Notes from the frozen north

CIMG2474It is 13 degrees in Louisville, KY today. While the sun skitters on the ice and snow (picture of the back yard during a storm a few days ago) it’s still daunting to consider a walk. Most businesses and quite a few residents don’t clear the sidewalk so it’s an ice rink out there.  Most days during this unusually frigid winter I’ve chosen to stay inside, which means staying inside my head. This is where we got the expression “cabin fever” and yes, I have it. You’ll understand if I haven’t written much.  Inside my head is … disorderly.

I suspect the recent mild winters have left many of us unused to a normal season. I actually like snow – but I’m an avowed enemy of ice.

Two phenomena have upped the ice quotient this winter: first a fluctuating temperature will lay a quarter inch of ice down before the flakes kick in. Second, the temps will stay so frigid for so long that the snow itself freezes into a slick surface. Since I’m living without a car walking, at least to the bus stop, is fraught. No, I haven’t fallen, but I often hear a voice in my head that says “You know, older people don’t heal as quickly when a bone breaks.” When I *am* walking I watch young people whiz past me on their daily run o’er the icy sidewalks. How they miss the patches of black ice I don’t know because they never seem to look down. Of course children actually try to slide on the ice.  It’s all quite humbling which, in a resentful kind of way, makes me grateful to have had such a long life.  I used to be those children laughing madly when I skidded out on a patch of ice, so I’ve had my time, but obviously I’m not going quietly into that dark night.

Yesterday I made acorn squash with barley, onions and roasted grapes.

Roasted Acorn Squash with Onion, Grapes, and Thyme | Very Culinary

Winter food!

The good news is that a grinding winter is improving my cooking skills.  The bad news is that without walking every day I’ve put on 5 lbs.

You won’t be surprised to learn I’m doing a good bit of reading.  A believer in ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, I’ve always been a history nut and this time I’ve spent the last two months on Europe prior to and through World War I. I didn’t consciously realize that we are at the 100 year mark of those events.  In fact, what prompted me was reflecting on six years of austerity in Europe and the consequent social decay.  The austerity train roars loudly in the U.S. too and it’s enlightening to hear the same arguments from capital and labor riffle through a century.

I’ve never felt a chasm between myself and the people living at the beginning of the 20th century. They and I are bound by the industrial age,

Factory work, Bridgeport CT 1914

Factory work, Bridgeport CT 1914

so their concerns aren’t foreign to me. Then as now workers pressed for a living wage for stultifying work, and capital pressed back. The biggest difference is how some early 20th century intellectuals and artists joyously welcomed the mechanization of labor as a means to free the population for new-found leisure activities.  I don’t think anyone still believes in that canard.

But that’s just us proles. What bears remembering is the utter arrogance of the people in charge.

Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany 1908

Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany 1908

This was the waning age of colonization and to eavesdrop again on political counterparts in the industrialized world –  including the U.S. who’d just waged that “glorious little war” and taken Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philipines from Spain while ‘annexing’ Hawaii in the same year – sit around their gentlemen’s clubs and divvy up entire continents is breathtaking.

Wilhem II may be a particularly egregious example, but this is the same time frame in which Churchill remarked, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” These men, and make no mistake, in 1900 it was all men all the time, were ruthless bastards who had no problem sending 40 million people to their death – at least half of whom were civilians – a mere 14 years later.

A hundred years ago this year.

Perhaps that’s why I’m less than sanguine about current leaders.  Ya think?

Which brings me to …

the soldier

the soldier

Why is it so easy to sell so many people on going to war?

The argument is that homo sapiens are war like by nature, there will always be enemies, and realpolitik determines that all nations remain armed and dangerous.

Here’s 16th century theologian John Calvin on the question:

“The mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure and infamous. The human heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench.”

Well, that about sums it up, doncha think? People become soldiers because they understand this point of view as a fundamental truth about humanity.

Why can’t I just get on board?

Well, maybe I can.



I’m reading Soldaten and it has laid a new idea bare for me.

Autotelic violence.

Alongside the German soldier’s duty to perform a strategic action for the military are reports of “violence simply for the sake of violence” – just because it’s fun. Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think German soldiers were qualitatively different than any other soldier.  And while the idea of autotelic violence is relatively new (generating PhD’s worldwide as I write), there’s something achingly familiar about it.

Anybody hear about the “knock-out game”?




U.S. sociologists disagree on whether this is an actual trend or a new urban legend. The New York Police Department refuses to use the phrase for what it sees as isolated instances of violence. But ask a U.S. teenager and a small percentage will tell you that they know someone who has walked up to a stranger and knocked them out. For fun. [Even if it’s only urban legend, it’s enough to disturb a friend of mine who mentioned his fear of it to me the other day.]

There’s something apocryphal in its depiction of human nature. Are we all just itching to batter someone [or an animal] just to break the monotony during our peaceful lives?

Which brings me to a new question.

I’m convinced that all human behavior has its predecessor in other mammals. We are no longer qualitatively different in terms of emotions or ‘higher functions’ like mathematics, but rooted web and branch to our phylogenetic tree, not separate but a part of the natural world. Hallelujah.  Now some of our worst ideas can die a long-overdue death.  BUT – are there any scholarly reports of autotelic violence in the so-called animal kingdom?

Thus far I can find nothing.  You’ve no idea how much I want to be wrong.

What say you, naturalist peeps?

Because I know you can see where I’m going here …