‘Inimical Forces’

A while back, I mentioned a book I’d like to read: “The Greatest Battle,” by Andrew Nagorski. It’s an account of the battle for Moscow in World War II. Although several of the blurbs on the back cover describe the book as gripping, I’d say it’s deliberate and workmanlike, almost plodding. But Nagorski does a thorough job relating the story of the German invasion, the Soviet defense, and Hitler’s and Stalin’s roles in the disasters that befell both armies and the calamity that was visited on the Soviet Union first through Stalin’s policies of purge and terror and second through Hitler’s determination to destroy the nation and its political system. I’d say go find it used or borrow it from your library if you like military epics.

Nagorski does talk a lot about the scale of the killing in the German-Soviet fighting. Of course, the entire war involved killing on a fearsome scale. You can read through the numbers, but I don’t think there’s any way to comprehend them. I always find myself thinking about the events that led to the catastrophe, and my thoughts always settle on Hitler and how he was able to move an entire nation to start in on such an enterprise.

Earlier today, Kate was reading a book of short pieces E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker. She read several of them, all from the 1930s, aloud. Here’s one — The New Yorker holds the copyright — published two months or so after Hitler came to power in 1933. It was titled “Inimical Forces”:

“Einstein is loved because he is gentle, respected because he is wise. Relativity being not for most of us, we elevate its author to a position somewhere between Edison, who gave us a tangible gleam, and God, who gave us the difficult dark and the hope of penetrating it. Not long ago Einstein was here and made a speech, not about relativity but about nationalism. ‘Behind it,’ he said, ‘are the forces inimical to life.’ Since he made that speech we have been reading more about those forces: Bruno Walter forbidden by the Leipzig police to conduct a symphony; shops of the Jews posted with labels showing a yellow spot on a black field. Thus in a single day’s developments in Germany we go back a thousand years into the dark, while a great thinker, speaking not as a Jew but as a philosopher, warns us: these are the forces inimical to life.”

[The book: “Writings from The New Yorker, 1927-1976.” At Amazon and many other fine retailers.]

17th and Alabama


Something there is about a street named after a state that I find pleasing. San Francisco has a bunch, on Potrero Hill and on both its eastern and western slopes. There’s an Illinois Street down by Third. And a Kansas, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida. There’s a York and a Hampshire–the “New” dropped from both–and a Vermont and a Rhode Island. And Alabama, and many more.

(And, going parenthetical, this sign illustrates a conundrum for people trying to navigate San Francisco’s multiple clashing street grids. We’re at the corner of 17th and Alabama. Now in Chicago, if you were at the corner of a 17th and Anything, you could be reasonably sure what street numbers you would encounter going either way on Anything; on one side you’d be in the 1600s, and the other you’d find 1700s. It wasn’t always so easy, but that’s the numbering regime the city has today. In San Francisco, though, the numbered streets don’t bear a predictable relationship to the addresses at their intersections. Thus, 17th Street commences the 400 block of Alabama in one place, and some other block of numbers as you proceed east or west. To an outsider, it’s utterly illogical. I believe natives and denizens see it as just another one of the city’s charming quirks.)

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Global Cooling Unleashed

Oh so innocently, I perused SFGate.com to see tonight’s news. The first story that stopped me: Dan Fogelberg, the singer/songwriter whom I believe had a central Illinois connection, died of prostate cancer, age 56. OK, that hits kind of close to home. And there’s an AP story on the winter storm that just blew through the Midwest and on into New England: Storm Buries Northeast, Causes 3 Deaths (the headline writer, or whoever, might want to take a refresher on what states constitute the Northeast, as the story bundles news from Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan into the mix). Editorial nagging aside, I noted there are 69 reader comments appended to the story. Sixty-nine. For a weather piece.

It appears the flat-earthers, Lindburgh Baby conspiracists and folks sporting aluminum-foil headgear have turned out in force to taunt enviros and Gore-ites and Bay Area liberals (if those three categories can actually be untangled) about global warming. Their thinking is: See? Look at that drift out their! Look at the ice on the pond! Look at that icicle dangling from my nose! Where’s your climate catastrophe now, wise guys?

OK, they’re pretty funny as far as they go. One guy writes, tongue in cheek: “Bushco Nazi big oil conspiritors created this situation in order to drive up the cost of heating oil and to trick the ignorant masses back east that they need to mine coal for survival!!” Heh. Beyond the chuckle, though, it’s nothing more than the same anti-scientific perversity that makes Americans more likely to believe in Genesis than in Darwin. What a strange, strange group we are. No nation anywhere is so dependent on the fruits of science — Dan Fogelberg, and every other cancer patient, could have told you about that — and none has such a well-organized opposition and obdurate resistance to the very idea of science and research. It’s a puzzler.

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Healthy Shake


Success: “You’ll look better and love it!” On the side of a building at 17th and Treat in San Francisco, halfway between the 16th Street BART station and KQED. (Looking more carefully, I see this actually says “Sweet Success.” And curiosity having won out, I see that the Nestle Sweet Success Shake is a product the company came out with in the early ’90s. A few years ago, a company in Austin, Texas, bought the product line and brand name; the company calls itself Sweet Success and its main product line has been dubbled Fuel for Health. And that’s just part of what makes America great.)


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Guest Observation: The Names of Things

From the “I Should Really Go to Bed” Department (Kate and the dog have gone off to sleep, and I’m sitting up here alone), there’s this nugget from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Too Many Names”:

“… When I sleep all these nights,

what am I named or not named?

And when I wake up who am I

if I wasn’t when I was asleep? …

“… I intend to confuse things,

to unite things, make them new-born,

intermingle them, undress them,

until the light of the world

has the unity of the ocean,

a generous wholeness,

a fragrance alive and crackling.”

The translation? It’s by Stephen Mitchell, who lives a few blocks from us, I hear. It’s in his book of selected Neruda poems, “Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon.”

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Tuesday Randomizer

Just noticing: A habit I seem to have developed is wishing people a “great day” or “great night.” Somehow it no longer suffices for people to have a merely good day. I wonder if I’ll have the urge to sell Amway stuff soon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And that last — that’s a cliche right out of “Seinfeld” reruns.

Patented: Putting a few idle moments to work during my own great day, I had the following idea: a Web page promoting a campaign for reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions by reusing plastic coffee-cup lids. The page would suggest people hang onto the lids (while recycling the paper cups on which they come), rinse them off and use them again the next time they go for a triple big white Russian espresso. Related merchandise: Reuse Your Lid stickers and buttons, naturally. Also: exclusive hand-crafted lid wallets (sewn from organically grown hemp cloth and thread by free-range Tibetan lamas earning a living wage). If the financing for this idea comes through — I’m having confidential talks with deposed bank tellers in Burkina Faso — this will be big.

Radio drama: Today I started a one-month (more or less) temp job in the news department at KQED-FM, one of the local public radio stations. I haven’t actually edited anything yet that has gone on the air, but I’m close to realizing my long-held desire to add radio to my overly peripatetic media resume (print, Web, magazines, and television; oh, sure, and blogging, too).

Work in Progress


Tonight’s portrait of excess holiday electrical use. Actually, walking around the neighborhood with the dog this evening, this is small potatoes. Houses with light displays are still few and far between, but those few are really decked out.

Naturally, one of the strings of lights I put up was working when I tested it but is now half out. Tomorrow. Maybe I’ll fix that tomorrow.

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When Comment Is Superfluous

From the Anchorage Daily News:

After 300 Iraq missions, soldier killed by moose

Spc. Stephen Cavanaugh survived Iraq, but at a cost. For a full year, bullets whizzed past his head and bombs exploded around him.

When he returned to Fort Richardson in March, he had brain trauma from the many explosions and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said his father, also named Stephen Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh, who deployed to Iraq with the 98th Maintenance Company, was still trying to heal when his car hit a moose on the Seward Highway in South Anchorage last weekend. He slipped into a coma. His family took him off life support Thursday.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Emeryville mayor driving in rain kills guard crossing street

A vehicle driven by Emeryville’s new mayor struck and killed a security guard crossing the street after the veteran city official left a community meeting about a proposed pedestrian and bicycle bridge nearby, police said Friday.

Mayor Ken Bukowski, 56, was driving his SUV in the rain about 9 p.m. Thursday on the 5300 block of Hollis Street when he hit Michael Smela, 56, of Oakley, a retired police officer working as a security guard for drugmaker Novartis, authorities said. Novartis has a plant nearby and was host of the meeting.

Season of Light

I put up a bunch of Christmas lights today, although I need another extension cord to light them all. I had spent all the good daylight hours puzzling out whom were the essential Irish American writers of the ’20s and ’30s (two are essential: Eugene O’Neill and James T. Farrell; Margaret Mitchell actually gets honorable mention; and F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara add some glitter, but you would never have known they came from Irish backgrounds from their writing; don’t consider this an exhaustive list ). So it was dark by the time I got around to the lights. I don’t want to think about how many strings there are along the eves and the little trellis on top of the driveway gate and on the hedge along the driveway. But enough that I think they’ll make the electric meter spin a little faster. And that spinning will make me think on and off again about how our merry light display and the ones around the neighborhood (and around your neighborhood as well) are all part of this warming equation that could make the North Pole untenable for future Claus & Co. habitation. That’s what I was thinking as I sat on the edge of my roof in a pair of shorts in the dark hanging those lights. And this: that it’s not as easy as it was just to plug the lights in and enjoy the spectacle.

Still: It’s the season of light, right? We’ll warm ourselves in this one and look down the way for the others to come.

The Paper

A few months ago we did something that still depresses me to think about. Today I was reminded of it: the San Francisco Chronicle called to get me to start up the paper again. They were offering six months of the paper for ten bucks. That’s about a nickel a day, and that’s how hard up they are for paying customers. Meantime, back at the plant, they’ve been firing people left and right. A nickel a day would have done nothing to save any of those jobs; it’s a desperate ploy to prop up circulation numbers and what’s left of the paper’s advertising base.

That’s depressing right there. But there’s more.

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