Repost: A Claim Obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union

Harper's Magazine Logo

From one of the statements published in the June issue of Harper's of claims made by families of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007: 

My husband went out to our orchard after he saw lights and noise. Coalition forces shot and killed him and gave me some rice and other gifts saying they were sorry. I am asking for compensation. -Kharagul, Iraq

source: Harper's Magazine


Why Clichés Are So Horrifying (with apologies to Paul Coker, Jr.)

In this post, I write about the use of clichés and how Mad Magazine illustrator Paul Poker pokes fun at them in back issues of the magazine.
What is a cliché?
A cliché is an overwrought phrase, like "it's raining cats and dogs" or "scared to death." At one time those phrases were unique and original but over time, well, they lost their original luster, and people just kinda keep using 'em. Clichés are the spam of language. Spam. Spam. Spam.
Why do we use clichés?
I could be cute and populate this post with overwrought clichés, but I am not. We use clichés, or stock phrases because we don't know what else to say. Instead of thinking through how we want to say something, we pull from the storehouse of ready-made phrases.

Clichés are like Hallmark cards for languages. Instead of coming up with a clever way to say good morning, we use a hallmark cliché, "What's up?"

Two decent examples
When was the last time you used the expression, "it's raining cats and dogs"? Did you notice when you said it you probably had no idea to why or how the expression "cats and dogs" has anything to do with rain? If you don't know the logic behind an expression then it's a sure sign it's cliché. She flew out of the office like a "bat out of hell" would be a nice simile if it hadn't been used ad infinitum since the first bat actually did fly out of hell - whenever that was.

Why Are Clichés So Horrifying?
Because clichés enervate language. That's why.

Cliché as Euphemism
At a funeral, we might use a form of cliché called euphemism (worn-out phrases used to mollify a situation or thought) say, "She's in heaven now," or "I'm sorry for your loss" instead of saying something poignantly creative, we use stock phrases so we don't have to think or feel. "Euphemism" is from the Greek for "good word" but I'd say, the best word is the one you articulate yourself, no matter how hokey.

Mad Magazine and Cliché
Growing up, I learned about clichés not from a grammar teacher, but from Mad Magazine. Paul Coker occasionally did a column for MAD called "Horrifying Clichés."

He would take a couple of stock phrases and draw what they would look like as monsters.

It was one of those MAD columns that were funny but educated in some weird MAD way. I'm sure the Usual Gang of Idiots approved because I think the column became popular. There are several anthologies of his work, like this one, The Mad Monster Book of Horrifying Clichés
image credit: "Trying to get rid of the sniffles" by Paul Coker, Jr.


June Streetcar Ride on Carrollton

Folks here call the Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans, Kar•ul•ton, a tract of land that extends from a bend in the river where Saint Charles avenue and S. Carrollton avenue meet.

For me, it has been home for the past two years.
I got on the car at Willow today, near the Nix branch of the New Orleans Public Library, God I love that small municipal library with few books but tons of character. I'd work here.

There were only three riders today on the Saint Charles Streetcar, so I sat at the back. The conductor's seat is located in both the front and the back of the car.
Conductor's seat inside the Saint Charles Streetcar in New Orleans
That way, the conductor can easily switch places without turning the car around when he gets to the end of the line.

Summertime is New Orleans's downtime. Everyone's at the corner pub downing a bitter IPA or a soft Magnolia lager known to be pretty damn tasty.


Feeling Strangely Rental: A Memoir of a Last Month Lease

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother"
In the 1930 Census, there is a ton of data about how Americans lived during the Great Depression.
     Few people had radios in their homes and most middle-class citizens rented. My maternal grandmother grew up in a house on Ursulines in New Orleans and her family paid sixteen dollars a month for the rent.
       Today, renting is not so run-of-the-mill, at least, from my perspective. Two of my friends bought in the last several months, one a thirty-something with a professional job and the other, a couple, who bought a house after renting for thirty-five years. Wow.
       I used to joke that I would never own. Who wants to cut grass? I am not really keen on mortgage notes. If I can't pay the bill I rather be evicted than post foreclosure.

Renting is the only vestige link I have to my ancestors.
Is that the real reason I rent?
I decided to rent long before I knew Grandma lived in a rental and didn't have a radio.
     Renting is the only Bohemian side to my pretty complacent, post-MA existence. Renting says, "Hey! I am free, sort of. I may have tons of student loans to pay off but at least you're not going to take my house (because I don't have one!).
     There are obvious downsides to renting. The landlord is number one. Most complaints by renters can be traced back to the landlord. She doesn't fix the leak. He never installed that new water heater. Ya da ya da ya da.

There's more.
     Like, have you ever had your landlord walk in on you naked (yep, that's me)? What about when you are leaving an apartment, have you ever had embarrassing moments with what I like to call the prospective-tenant-old-tenant-landlord triangle?

It goes like this.
     Your lease is up. You got a raise. So you decide to take a bite out of the icing and do a "moving on up" gig. You get a better crib.
     Your last paying month is rather raunchy. You know you have thirty days. So you pack up slowly. You think you have all the time in the world.
     The landlord leaves a message that he's showing the apartment. Cool. You haven't stepped outside all day, so you take a walk to the local coffee shop. That day goes by fine. You are a little creeped out that the prospective tenant may be sizing up YOU rather than the PLACE, but you never met them, so who cares.
     It's a little worse, though, when the prospective tenant, you, and the landlord meet up despite your best attempts at preventative medicine.
     The door knocks. It's your landlord with a twenty-something wanting to look at the place. "Hey, can I show her around?"

"Sure," you say. 
     All of a sudden you feel naked and you wonder if everything is put away. Neat. In order, as if this is a blind date or something.

     "So, how do you like living here?" she nonchalantly asks?
     "Oh. Yeah. It's great." The landlord eyes you to shut-up but you keep going. "I love it. Here. It's great." And just when you think you're home free, you say something like, "Except for the showers. It's like running a marathon in there." Dammit. SNAFU.
     "Well, I'm just going to show her the laundry room."
     "Bye." The landlord gives you an even worse evil eye than before. You put your head down in shame and go back to whatever renters do in their rented apartments.

Have you experienced any odd triangulations with your landlord? Feel free to post and share! (See that comment button down there? Use it. Don't be a lurker).


Anatomy of Falling Love Redux

The topic of love always turns even the most mundane of us into philosophers. I feel like I've written this post before, so forgive me if my ideas have overlapped.

How many times have you sat and pondered love?
     If you are anything like me, it is enough to make you into a veritable Plato when you are feeling romantic, or at the death knell of a failed relationship, a nauseous Jean-Paul Sartre. It is the high point of happiness to love someone and they in turn seem to love you, too.
     Maybe you have your moment of doubt that their love does not ring true, but inevitably, if it is true love, you receive a sign: like a note or a word or an affirmation. It is an entirely different matter, though, when you love someone, or you think you love someone, but they do not seem to love you in return.

This is quite a nasty affair. 
     Isn’t this what they called unrequited love? To me, it is like having the person you love next to you in the same room but separated by a wall of glass. You can see but you cannot touch it. Unfortunately, it is always the case of inequalities in this kind of love. Unrequited love seems to always spring from one person expecting too much (the lover) and the other person (the unrequited) not capable of offering what the lover needs. The end result is always sorrow for the lover because you cannot make someone love you the way you desire in your heart.
     Added to the torment of unrequited love is the obsession that incontrovertibly couples such a fated love. Even though you know they will never love you in the way you desire you pursue them nonetheless. Even though you know it is no fault of their own that they do not love you, you still harbor resentment which also fuels your lust and everything else. In your rational moments, you tell yourself that they simply cannot love you in the way that you love them. You attempt to console yourself with the law of inequalities. But then, you scan the heavens for a sign and you hopelessly translate their hellos as acts of devotion. Yes, they really love me, you say, foolishly.

This game repeats itself again and again in ever more torturous debacles. 
     The desire becomes so great you are convinced you can will this love into being, or to make the fates change their course. It is the sort of psychic energy that comes from the depth of a person and can also destroy us. When desire turns into fantasy you have the perfect cocktail for insanity. It is as if I have left my own self to pursue you. It is a harrowing feeling. The more you yearn for them the more you lose yourself in the process.

If you have ever experienced this then you know from whence I speak.


Book Review: On the Punctum in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

    Unary Image
     In a world where we constantly make subjective judgments on the images we peruse — take for example, the host of websites that displays portraits of users that can either be voted as “hot or not” (I am ashamed to say I have indulged in this entertainment) — the object of the observer is to rate images according to subjective tastes.  Roland Barthes's idea is that the host of images flashed across our eyes on any given days are what he calls “unary” images. The unary image lacks a phenomenological “prick.” These naïve images are at the level of what Barthes calls “the pornographic” (41).  For Barthes, these images are “without intention and without calculation” (41).
The Punctum
    Barthes calls the punctum a “prick, sting, a speck, a cut, a little hole.” (27).  For Barthes there seems to be something at stake in the interplay between the photograph and the subject’s gaze.  What fascinates Barthes is that the photograph can lack its punctum, this sting that he calls it, between the image and the observer. This lack of sting is the unary image (41).  There is no shock, Barthes says, in the image that does not “shout.”  For Barthes the experience of the punctum is a purely subjective experience that designates a “I like / I don’t like” posture.
Sontag and Barthes
This lack of a “sting” in the photographic unary is probably what Sontag has critically noticed.  For Sontag and for Barthes, the unary image offers itself only to be consumed by the observer.  This leads to desensitization.  And a lack of empathy in the suffering of others.  This is the “pornography” that Barthes talks about as a quality of the unary image.  What the unary image places before us is the hope of a gift.  This is the punctum and what Barthes calls precisely eroticism.  This is the photograph’s ability (or inability) to evoke a response that rises above the level of sentimentality or at the risk of becoming over-stimulated by the image.
     The Good Photograph 
     For Barthes, a particular photo, for example, of Napoleon’s brother, that he mentions in the first lines of the book (but does not offer an image) is insufficient to tell us anything about what photography is in of itself.  What we are struck by is the eyes of the emperor’s brother.  But the eyes simply point.  And it hopely goes beyond the tedium of the studium.  When I see a photograph in a magazine or in a family album, I am drawn to the image as a particular image, chosen out of a seemingly infinite array of images and I am distracted by the particularness of the image which evades the eidos (the idea) of the image itself.  What Barthes seems to be saying is that I can never get at the being of photography for photography is written in a deictic language, he says, that by its very essence can only refer.  The picture of my cousin Zack which hangs sits on my bookshelf is an image of Zack, a particular shot of him taken at a particular moment in time. His eyes are looking awry outside of the borders of the frame.  And his mouth is formed in a slight smile.  He is posing.  His look shows that he knows that a photograph is being taken of even though he gives this recognition away only minimally.  I cannot, as Barthes says, remove the photograph from the image nor can I remove the image from the photograph.  The photograph has meaning only because I can situate the picture within the point of view of an observer or from the subject observed.  The good photograph, for Barthes, is the photographer having found the right moment, the kairos of desire” (59).
    The Studium
    But is there a capture of the image from the point of view of eternity? Apparently, for Barthes, the image always evades.  It always points to something — like desire points to an object or essence to existence, but to grasp the thing-in-itself is impossible.  But, it seems, what Barthes is really trying to say. is that the image cannot be thought of in this platonic way. The image’s something “has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock, a satori, the passage of a void (it is of no importance that is referent is insignificant)” (49).  The studium of the image is its landscape, it is the broadened face of the image that can garner our interest, even our passion, but in the banalest of ways.  The studium is the part of the image that is “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies” (57).  It is the punctum — the image’s tiny shock — that grabs our attention and attracts us to the picture.
                                                                The Hope of the Punctum
    The hope of the punctum — if I can call it a “hope” — is to stumble upon the image that goes beyond the stagnancy of the studium.  The viewer hopes to stumble upon an image that proves a “punch”!  If I take an image that Barthes uses as an example at the end of the book, I can take this a little further.  The image is a striking, handsome image of a young man.  The caption reads, “He is dead and he is going to die …” (95).  The image is Gardner’s photograph of Lewis Payne who was condemned to die for the assassination of the Secretary of State Seward in the late 1860s.  His hands are cuffed and he sits abrasively against a prison wall.  For me. the eye of the subject provides the punctum.  His eyes at first seem vacant, but on a second look, coupled with his strange wan smile, and a thick neck.  But for Barthes, it is the knowledge that he is about to die — or that he is dead.  The point of departure that brings the image to the level of the punctum is that the man is going to die.
    What this means then, and I think is the weakness of Barthes’s book is that the punctum rests on something outside of the image — that he is dead is the knowledge that we glean from the text.  The punctum — which is supposed to prick our consciousness is exterior to the experience of the photography itself.
Experience of the Photograph   
    The penetration of the image relies on the experience of the photograph and not the photograph itself which Barthes states clearly at the beginning of the book.  But this is a problem and I think what Sontag seems as lacking in the punctum — that the observer has to rise to the level of the punctum.  If we do not have the aesthetic or phenomenological capacity to rise about the photographic landscape, or even beyond the intention of the photographer. there is no “punch” to be gained.
    The photograph, then, cannot stand on its own — and what gives it status then, is not its essence — but what the image points to is important.  If the image’s essence cannot be apprehended, then, the punctum of the image, then, relies on the capacity of the observer to be pricked.  This, I think is a high call.  But, an admirable one. 


Poem + Image: "Lane"

girls in a gay bar
hold his hand
on the dance floor

image credit: detail of Rembrandt's painting, The Jewish Bride snapped by koe2moe

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Poem: Train Station, Hammond, Louisiana

photo continuance: seattleweekly
stands a peach and plum seller and his grandson,
a pail of peaches for 10,
a basket of plums for 5;
the peaches downy and yellow,
a brown tinge of grass on top of their round facades,
the plums thin, easy to bite into;
they tell me,
a family of fruit sellers,
their white pick-up truck doubles as a storefront
and their transportation,
hailing from Alabama,
with Alabama plates,
traveling farmers,
a round, happy belly, age lines born from cheerfulness,

approaching to buy something with measly dollars,
rumpled in a cheap wallet,
the grandfather goes and sits down,
the grandmother, reading a newspaper,
her boy to handle the sale,
the morning summer sun heating the concrete;
the glint of an Amtrak train veering into the station;
the boy shows off his produce,
grinning like a seasoned salesman,
but serious when he
points to some small, green colored peaches,
“these here are sour; I don’t like ‘em,
but I can sell ‘em to ya anyway if you like, sir,”
“No, I think I like that basket of plums over there for breakfast,”
The boy, nods, obediently,
“I can sell ‘em to ya if you like, sir”
and hands the green basket like an offering,
placing a peach in the mix for extra,
this act of kindness both part of the sale and a kind of measure of survival,
meeting his eyes just for a second,
broken blue and his hair a matte of red,
a nondescript cap nestled on his head;
he answers questions;
“yeah, we go from Alabama to Mississippi; just came from Chalmette,”
he says, politely answering the queries, as if they are expected, as if he is used to this
 line of questioning —

and I wonder where they are off to next, which town, and for how long —
and slightly envious that it isn’t me, selling those peaches and those plums,

a kind of gentle harmony, biting into the small, but full plum,
its redness firm and meaty; a good feeling to have so early in the morning,
to be a produce seller, to pass off such delicate fruit,
you have to be gentle, and courteous,
making sure you seem to be sharing instead of selling —
and trusting that you are making people happy, sated,
their tummies filled with juices, grown from the earth;
a romanticism is there, for sure;
forgetting the commercial exchange, it is as if one is just picking these peaches and
plums from where they came; hearing the pluck from the branch,
just as natural as giving a handsome tip


Poem: "Heart Surgery"

After heart surgery, he appeared
at supper smiling, though hunched over,
as if his soul had trouble holding him
as if he were floating among the worn
tables and ragged cushions despite
himself, despite a ragged slit 
down his shaven chest,
once opened and bared
so intimately touched, so visceral  —


Poem: Upon Pouring Coffee

the black, raven colored chemical that I love
to drink in the morning,
with my fat, contented cup
for my fat contented ladies,
sits perched on a landing in the sun room -

“What do you do?” she said.
And I said, “I pour coffee.”
“Oh,” she replied, retreating to the foyer.
by Greig Roselli
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Poem: Effigy

Some old folks 
are like glazed doughnuts,
crusty effigies
on the brink of plastic lunch trays.
The dribble of orange juice,
the nausea of snot —
but she smiles,
because she’s old
and happy
that her son —
well — only me —
came to visit —
a chocolate heart wrapped
in aluminum foil — 
that I went and took a photograph


Poem: "Guilt-Gift"

A mother’s guilt gift to a
future man on her knee
is to enjoy his giggles, fun-loving mirth,
only to demand it back in his
trousers and school-books, his sullen smirk.

image credit: "Remember" by Telenous

Philosophy of Science: Are We Lamarckians?

All the fuss about how information access on the Internet alters the structure of our brains makes me think of the history of evolutionary theory.
     I recently read a blog post from some random poster who claimed we're getting stupider because more and more people read online. While this may sound true, it seems like more people are plagued with a bad case of how traits are acquired that smacks of bad evolutionary science.
     Darwin did not claim giraffes have long necks because they strained their bodies to reach vegetation high up in the tree. No. Giraffes have long necks because all the "shorter" necked creatures died and the "longer" neck variety survived. The longer neck variety reproduced and made it more probable that another longer neck creature was born. This is basically his theory of natural selection (or survival of the fittest).
Consider the Giraffe
    The location of the giraffe's food source (whether high or low) necessitated biological change over time. The short-necked giraffes died of starvation and hence did not live long enough to produce.
     In the same way, human beings do not change the structure of their brains because information is processed differently on the web then it's processed via print sources.
     For some reason, I don't think a kid who grows up learning by books is going to have a different brain structure from the kid who is raised on Wikipedia.
     That's so Lamarckian. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is to blame for this faulty logic prevalent in the talk about how biological change manifests. He was basically a 19th-century French scientist who conjured up the first theory of evolution. He had some amazing insights that helped shape the future of evolutionary science, but he also had the idea that certain traits can be willed and acquired. The giraffe-has-long-neck-because-it-willed-it theory is tantalizing but does not hold much water. It's like the father who thinks his 5'5 scrawny son can just will himself to be a great football player.
How We Learn - Is it Lamarckian?
      With the super-fast advent of web technology, and amazing ways to collect information we seem to fall on Lamarck's faulty, but tempting, logic. Out brains must acquire whatever traits the technology dictates. It may be true there's some physical change related to perusing the web ( strain on the eyes, etc.) but one's genetic makeup is not being altered.
      Our brains are hardwired to collect data and store it in memory. It's the result of thousands of years of evolutionary development. Humans had to remember because we were the first hunters and gatherers. The humans who remembered where the good food sources were located survived because they could feed their families. The others with bad memories died. They didn't make babies. So the prefrontal cortex grew because of nature's preference for a large capacity for long term memory.
      The human ability to do the memory thing well lies on a continuum of 1-10.
      Folks who mine the web well do so because they have a genetic aptitude for it. They get a 10. And then there is a mix of others. But no one is dying off. The evolution thing does not work anymore. Humans survive the cold not because their body temperature gets warmer but because we can devise a way to create a heater. The Eskimo does not produce kids who are durable to the cold but rather he produces kids who learn how to fish and build an igloo.
       If our survival depended on our ability to learn through the web, then over time those who suck at information literacy would die and those who fared well would survive. While this could happen - it would be something like the "Final Solution" in Germany. We don't live in a genetic dystopia. Yet. It would be like a worldwide web version of who can make it to the oasis first in the desert. Kinda like a survival of the fittest. The brains with information literacy would produce offspring with other information literate people (because remember, those who can't google are dead).
We're Not Becoming Stupider. Or Are We?
      But, of course, this is not how it works. We don't grant life or take it away based on your ability to surf the web.
      You can't say the structure of our brain changes in a Lamarckian way. It's bad science. You have to say something like this: the way the world wide web is not designed for deep thinkers. It's not, "Deep thinkers are becoming stupider because they're reading tweets instead of novels."
      Sounds semantic? Well, it is. It's wrong at a semantic level and a biological level.
      Semantics is how language functions. Technology forces our language to change, not our brains. By language, I mean the broadest sense of what language means: language and culture.
      If the world lost it's electric plug and all information systems go kablooey it may be up for grabs what makes who fitter.
      It's like that old maxim: "The one-eyed man is king in the kingdom of the blind."
Keeping Up With the Joneses
      The boy who will get ahead in the information age is the boy who can grasp and keep up with how language and culture fluctuate. It's not a quantum change of his brain but rather ONE brain can keep up. It all falls on what must be kept up. Really survival is relative.
      None of us are getting stupider because we read books versus Twitter feeds. No. These systems are designed for shallow knowledge so that's what we get.
      Our brains won't show much change except in a few more generations when we can see who's alive and who ain't. Will the web 2.0 be holding a torch?
      It just might be the book lover is the fittest. Of it may be the twitter lover.
The only thing that's changing is information. That's true.
      Our brains are as prehistoric as they'll ever be. Any real change won't be available for another few years. But that's a question for another blogger. I'm going to go strain my neck to get that coconut. I'll let you know when it's grown.


Poem: Evolutionary Biology

Stefan clung, like a primate, to his mother
when he was a kid, a little thing;
I would sometimes take him in my arms, pat
his bulbous head, shake his infant thighs — 
And he would cry — for his mother — 
offer his tiny fingers, sweet princely monuments,
Releasing and squeezing my fat adult digits,
all the while yelping for her feminine beauty.
As a dutiful father, I would
place him back in her petulant arms — 
sated his bloated body content between
her breasts — 
And she would extoll my fatherliness,
my manly concern,
all the while shielding and protecting 
some arcane ritual of evolutionary
image credit: "father with baby" by marjanhols
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Alfred E. Neuman and the Upstairs Lounge

This photograph (above) was taken in New Orleans at the Contemporary Arts Center Prospect.1 exhibit, "Remember the Upstairs Lounge" by artist Skylar Feins. The piece is an artifact from a gay night club, the Upstairs Lounge. The club was deliberately burned down in June of 1973. 32 people died. The exhibit memorialized the people who perished in the flames and also showcased memorabilia from the club.

Including this piece:
The exhibit is no longer showcased but if you want a good review, read the Times-Picayune op-ed piece.

Should I Move Now? — On Moving from New Orleans to New York City

A view of Carrollton Avenue from the streetcar
As I peer out onto S. Carrollton Avenue where I've made my home for the past two years, I decide to rechristen my neighborhood, "The Path Where the Oaks Begin".
At the intersection of Palmer Park and Carrollton, the palm trees end and the oaks begin (but they end too, further down and over on St. Charles).

I came to New Orleans after ten years (more or less, with a brief hiatus abroad) living in St. Benedict, Louisiana.

There my life was directed by an horarium (literally) and circumscribed by a 1200 acre loblolly and part deciduous forest (we had both low-lying magnolias and tall proud pines).

I was a seminarian destined to be a Benedictine and a priest. But, that career choice did not quite bloom into a permanent life decision. My advent into the secular world was a half transition.

I had a car and a bachelor's pad but I still worked for the Church - a la the Christian Brothers.

I like to say my last two years as a civilian have been my own Teach for America.

I turned in my last lesson plan last week, said goodbye to my adorable students, and have decided to rid myself of Nola.

The next few weeks will be a transition time for me.

If you've been a faithful reader of stones of erasmus, I thank you.

I will continue to post, of course. I disconnected my home Internet so my online forays are limited to iPhone 3G splendor and desperate dashes to the corner hot spot (password: shangrila).

I'll try to document the transition to the best of my ability.

Be assured unsolicited words of encouragement are welcome.

P.S.: I'm not sure where I'll be living in the Big Apple but I'm eyeing anywhere along the Red line in the Bronx or even Morningside Heights. I've even considered Staten Island, Jersey City, and Harlem.