Archive for May, 2016

Fragile Civilisation

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I have been viewing again some DVDs about the course of Western Europe’s cultural history since the fall of the Roman Empire; I bought the set a year ago. They constitute the 13-part documentary titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, which was produced by BBC-2 back in 1969. While still a graduate student at SMU, I enjoyed the series when it came to the U.S. the following year. The personable, humorous and brilliant Kenneth Clark immediately became my newest hero.

My description of  this Scotsman, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), contains the adjective “humorous”, but I don’t mean by that that he was a comedian or even that the primary tone of Civilisation is light-hearted: it is in fact often melancholy, even at times somberly prophetic, for the theme of the narrative is how the trend of civilisation in Europe has not been an unswervingly upward slant but has declined several times since 476 C.E. (the generally accepted date of Rome’s conquest by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer) and has even slipped into darkness once for several hundred years. Nonetheless, Clark’s comments frequently are interlarded with understated wit, a quality which has characterized many British intellectuals over the centuries.

But wry wit is not my theme: rather I want to align myself with Clark’s emotional concern about the impending fate of the West today—Europe’s of course but America’s as well. During at least two of his presentations (or lectures, if you prefer), Clark alludes to the very possible extinction of what he chose to call today’s “civilisation”. (This spelling, by the way, is not a typographical error; the British spell “civilisation” with an “s” while we in the United States spell it with a “z”; I have elected to employ the British spelling throughout this essay.) Without being specific, Clark alludes to recent events as portents of another dip in humanity’s cultural development. I still don’t know what he could be referring to: the Cold War? modern art? mechanization? materialism? political corruption? Here and there in the episodes he mentions all those and other fault-lines, as well as the constant, congenital “fragility of civilisation”. But if there is any single danger to current civilisation that he considers our immediate nemesis, I am not certain which it is.

Early in the first episode of Civilisation, Clark conceded that he couldn’t define civilisation…“yet”. Then, playing on the cliché about the philistine who at first demurs when asked what to him is “fine art”, Clark adds “…but I know it when I see it.” He later makes the same remark about “barbarism”. Soon thereafter, however, he lists several attributes of his subject: “intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality”. Still further on in the series, Clark adds stability, confidence, prosperity, order, and broad participation in society. And even further on, Clark describes a civilised society as “intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate”; but these latter qualities are not simply what create civilisation, they are also what are necessary to sustain it. Nomadic peoples, such as the Vikings for instance, although supremely confident and adventuresome, could not develop a civilisation, according to Clark’s definition, because they were unstable and saw no value in maintaining anything other than their tools for survival: in the case of the Vikings, their ingenious ships. And the highly cultivated society of 17th century France could not last because the portion of the population which participated in it was too small.

I perhaps should mention “light”, since Clark asserted that light “can be seen as the symbol of civilisation.”  He is referring to the light of reason, education and accumulated knowledge as well as to the light that was so typical of Dutch painting during the 17th century and to the light studies in 19th century French Impressionism. His appreciation of light is almost mystical.

Although Clark does not name any singular major threat that confronted mid-20th century Western Europe, he does specify what caused the luster of previous cultures to fade: fear of war, plague and the supernatural; boredom; exhaustion; and insularity.

At the end of Clark’s cultural tour he confesses himself to be a “stick-in-the mud”, by which he means that he holds onto several values and beliefs which have been abandoned by some other modern intellectuals. Peace, he says, is preferable to violence, and knowledge is preferable to ignorance. He adds that he cherishes courtesy and compassion. And above all he advocates for the recognition that we humans are a part of Nature’s big picture, not separate from it, and that we should view other animals as our brothers and sisters, much as Saint Francis of Assisi did.

Now, to the present. I have my own personal issues with which to cope, issues that no one other than I can resolve. But I also share in many, and in some ways starker, issues that confront Americans as a whole and others that are faced by everyone on this planet, whether they are aware of them or not. What makes these problems seem especially intractable is that they are typified by paradoxes and dilemmas.

Recently, for instance, I heard an interview on National Public Radio in which the interviewee was author of a book about the psychological disturbances that afflict many military service people when they return home from places like Viet Nam and the Middle East. These disturbances we have classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The author, who is himself a veteran of the Iraq conflict, claimed, however, that that classification is inaccurate, at least in his case. He said that the problem evolved not from having been in a combat situation but from leaving it. Coming home to a “stable” environment had made him feel marooned, so to speak. On the battle field he had been in the company of men who depended on each other every second for their survival; when he got home, he felt isolated because of the separateness and indifference he saw all around him. In another NPR interview, a woman who had survived the horrors of the ethnic war in Bosnia during the 1990’s said she was ashamed to admit it, but she now yearns for those days because people cared for each other at a very deep level. During that same interview, mention was made of how the murder and suicide rates in New York City steeply declined immediately after 9/11.

I cannot accept the notion that the cohesion of society—of civilisation—depends upon war and other calamities.

For any of you who are interested, you can view Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View documentary on YouTube…at least as of May 29, 2016.

Finis

 

 

Pomp and Circumstance

© 2016 by Bob Litton.  All Rights Reserved.

The two theme ideas that have been hounding me lately are quite different from each other, one being the ultimate in the grandiose (“The Idea of God”) and the other so bland as almost to amount to trivia (“Academic Regalia”). Naturally, being the lazy and cowardly person that I am, I opted for the latter.

It all started this way: Last week our hometown university published a notice in the local weekly announcing who the guest speaker at this year’s graduation ceremony would be. There was a fairly lengthy description of the speaker in the paper; but, because he was an alumnus of the same university as I, I wanted to know more; so I used a search engine. Unfortunately but naturally enough, this year’s speaker hadn’t been announced yet when the program was published online. However, serendipitously I happened upon some information that was just as intriguing.

Firstly, I was surprised to see that college administrators can be just as dictatorial as the Misses Grundy’s we encountered our first year in grade school — when they separated us into “blue birds” and “red birds”. Here is how the university organized the commencement (the blue and red highlightings are my addition):

IMPORTANT DOs and DON’Ts for graduates and guests:
• Attend rehearsal at 2 p.m. on Friday, May 13th so you know the marching order.
• Arrive by 9 a.m. on the day of graduation, Saturday, May 14th.  The ceremony will begin at 10:00am.
• Leave valuables with family members during the ceremony.  There is no secure place for your belongings.
• Wear proper academic regalia.
• No selfies, hijinks, or inappropriate behavior as you cross the stage.
• Cell phones should be turned off or placed on silent.
• Students are expected to return to their seats after the on-stage presentation. The last person is just as important as the first.
• Diplomas will be mailed two weeks after commencement.  If you choose to pick up your diploma, please contact the Provost’s office.
• Guests should arrive early as seating is on a first come, first serve basis.
• Use of air horns, noisemakers, or other disruptive items is strictly PROHIBITED.
• Guests are expected to remain in their seats during the ceremony.
• Photos are allowed in the designated area only. To avoid congestion, please limit the number of guests on the venue floor.
• Guests should sit in the designated areas only; seats on the floor are reserved for faculty and graduates only. Do not stand in the aisles.

My, my! I innocently had thought that by the time one graduated from college, he or she would have grown out of pranksterism, but here we are with the graduates being warned not to engage in “hijnks” or any other sort of “inappropriate behavior” as they cross the stage. And I was curious whether anyone during any previous commencement had blown an “airhorn”.  The wording reminded me of our current political caucuses and primaries. Of course, most of the other instructions are moderate and understandable, assuming the exercise is going to exhibit any organization at all.

Well, I said “moderate”, but I don’t know if that is really the true case or not. For, look at the blue-highlighted item: “Wear proper academic regalia.” Elsewhere in the instruction pages the graduates are informed where they can “buy” the caps and gowns — at the campus bookstore — but the cost is not listed. When I was graduated from high school in Dallas in 1958, we didn’t have to buy our caps and gowns; but, then, that was presumed to be the only occasion we were to use them. When one gets into the levels of “higher learning”, there can be multiple occasions for wearing the cap and gown (or the gown at least) unless the graduate changes his/her academic field along the way, the reason being that the gowns are color-coded.

I counted twenty colors in the local university’s regalia, but the number of colors will vary from school to school depending upon how many degree programs at the school; the maximum number is eighty-five, but I don’t know of any university that offers that many degree programs.. We are way beyond the “blue bird”/”red bird” stage, folks! I won’t burden you with all twenty colors and their particular fields, just the few that caught my attention for different reasons.

The first one (on their list and mine as well) is Agriculture with its maize gown. According to its Wikipedia article, the term “maize” can be applied to “a variety of shades, ranging from light yellow to a dark shade that borders on orange”. Of all the colors on the gown list, this color — that of our American corn — best matches the academic field it signifies. Hurray for the farmers and county agents!

The next one I noticed (their third on the list) was Accountancy, Business, Commerce: drab. Now, I realize that business majors are often the butt of campus jokes, but isn’t this carrying the humor a bit too far? Drab? Drab is “a dull, light brown color, the color of undyed wool”. I won’t say any more about it.

The colors for Education (light blue) and Philosophy (dark blue) intrigued me because they are both blues; but is there any significance, other than a limited number of colors to draw upon, in their intensity difference? My imagination hints the answer: “Yes!” For, Education can be a light-hearted field, particularly if the graduates are going into elementary school teaching; while Philosophy, as I discovered too late, is usually way too dark for safe living, especially if you concentrate on Schopenhauer and the Existentialists.

A little further down the list we come upon Journalism (crimson). Being a former journalist, I was naturally curious about that color and why a shade of red was chosen, the color often associated with anger. I would have expected to read “yellow”, not out of any association with cowardice but rather harking back to the historical period of “yellow journalism”. On the other hand, such a choice would have been almost as bad as the drab tacked onto Accountancy, etc.

As for the students having to purchase their caps and gowns, I suppose at least some of them will end up donning them again on a few later occasions, when they earn higher degrees, even honorary ones. And, of course, those who become college professors will have to don theirs at least twice a year for future commencement ceremonies. As for those who entertain no further academic ambitions as such, they can just box their caps and gowns and stow them away in their attics with other memorabilia.

I don’t have any problem with old academic regalia myself, for I did not attend either my bachelor’s or my master’s graduation ceremonies: I had my degrees mailed to me. My memory of that tedious high school graduation with 494 students marching up to the stage at Dallas’ State Fair Music Hall to receive our individual degrees while a band doggedly played Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over again was too vivid a memory.

Finis

A Maternal Memorial

thread spool

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Pardon me, folks, but I want to interrupt this extended silence for a  brief while to try and make some amends for the neglect I visited on my mother. She has been dead now for nearly twenty-two years, so of course I cannot justify or redeem myself directly. It’s only if one believes in an afterlife or even that some kind of resonance inheres in lingering cosmic memories that one can accept the following as meaningful to anyone but me. Regardless of the possible unreality of either of those concepts, here are my flowers for Mothers Day 2016. (Oddly, though, Mama was not a floral enthusiast; not that she disliked them, she just didn’t gather blossoms or maintain vases.)

I have written in previous blogs that Mama and I did not communicate well after the onset of my teen years. The problem, as I view it, was not that any sort of major psychological imbalance (such as stood between me and my brother Vernon) or contrary value systems (such as stood between me and my brother Elbert)  hindered our conversations. Our off-moments derived from a much more down-to-Earth dysfunction: I was frequently annoyed and embarrassed by Mama’s lack of tact, of which I have given instances in previous posts. On Mama’s side, she looked askance at my pub-crawling, drifting ways and impracticality; she said to me one day, after I had expressed an interest in majoring in philosophy, “Bobby, I think you live in a dream world. If you are so smart, you ought to be able to make a lot of money.” As usual, I did not utter a rejoinder to that.

Such perceptions, naturally, are not absolute. One morning, while I was seated at her kitchen table, she wanted to discuss Elbert, whose carpet store was in a state of bankruptcy due to the Reagan recession of the late 1980’s. Elbert had not spoken to her for two years because she had persistently tried to dissuade him from getting involved in any more of his former business partner’s get-rich-quick schemes. I did not want to talk about it, because I had opted to stay with Elbert at the store as it was going under very, very slowly and I was losing my house in West Texas in the process; I was in a heavy depression.  While she set a plate of eggs and sausage before me, she asked me to intercede for her with Elbert, whom she said she loved. I did not say anything; the weight of the whole financial disaster was too great. I don’t recall the immediate trigger for her final comment, “You’re a good man and an honest man.”

Mama and I hardly ever discussed serious matters other than those concerning the family. In fact, most of our conversations involved an exchange of something: she would want me to do something for her, like take her to the grocery store; or she would give me odd things she had picked up at flea markets and garage sales, like a lava lamp (when such was an “in-thing” during the 1970’s), a pair of binoculars (I was not a birder), and an antique walking cane (which at the time I did not need but, after three decades, do now). However, those interactions were after my own hair had started to gray.

During childhood, there were more prized moments of sharing. While I was in the Cub Scouts, Mama went with me down to Turtle Creek one Fall day to gather different types of leaves for pasting in a scrap book. And, when I had the part of Santa Claus in an elementary school play, she made a red-and-white costume for me, complete with a hat peaked by a cotton  ball. (No boots, of course.)

I have related how Mama had worked both as a seamstress in a dress factory  and as a steam-presser at a few cleaners. She also made all my shirts and pants during those early years. Naturally, she always had plenty of thread spools (like the one shown at the top of this post). One afternoon, while I was sitting on the front porch step reading a Dick and Jane book, she came outside with a saucer containing a bar of white soap, some water in a glass, and an empty thread spool. Then she showed me how to amass a sufficient quantity of soapy water on one end of the spool and blow through the other end to make bubbles float out onto the air.

And I will never forget the early morning she came to the combination bedroom and living room to wake me up. She went to the window, raised the paper blind, and announced, “Look, Bobby! It snowed last night!” When the day got light enough, Mama gathered some snow in a big pan and made some ice cream out of it. One cannot do that in Dallas anymore for two reasons: it seldom snows there and, even when it does, the snow is too shallow and too polluted to transform into healthy ice cream.

I have no authority to reference for this assertion, but I believe that only a  girl raised on a farm, such as Mama had been, would have known how to capitalize on a thread spool and a mass of fresh fallen snow.

Happy Mothers Day, Mama, wherever you are.

picers_0004

Maurine Emily (Tanberg) Litton b. Feb. 23, 1910, Eau Claire, WI;  d. Dec. 19, 1994, Dallas, TX

Now I can return to my cave.

Finis

Spammers disguised as “Referrers”

Dear “Followers” and any other interested readers —

I had planned to interrupt my “sabbatical” next Sunday for a special “Mothers Day” piece. However, a recent problem with my blog stats page, and the steps a friend took to help me solve it, has engendered in me the impulse to share this solution with those who visit and read my posts.

The problem involves Search Engine Optimizations (SEOs). These are computer geeks around the world who seek to bring search engine entries up to earlier pages in a search engine. They can do this by pretending to be “referrers” on bloggers’ sites. When the blogger, curious about the strange referrer, clicks on the referrer to find out more about him/her, that click bounces back to the spammer’s site and counts as a “hit”, thus multiplying the spammer’s site’s activity record–thus edging it up closer to the search engine’s top page.

This problem occurred on my site a couple of years ago with a spammer called “Semalt”. I wrote a blog post condemning the SEO practice, and shortly thereafter the false referring by Semalt stopped.  Now, however, the wickedness has begun again; only, this time, the name “Semalt” is not used directly; rather, the new names are “key-words-monitoring” and “free-video-tool”. But from what I have learned through reading a few informative sites on Google, I sense that both are really just aliases for Semalt. The blocking methods I found either were too advanced for my blog program and/or were too technical for me to employ, so I called my friend Chris and asked for his help. As usual, he graciously complied.

Then, acting on the supposition that some of my “Followers” might be experiencing the same problem, I decided it might be helpful to forward Chris’ response to them. Here it is:

Hi Bob,

I’m sorry this upsets you so much, but unfortunately neither of these options are relevant for wordpress.com sites like yours.
You are getting your analytics directly through worpdress.com and not Google Analytics, so those instructions won’t help you.
And wordpress.com sites do not allow custom plugins like the one in the other link. Those only work if you have a custom installation of WordPress (often referred to aswordpress.org in contrast to wordpress.com), where you have to pay for web hosting and a domain name.
I found these instructions specifically for wordpress.com, telling you how to mark spammy referrers as such:
That’s the only recourse I’ve been able to discover for your situation.

Chris

 

As I stated above, I will return briefly next Sunday, Mothers Day in the USA.
For now, have a good week.
—BL
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