Reaching for the stars

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Take a look at the William Carlos Williams when young. Intensity and Idealism come to my mind. And so his famous "The Red Wheelbarrow." IAt first, the poem seems fixed in empirical reality; the image the poem presents is precise and clear. It is much like Haiku. And there is no commentary.  But the opening line requires us to wonder what it is that depends upon the red wheelbarrow and the chickens and the rain in just this particular arrangement. The poem thus requires us to go in thought beyond the material realm to another realm of being.

I have read that the poem was written as the auther, a pediatrician, was attending a young girl sick sick in her bed with fever. He was looking out her window as he waited to see if the fever would break and this is what he saw.


The Sick Man and the Fireman, a Fable by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1901


            There was once a sick man in a burning house, to whom
there entered a fireman.
            "Do not save me," said the sick man. "Save those who are strong."
            "Will you kindly tell me why?" inquired the fireman, for
he was a civil fellow.
            "Nothing could possibly be fairer," said the sick man.
"The strong should be preferred in all cases, because they are of more
service in the world."
            The fireman pondered a while, for he was a man of some
philosophy. "Granted," said he at last, as a part of the roof fell in,
"but for the sake of conversation, what would you lay down as the
proper service of the strong?"
            "Nothing can possibly be easier," returned the sick man,
"the proper service of the strong is to help the weak."
            Again the fireman reflected, for there was nothing hasty
about this excellent creature. "I could forgive you being sick," he
said at last, as a portion of the wall fell out, "but I cannot bear
your being such a fool." And with that he heaved up his fireman's axe,
for he was eminently just, and clove the sick man to the bed.

A Fable from Robert Louis Stevenson


Once upon a time the devil stayed at an inn, where no one knew him, for they were people whose education had been neglected. He was bent on mischief, and for a time kept everybody by the ears. But at last the innkeeper set a watch upon the devil and took him in the fact.

The innkeeper got a rope's end.

"Now I am going to thrash you," said the innkeeper.

"You have no right to be angry with me," said the devil. "I am only the devil, and it is my nature to do wrong."

"Is that so?" asked the innkeeper.

"Fact, I assure you," said the devil.

"You really cannot help doing ill?" asked the innkeeper.

"Not in the smallest," said the devil; "it would be useless cruelty to thrash a thing like me."

"It would indeed," said the innkeeper.

And he made a noose and hanged the devil.

"There!" said the innkeeper.

The River War Summary |

1899 Unabridged Edition (Two volumes)

The unabridged version contains many illustrations with drawings, photogravures, and colored maps. It also contains vivid narratives of personal adventures of the author, his views on British expansionism, passages of deep reflection about the requirements of a civilized government, criticism of military and political leaders and very harsh commentary on Mohammedanism. [1]

“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.” [2]

Winston Churchill's observations from The River War, his 1899 account of his experiences in Sudan, raise troubling questons we confront to this day. The status of women remains a problem.

Notice that although Churchill is a "Conservative" in English Parliamentary lingo, his position is the liberal one of equality and resistance to slavery.

Alas, only the abridged 1902 one volume edition is available free from But the free edition is a fine place to begin.

The West Point Class Goat

Student Responses and the Two Cultures

Recently, some community college philosophy students encountered a West Point tradition and tried to make sense of it, with only a description of a ritual to go by.  Here is what they had to go on:

An interesting feature of the folk version of Wisdom is that it is often surprising and even paradoxical. I think this is an example.

Last year I was invited to attend the graduation of a friend's son from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was an impressive experience.

During the ceremony, the names are called and the cadets go up to get their diplomas. At one point, a name was called and the rest of the graduating officers broke into loud cheering and applauding. Those who had already received their diplomas, rolled into white baton-like objects seen from a distance, blandished them enthusiastically.  A great fuss was made over this student who was about to receive the diploma. Who was it? It was the "Class Goat," the student graduating with the poorest academic record.

I was assured by all who are familiar with The Point that the cheering is in no way ironic or sarcastic. This is not a "nya, nya..." but a heartfelt cheer for an esteemed fellow officer.

The cadets are expressing some of their tribal wisdom. Why do they cheer the student with the lowest grades? 

Here are some responses.  As you will see, they all show intelligence and tolerance. 

1. I think they cheer for the student with the lowest GPA because they want to show support. Even though the student didnt do as well as the others that doesnt mean he or she didnt try. Its better to build up than to tear down cause you never know when you will be the one with the loweest GPA. 

2. I think that they cheer for the classmate with the lowest GPA because you are only as strong as your weakest link. As a unit they cheer for "the goat" to show their support and encouragement for this person to continue what they are doing and to become better and more successful. A school like this is more about success as a group not really success for each individual. 

3. I agree with Melissa about only being as strong as your weakest link. I also feel that it simply comes down to hazing, which is sometimes a serious problems in certain military institutes (my brother mentioned this when he was in military school). It was probably just a gentle way of poking fun of their weakest link. 

4. This is just a guess but maybe they aren't cheering for the class goat but for everyone else. It may be a sarcastic celebration of not being last in the class. 

These responses seem fully consonant with the values of our new "inclusive" institutional world-view, which clashes with the "official" reason, the one given by the cadets themselves. 

The West Pointers claim that they cheer this student for his or her achievements and accomplishments.  They cheer not for the trendy "who they are" but for the eternal "what they did."  According to their classmates, getting through West Point (basically, an engineering college) is hard enough when you are good at academics.  When you have to struggle, it requires perseverance, a virtue much valued by the military as "character" or "guts."  It is this heroic quality shown by the class goat that they cheer. (I sometimes wonder if slower learners and students who struggle realize how much the faculty and other students may admire them precisely for their perseverance.)

Of course, since Freud et. al. we instinctively assume baser motives lurking in the unconscious. Maybe projection or reaction-formation is at work and what seems like a cheer is deep down a jeer.  We cannot dismiss such possibilities as mere cynicism. Indeed, it could even be that the class goat is valued for the same reason the scapegoat was valued. 

Still, an application of Occam's Razor suggests we should take the cadets at their word. After meeting and chatting with a few of them, I am inclined to believe them.

Following Directions

Last summer we went to Maine to attend L.L. Bean's one day course for beginners in clay pigeon shooting with shotguns.  I bagged a few.  Shot is much more forgiving than a bullet would be--you only need to get within a few feet.  We were told and shown how to hold the rifle.  You do not want the butt away from your body--you want to absorb all the kick safely.  But in the excitement, I forgot.  Greenhorn that I was, I held the gun away from myself , which meant that the rifle butt now became a battering ram aimed at my upper arm.  See the result of NOT FOLLOWING DIRECTIONS. The photo shows the contusion after a day or two; it began as a small bruise the size of a quarter. Ah, the beauty of nature.

What to eat with Fado

A good Portuguese always drinks red wine (vinho tinto) and eats sardines
with white potatoes, and a sauce of olive oil with garlic,parsley and hot
pepper while listening to fado. Where are the sardines? You will find them
abundantly in the land of the three-F's: Fado, Fatima and Futebol. For a
while Salazar kept the people quiet with those elements.

My colleague Nuno Vieira sent me this lovely paragraph.

Bill Morrissey "Birches"

(Bill Morrissey)

They sat at each end of the couch, watched as the fire burned down,
So quiet on this winter's night, not a house light on for miles around.
Then he said, "I think I'll fill the stove. it's getting time for bed."
She looked up, "I think I'll have some wine. how 'bout you?" She asked and he de

"Warren," she said, "maybe just for tonight,
Let's fill the stove with birches and watch as the fire burns bright.
How long has it been? I know it's quite a while.
Pour yourself half a glass. Stay with me a little while."

And Warren, he shook his head, as if she'd made some kind of joke.
"Birches on a winter night? no, we'll fill the stove with oak.
Oak will burn as long and hot as a July afternoon,
And birch will burn itself out by the rising of the moon.

"And you hate a cold house, same as me. Am I right or not?"
"All right, all right, that's true," she said. "It was just a thought,
'Cause," she said, "Warren, you do look tired. Maybe you should go up to bed.
I'll look after the fire tonight." "Oak," he told her. "Oak," she said.

She listened to his footsteps as he climbed up the stairs,
And she pulled a sweater on her, set her wineglass on a chair.
She walked down cellar to the wood box -- it was as cold as an ice chest --
And climbed back up with four logs, each as white as a wedding dress.

And she filled the stove and poured the wine and then she sat down on the floor.
She curled her legs beneath her as the fire sprang to life once more.
And it filled the room with a hungry light and it cracked as it drew air,
And the shadows danced a jittery waltz like no one else was there.

And she stood up in the heat. She twirled around the room.
And the shadows they saw nothing but a young girl on her honeymoon.
And she knew the time it would be short; the fire would start to fade.
She thought of heat. She thought of time. She called it an even trade.

Sung by Bill Morrissey on "Night Train," Philo, PH 1154, 1993.


Comments on the Song "Birches"

Subject: Re: A 3-minute movie...
From: (Peggy Bertsch)
Date: 18 Nov 1995
MessageID: 48jmff$
references: <48asqd$> <48gmj9$>
organization: Hewlett Packard Cupertino Site

JEricL ( wrote:
: While story songs are great. Good ones are few and far between. It is a
: real challenge to write a great one. My point it, that you probably should
: write some of the other types of songs also. The ones that deal with
: things in a short time frame, without a loger story line.

Absolutely.  Variety is important.  Not all songs are meant to be chock full
of dialogue or metaphor or other elements that are so crucial to, say,
short story writing.  But by the same token, some songwriters *never* think
of their songs as short stories, and I was trying to show that sometimes
the two forms of writing can overlap very effectively.

Most story songs seem to hand-hold the listener through the passage of time,
telling the story from beginning to end, not leaving anything to the
imagination.  It's like each verse starts out with a line that tells you
exactly how much time has passed, or which particular significant milestone
this verse is going to cover (e.g., verse 1: meeting your true love, verse 2:
getting married, verse 3: having a child, etc.)  Some do this *much* more
effectively than others -- I personally think "Something In Red" did this
in a very unique and special way; I wasn't, on the other hand, impressed with
"Don't Take The Girl" and the way that *two* of the verses started with the
line "Same old boy, same sweet girl, (X) years down the road"...I felt like
I was being force-fed the scene, instead of being drawn into it. (That is,
of course, only my opinion -- obviously tons of people liked that song a *lot*
more than I did :-)

What I found unique to "Birches" is the way the writer (Bill Morrissey) just
drops us down in the middle of this couple's living room, no introduction,
no background on what has transpired before, and manages to paint the most
vivid picture of what their relationship has come to by letting us eavesdrop
on one simple scene.  It's a skill that writers of great short fiction have,
but which songwriters too often neglect, IMO.  But of course, I obsess over
lyrics to a point that sometimes goes beyond rational :-)

Fado: "Casa Portuguesa" by Amalia Rodriquez

This is an absolute classic. The sound doesn't begin for a few moments. If you search Youtube on "Fado" and you can explore the whole tradition.

The first stanza might be translated
In a Portuguese household, it is a good thing to have bread and wine on the table. When someone humbly knocks on the door, he or she takes a seat at our table. Such a frankness is a good thing to have, there is no denial about that. Poor people's happiness lies on the great wealth of giving, and being satisfied.

Here are the lyrics:

Numa casa portuguesa fica bem

pão e vinho sobre a mesa.

Quando à porta humildemente bate alguém,

senta-se à mesa co'a gente.

Fica bem essa fraqueza, fica bem,

que o povo nunca a desmente.

A alegria da pobreza

está nesta grande riqueza

de dar, e ficar contente.


Quatro paredes caiadas,

um cheirinho á alecrim,

um cacho de uvas doiradas,

duas rosas num jardim,

um São José de azulejo

sob um sol de primavera,

uma promessa de beijos

dois braços à minha espera...

É uma casa portuguesa, com certeza!

É, com certeza, uma casa portuguesa!


No conforto pobrezinho do meu lar,

há fartura de carinho.

A cortina da janela e o luar,

mais o sol que gosta dela...

Basta pouco, poucochinho p'ra alegrar

uma existéncia singela...

É só amor, pão e vinho

e um caldo verde, verdinho

a fumegar na tijela.


Quatro paredes caiadas,

um cheirinho á alecrim,

um cacho de uvas doiradas,

duas rosas num jardim,

um São José de azulejo

sob um sol de primavera,

uma promessa de beijos

dois braços à minha espera...

É uma casa portuguesa, com certeza!

É, com certeza, uma casa portuguesa!


Here is a translation, from a computer:

In a portuguese home, it looks good

to have bread and wine on the table.

and if someone humildly knocks at the door,

we invite them to sit at the table with us

This frankness looks good, so good ,

the frankness which people never deny

the joy of poverty

is this great richness

of being generous and feeling happy


Four whitewashed walls,

a sweet smell of rosemary,

a bunch of golden grapes

two roses in a garden,

a statue of St. Joseph in ceramics

and the sun of the spring in addiction ...

a promise of finding kisses

two open arms waiting for me

This is a portuguese home, for sure!

This is, surely, a portuguese home!


In the humild comfort of my home,

there is the plenty of affection.

and the curtain of the window is the moonlight,

and also the sun, that shines on it ...

Just a little is enough to cheer

such a simple existence

It's simply love, bread and wine

and the cabbage soup, so greenish

leaving trails of hot smoke from the bowl.