Thursday, June 29, 2006

It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man.

I'm now a month into this blog and I've had a couple of questions about my choice in naming it. No, I didn't just randomly select something weird for the sake of being weird. I'll begin with the definition I get from Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition (1936 printing):

phrenology (fre.nol'o.ji), n. (phreno + -logy; cf F. phrenologie) The study of the conformation of the skull as indicative of mental faculties and traits of character, esp. as according to the hypothesis of F.J. Gall (1758-1828); also, the system of faculties and their localization based upon this hypothesis.

Phrenology was an idea that worked at a time when physicians and academics didn't concern themselves with the trivia or worth of their social and ethnic inferiors. If someone looked different, whether that resulted from a lifetime of poor nutrition and hard labor or from foreign ancestry, there was clearly something wrong with them. Phrenology sought to map out everything wrong with deviating from the appearance of upper-class society of western Europe.
Academia evolved, recognizing that intellect, taste, and morality were not merely burdens of the elite. Phrenology became a joke, an example of bias creating idiotic science that created more bias. Bugs Bunny and C. Montgomery Burns practice phrenology.
Somehow, we've witnessed the recrudescence of phrenology in recent years. It's not more of Sherlock Holmes’ descriptions of the "sloping criminal forehead". It's a bit more insidious than before, but like our first crack at phrenology proper, sounds very convincing.
As readers, observers, and consumers, we are being measured and judged constantly. Advertising companies attempt to sell you an image- an identity- less than they try to promote the merits of a product. Books, magazines, and newspapers are all products edited to present the most marketable content. In making a decision about what to print and how to say it, they influence your thinking on the basis of marketing statistics.
Our interpersonal relationships, from the instantaneous to the intimate, contain similar snap-judgments. Take the AP photographs from New Orleans, describing a Caucasian couple “Looking for supplies”, and another of two African American men “looting”. You do something similar but more subliminal to your friends, your spouse, your boss, and the homeless guy on the corner (whose name in this case happens to be Ray; he used to be a Marine). Of course, you know all of this already. This is our wilderness.
With this in mind, I started Phrenology. Rather than being motivated by profit or politics, I (like many bloggers) write to become a better writer, to interact with you, to learn, to give insight, and because I feel compelled to put pen to paper.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Rained real hard and rained for a real long time

ERD’s been quiet the past few days. I got a call from my boss’s boss Monday morning when I was about out the door. “The office is closed. We’re flooded.” Then fell Tuesday, then Wednesday, and now we’re looking at reopening next week.
The servers at the office have been on-again, off-again, so I’ve had precious little to do for my job. Normally, I’d be going stir-crazy by now, but yesterday and today, I stayed busy getting water out of my recently finished basement.

"Little fat man isn't it a shame what the river has done
To this poor crackers' land."

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Yesterday was the longest day of the year. Obviously this statement will invite a hail of quibbling over details, involving definitions of apsides, the difference between Julian and Tropical Calendars, and may end with a hastily scribbled anelema. Roll with the punches.
This event doesn't consistently align with a calendar date or the beginning of a fiscal year, and falls among all of those other pieces of trivia that you figured out at some point, but don't altogether remember. As a result, it comes and goes without being noticed by most people.
In ages past, such an event was venerated. It was significant. It was a gift from whomever or whatever people believed had created the world. This event was also proof-positive in the competence and wisdom of the leadership. They predicted it, and it showed-up right on schedule.
The solstice remains worthy of observing, especially for those of us married to clocks and calendars. I'm not suggesting painting your face and making a blood-offering. Instead, take this as an excuse to celebrate however it is that you celebrate. Take a walk. Go out to dinner. Talk to a friend.
This event also reminds us to question our own leaders. Read something about politics. Chat with your boss. Inform yourself and ask if the decisions you see are sage and just.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Coffee at 7th & Indiana, facing east

river of faces
none like each other, nor mine
they are family

in tiny cloisters
shutting out the world around
words, voices, nothing

intentions are clear
he stumbles over thick words
she secretly hopes

always in a rush
sublime life passes her by
was it all worth it?

Patois seduction
I eaves-drop: whispers, glances
I wish I spoke French

Monday, June 19, 2006

Simple machines

The hill in front of the split timber and stone kitchen is covered with shiny SUV’s, rusty but usable cars, and a couple of minibuses. At the edge of the parking area, two feral boys with mud in their hair crouch over a rickety fire drill. Beyond them, a man who is a dead-ringer for Rip van Winkle talks to a smiling young woman while she unpacks a frame backpack. Everywhere, the air is permeated by the scent of the big fire being prepared for wet clay pots, just beyond the clearing.
I amble up to the big tent with the banner that reads “MAPS Meet Registration” (that’s the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills group). The woman at the registration table tells me that she’s too busy to sign me in, but that I’m welcome to set-up my tent and come back after breakfast. As I head toward the camping area, I pick-up a copy of the weekend’s events: talks on fire-building, herbal remedies, tool-making, and primitive cooking, among others.
Over the morning meal, there are conversations about work, globalization, politics, and the environment. Once everyone is fed, there is a round of announcements, before the crowd diffuses to their respective demonstrations and classes.
It’s at the primitive shelter talk, where a congressional-staffer, her two sons, and a handful of college students gather to learn about fires an lean-tos, that I first make the connection: This event is part of an information system.
Indeed the compulsion to both seek and distribute information seems as old as the technologies of fire, flint, and fiber. Each of the presenters at this event are elements of a database that potentially spans large expanses of time and geography. In teaching, they are at once networking this knowledge and creating redundancy within the system. This act increases the reach of the network and helps to ensure that the information will not be lost as various elements fail.
I had laughed at the irony of registering for the event and paying via the WWW. What were people who light fires with sticks and milkweed twine doing with DSL? In spending the weekend among these teachers and learners, I’ve found that the differences between skinning one’s hands on pieces of flint and writing a blog are mostly cosmetic.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Non sequitur

Blogs, reader-reviews, and other groundling soapboxes have been the subject of much debate in my office, since the May debut of Keith’s novel.
From the ether came a few reviews on that serve as an excellent Friday mental sorbet, cleansing the intellectual pallet of all of my moody pontificating this week.
Presented for your edification, selections from the work of one Mr. Alan Williamson:

Hugely dissapointing, June 14, 2006

Reviewer: Mr Alan Williamson (All over the place!) - See all my reviews

I bought this having been a huge fan of the cartoon series, but Mr Joyce has taken a winning formula and produced a prize turkey. After 20 pages not only had Ulysses failed to even board his spaceship, but I had no idea at all what on earth was going on. Verdict: Rubbish.

2006 National Painting Cost Estimator (National Painting Cost Estimator) (Paperback)
Even Better Than 2005 National Painting Cost Estimator (National Painting Cost Estimator)!, May 29, 2006
Reviewer: Mr Alan Williamson (All over the place!) - See all my reviews

It makes my blood boil when I hear youngsters today complaining that they have failed to accurately estimate their painting costs. There are simply no excuses for such ignorance. They should make this book part of the national curriculum!

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I am struggling with a curious backlash. Having cut my teeth and built my education and career around technologies that long ago might have been called witchcraft (thankfully, I don’t weigh the same as a duck), I find myself increasingly drawn toward older and simpler technologies, or pursuits that involve little or no technology at all. The irony of recording all of this in a blog is not lost on the author.
I’ve been pressing my nose into dusty old books, like my Moore’s Historical Geology, printed in 1931. Dr. Moore does a charming job of correlating rocks and fossils without the benefit of plate tectonic theory. I’ve been drinking coffee made with water boiled on my stove and steeped in a French press. Grounds be damned. I think my wife is starting to have fiscal suspicions about my periodic musings about the merits of vinyl and turntables.
Nest site (Blogger is being very cross about images, as I post this)
Yesterday, I ran across a link from the Shenandoah National Park website that live-links to a webcam aimed at a falcon nest site. Such a thing should be antithetical to my present leanings. I watched the clouds roll-in for a moment and returned later to finds the falcons briefly at home. Seeing them from a hundred miles away, preening, preparing for their little falcon-errands, was somehow moving.
This led me to wonder if my bout of techno-malaise is perhaps off-base. Is it a vestige of youthful rebellion? Maybe I'm simply being contrary. After all, technology is my friend. It runs the lights, puts stripes in my toothpaste, staves off the end. I hoped for an instant that the question was closed, until I recalled that technology also blackens the sky, blights the earth, and populates mass graves.
Now, as I lord into a big blue pack all of the things I will need to sustain me for a weekend, I am reminded of my first backpacking trip. On that trip I stood at arms length from a red-tailed hawk, who has been with me for the 10 years since. I can still see his feral gaze and smell his wild, murderous musk.
This memory began to lend some clarity to the problem of the scrying box and the distant falcons. Like words, the images of the falcons are signs of natural facts. In total isolation or abstraction, they could be meaningless, even profane. But they are truthful, connected in my mind to something significant, an event that follows and influences me.
I see that the angst against technology is not neigh-saying. Nor does it throw the baby out with the bath. It seems now to be an attempt to replace "What's new?" with "What is best?"

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Near Saint Peter Cemetery

A piece on the news about the now tropical depression Alberto conspired with a conference report on archival disaster preparedness (a page-turner) to get me thinking about New Orleans. My wife and I made a last minute decision to vacation there last summer, about three weeks before the flood. In the weeks that followed, we made donations, wondered what happened to that chatty cabbie and the little antique map shop, and cast sad eyes on all of the images of places we had just been, then underwater.
Like the situation in Crescent City, there’s not yet a resolution to this thought. Both remain a bit of a mess. Instead of a conclusion or an answer, I end with one of my favorite paintings, which hangs in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp Street, New Orleans, LA.

Clyde Broadway

Trinity - Elvis and Jesus and Robert E. Lee

ogden museum

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


A couple of blogs I frequent recently started-in on the evergreen practice of writing about writing. It’s such an obligatory exercise (and one that is so often coupled to youthful naïveté) that it often warrants sighing and shaking one’s head, before returning to more important things. But to anyone who writes, even we vulgar bloggers, what is more important to our writing than these exporations of voice and influence?
I confess, I was taken-in by the discussions and even found myself posing to myself questions about my writing that I haven’t asked in years.
I looked back and saw the thread of my voice evolve from the wildly imaginative and undisciplined ramblings of a teenager, to the pedantic prose of an undergraduate, to the Spartan cadence of a technical writer. The influences are obvious, but I hadn’t given them any thought for a long time.
A pragmatist, I have resolved that like lifting weights in the evening and practicing Tai chi at lunch, I can get my writing in shape. This will take a diet of focused reading and exercising description, dialog, and theme.
Having identified a need to hammer (among many other things) observation and concision, on Friday I recorded my commute home from the office in a series of haiku. The piece is akin to starting with the five-pounders, but that’s where I am.

B to A

Aimlessly forward
Windows reflect all, I see
Worrying trees, me

Tap, tap, silent lamps
Four thousand three hundred twelve
Lighting my way home

A secret language
They laugh at my ignorance
Illuminate me

Grey, coffered concrete
Jonah; belly of the whale
Regurgitate me

Ponderous cannon
Propels me from silent depths
Sunlight on my face

A place I once knew
Trees, sweat, fatigue, cutting grass
Lost beneath concrete

The end of the line
Trains go on to Neverland
Soon, my wife’s embrace

Friday, June 09, 2006


One of my coworkers recently published his first novel. This auspicious event has gotten me thinking about my own earliest experiences with writing. (If I may shill for a moment, I found The Stolen Child to be insightful and entertaining. It grapples with the notion of identity and presents some original takes on relationships.)
When I was younger, I was a science devotee, a purest. I was entranced by physics and astronomy and loved their language, math. Having been raised by a biological database guru (before the term “bioinformatics” was common-parlance), with the cruel tutelage of an older brother who is an ascetic in the discipline of computer science, I learned that the sciences natural, hard, and applied, were the only avenues of learning.
I was blindsided in high school by finding fiction inside and outside of the classroom that actually got me thinking. Tragedy of tragedies, I was even taken-in by all the useless beauty of a poem. I started writing in lieu of doing banal homework assignments. There was as much wisdom in this pursuit as folly.
There would come a day that would change the universe, in which I realized the obvious course of combining writing with the love of science, but this is a story for another time. For now, I leave you with that first poem that as a very young person, caught my eye.

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

balloonMan whistles

- E. E. Cummings

Friday, June 02, 2006

Cardinal directions

A little red bird lights on an empty flowerpot next to the sliding glass door that opens my kitchen to the garden and a small stand of trees. For reasons that I don't understand, he looks into my house and eagerly launches himself, rapping at my kitchen door until my dogs chase him away. Sometimes he comes back a few minutes later and sometimes he waits until tomorrow, but he always comes back.
His gaudy feathers remind me of all of the graduation regalia I saw arranged around a cake last night with my wife. Her friend's oldest daughter just earned a diploma and a celebration.
Elizabeth, the graduate, is pensive and creative. Both are traits that run in the family. I don't know her well, but I like her. She is an excellent student, is active with her faith community, and seems grounded, but like a lot of people her age, doesn't yet know which way she is headed.
I identify with the graduates. Sure, I roll my eyes a little at how they dress and have to listen intently to divine the meaning of certain words they use (I still contend that I'm not that much older), but I've stumbled back into a similar place. Two years ago, I was certain of where I was going and was well on my way toward getting there. I was in a demanding job, doing interesting work, and had skipped some of those aggravating steps that usually come early in one's career. The long hours and urgent phone calls at home wore out their welcome, as did the pay that advanced at a glacial pace, as compared with the conflagration of new duties.
What I see now is that my way was like the little bird's. He perceives his course as straight and certain, but the place he seeks is confining, maybe dangerous, and for his part a poor fit. He's gone away again, but to where, I don't know.