidays
The ceremonies during Holy Week
Were highpoints of our Sons and Lovers phase.
The midnight fire. The paschal candlestick.
Elbow to elbow, glad to be kneeling next
To each other up there near the front
Of the packed church, we would follow the text
And rubrics for the blessing of the font.
As the hind longs for the streams, so my soul . . .
Dippings. Towellings. The water breathed on.
The water mixed with chrism and oil.
Cruet tinkle. Formal incensation
And the psalmist's outcry taken up with pride:
Day and night my tears have been my bread.


In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in their whole life together.
'You'll be in New Row on Monday night
And I'll come up for you and you'll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn't that right?'
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.


I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.


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Saturday, May 01, 2010

May Day 2010

May Day
painting by Sharon Esther Ascherl




Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thomas H. Connell III, 1942 -2010

One of the most charming obituaries I've ever read is that for the Metropolitan Opera's chief stage manager, Thomas Connell, published in today's edition of the New York Times.

Thomas H. Connell III
(Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Here is the closing portion of the Times obituary:

... no stage manager can take the weight of a singing horse. In the same “Falstaff,” Ms. Pierson recalled, the soprano made an entrance on horseback. One night, as she began her aria, the horse was moved to bray along in bold duet.

“What do you do when the horse starts to sing at the same time as the singer starts to sing?” Ms. Pierson asked.

There was only one thing for it. Mr. Connell fired the horse.

The full text of the obituary is here.


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Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Nothing Stays Put" by Amy Clampitt

Nothing Stays Put

In memory of Father Flye, 1884-1985

The strange and wonderful are too much with us.
The protea of the antipodes--a great,
globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom--
for sale in the supermarket! We are in
our decadence, we are not entitled.
What have we done to deserve
all the produce of the tropics--
this fiery trove, the largesse of it
heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed
and crested, standing like troops at attention,
these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons
grown sumptuous with stoop labor?

The exotic is everywhere, it comes to us
before there is a yen or a need for it. The green-
grocers, uptown and down, are from South Korea.
Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly
fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are
disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias
fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli
likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson;
as well as, less altered from the original blue cornflower
of the roadsides and railway embankments of Europe, these
bachelor's buttons. But it isn't the railway embankments
their featherweight wheels of cobalt remind me of, it's

a row of them among prim colonnades of cosmos,
snapdragon, nasturtium, bloodsilk red poppies,
in my grandmother's garden: a prairie childhood,
the grassland shorn, overlaid with a grid,
unsealed, furrowed, harrowed and sown with immigrant grasses,
their massive corduroy, their wavering feltings embroidered
here and there by the scarlet shoulder patch of cannas
on a courthouse lawn, by a love knot, a cross stitch
of living matter, sown and tended by women,
nurturers everywhere of the strange and wonderful,
beneath whose hands what had been alien begins,
as it alters, to grow as though it were indigenous.

But at this remove what I think of as
strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan
on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom,
a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above--
is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift
of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we're
made of, is motion.

                                        – Amy Clampitt



Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day 2010

To mark the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day, here is a nice, straightforward video explaining how to make a worm composting bin. The video is the work of Canadian Bentley Christie ("the Compost Guy"), who runs RedWormComposting.


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Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Clerk in the Canterbury Tales

A lover of learning and teaching ...

Illustration and opening lines from the portion of the General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that describes the Clerk from Oxford. The full text of this section of the prologue is given below, first in modern English and then in the original Middle English.

(From William Caxton's second edition, published in 1483)

(British Library)

A Clerk from Oxford was there also,
Who'd studied philosophy, long ago.
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he too was not fat, that I take,
But he looked emaciated, moreover, abstemiously.
Very worn off was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor he was worldly to accept secular office.
For he would rather have at his bed's head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
And then he'd pray diligently for the souls
Of those who gave him resources to attend schools.
He took utmost care and heed for his study.
Not one word spoke he more than was necessary;
And that was said with due formality and dignity
And short and lively, and full of high morality.
Filled with moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

[lines 287-310 of the General Prologue to
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer]

The original text:

A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
As leene was his hors as is a rake,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,
But looked holwe and therto sobrely.
Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy;
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soules preye
Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.
Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede.
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quyk, and ful of hy sentence;
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.

[Source: Librarius]


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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Last November, I wrote about the competencies required to be licensed by the US Coast Guard for working on a tugboat. Pretty dry (no pun intended) material, but the sort of detailed technical information I like because it creates a very specific picture of the topic.

This week The New Yorker has an entire article devoted to the details of what's involved in operating a tugboat. Naturally, the story that staff writer Burkhard Bilger tells is far more colorful than a set of competency matrices. Bilger reports on one family's involvement in running tugboats over a period that dates back to the sixties, meaning he covers the time both before and after the Coast began tightening licensing requirements.

The family of Latham Smith, which now has two factions each operating its own tugboat, bases its operations in Morgan City LA. Here are some excerpts from Bilger's report, focused on the contrast between old-style and new-style tugboating:
The Smiths are from Florida originally, of Irish and British extraction, but the Cajuns have accepted them as their own. Latham is something of a legend in the towing world. When he and [first wife] Elsbeth first took to the sea, in the late sixties, they seemed like characters from a picture book: the little tugboat family, island-hopping across the Caribbean, homeschooling five children as they went. Together and separately, Latham and his children have weathered cyclones on the Atlantic, towed barges up the Amazon, and circumnavigated the globe, even as the industry around them has grown ever more regulated and safety-conscious.

. . .

"When we started out, you could do anything," Elsbeth says. "You could pick up your crew from the homeless section of the DuPont Plaza parking lot and take 'em out and sober 'em up." ... "The other tugboats, they always went for the old alkies and the deadbeat people," Elsbeth says. "We took a different approach," ... Latham took to hiring any sailor or surfer who wandered past and whose conversation he could half abide. "It was the time of the flower children, the Beatles, and the long skirts," Elsbeth says. "We found people everywhere, just everywhere — beautiful young people. These hippies would come down on a one-way ticket from Florida to Rincón, Puerto Rico, and they'd run out of money and get desperate. So we'd hire them just for the ride back to the States." ...

When regulations began to tighten, in the seventies, and a minimum of two licensed sailors were required on every tug, Latham and Elsbeth both put in for captain's licenses.

. . .

... the footloose spirit that once sent sailors to sea has been slowly starched out of the business — mostly with good reason. Beginning with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in 1989, regulations have ratcheted up with each high-profile accident ...

Most tug captain's licenses now require at least three years' training at sea, if not a four-year degree from a maritime academy. Background checks, safety inspections, and drug and alcohol tests are mandatory, as are certifications in radar, firefighting, first aid, and social responsibility. As a result, in the past decade oil spills have decreased by more than eighty per cent compared with the nineteen-nineties, and crew fatalities and injuries have been nearly cut in half.

... the tramping days of Latham's youth, when a sailor could spend his shore leave exploring the markets of Bangkok, the bars of Panama City, are gone.

. . .

Technology has taken some of the risk out of the business. Many new tugs can be steered by joystick — though most captains disdain it — and trainees often learn to operate them on land, in mock wheelhouses surrounded by virtual harbors. (When I tried my hand at this recently at the Maritime Simulation Institute, in Middletown, Rhode Island, I spent an hour doing doughnuts in Los Angeles Harbor; I couldn't seem to stop ramming my bow into the container ship I was towing — and that was before the computer called in the heavy fog and twenty-foot seas.) But a virtual storm is still no substitute for a howling gale, or the mad tilt and groaning steel of a ship on rough seas.
If this story of one family's life in the the tugboating world appeals to you, by all means get yourself a copy of the April 19 New Yorker and read the whole thing. The entire issue is dedicated to the theme of travel, so if that's your cup of tea, you'll find other articles of interest as well. The table of contents is here.


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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Using Second Life for Medical Training

In a January post I talked about the simulation center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. As a follow-on, I'd like to mention an article in today's Wall Street Journal that describes another approach to using simulation to train medical personnel, namely creating virtual environments, such as hospitals, in Second Life and then having trainees deal with various scenarios designed to hone assessment, diagnostic, and treatment skills.

In the main example described by reporter Stephanie Simon,
ER nurses log in to the virtual world, where each assumes control of an avatar — a cartoon rendering of a nurse wearing crisp blue scrubs. The nurses can walk their avatars through hallways, up and down stairs and through doorways using keyboard or mouse controls. They can give voice to their avatars by typing — their words pop up as a text box — or by speaking into a special microphone. Headsets let each nurse hear ambient noise from the virtual scene and listen to the other avatars talking.

In the drill, which lasts three hours, the nurse-avatars must create a triage system, assess each patient and figure out how to isolate the most contagious.

Some patient avatars are controlled by instructors ... Other avatars are preprogrammed; they speak only phrases that the instructors have prerecorded ("I can't breathe!"). Nurse-avatars can click on the patients' bodies to pull up text boxes with vital signs and a list of symptoms.

At any point, the instructor can "throw a wrench into the system," Dr. Greci [the simulation's developer] says, by setting off a virtual earthquake or blackout or dumping rain on the patients waiting outside.
The above gives you an idea of how a Second Life medical simulation can be set up. You can check out the look and feel of one such simulation in the video below, which is an overview of Second Life training prepared for paramedic students at St. George's University of London.



Sunday, April 11, 2010

"In April" by James Hearst

In April

This I saw on an April day:
Warm rain spilt from a sun-lined cloud,
A sky-flung wave of gold at evening,
And a cock pheasant treading a dusty path
Shy and proud.

And this I found in an April field:
A new white calf in the sun at noon,
A flash of blue in a cool moss bank,
And tips of tulips promising flowers
To a blue-winged loon.

And this I tried to understand
As I scrubbed the rust from my brightening plow:
The movement of seed in furrowed earth,
And a blackbird whistling sweet and clear
From a green-sprayed bough.

                                         – James Hearst