Monthly Archives: December 2008

Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora: a tale for dark times

I loved spending the night at Karen Dickovics’ house back in 3rd grade because her dad was a great storyteller. The Greek myths were his specialty.  He’d turn out the lights and spin the fantastic tales of the gods and goddesses up on Mt. Olympus. Better than any soap opera.

I much prefer this creation story to the one about Adam & Eve:

In the earliest days, it is said that the Gods fought constantly.Their fights raged not only on Mt Olympus but all over the earth, which they had turned into a barren wasteland.

Zeus, who was the king of the Gods, thought it was time to do better by Earth and give her some living creatures. He called in two especially creative gods, the brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. He said, “OK guys – get down there, find yourselves a nice muddy river bank and use that clay to make some creatures… Oh and while you’re at it, give them some of these…” and he handed them a generous collection of talents and skills and tools – which they were to give to their new earthly creations.

So the two brothers went down from the gods’ home on Mt. Olympus to the Earth. They found themselves a river with excellent clay banks and set about their work. Epimetheus quickly slapped together all kinds of animals – some tiny, some huge, some with feathers, some with scales, some with long necks, some with strong legs.

Prometheus worked much more slowly and carefully because he was modeling men … in the shape of the gods. Because Epimetheus finished his job before Prometheus did, he was first to dip into the bag of gifts Zeus had sent for their creations. Wouldn’t you know, he gave his animals all the best gifts in the bag. Some of the animals got the gift of speed so they could run really fast. He gave others the gift of flying thru the air, some the gift of breathing and swimming underwater. He also gave many of them thick coats to keep them warm in winter.

Prometheus was left with little to give the men he’d made. He felt really bad because they couldn’t run as fast as the animals, nor could they smell or see as well. Worst of all, they were so naked they were freeezing.

He went back to Zeus and asked him if at the least he might be able to share the gods’ sacred fire with his shivering creations. But Zeus said, “No way Jose. Or whatever your name is. If your people get fire they’ll become too powerful.”

Because Prometheus couldn’t bear to see his people suffering, he decided to steal fire, even though he knew he’d get hell from Zeus when he found out.

He went up to Mt. Olympus and while the gods were sleeping, he took a glowing ember from the sacred hearth. He hid it in a hollow fennel stalk, which he pretended was a walking stick and carefully snuck down to earth with it.

The men of earth were so happy – at last they could be warm. They could have light after the sun went down and they could make tools. Instead of ripping at raw meat they could eat barbecued shish-kabob.

Zeus was furious when he first saw the fires on earth – furious with Prometheus and furious with the men below. They already looked like smaller versions of the gods – he didn’t want them to have god-like powers too!

To punish Prometheus Zeus had him chained him to a huge rock way off in the high and lonely Caucasus Mountains for hundreds of years.  But that is a story for another day.

With Prometheus out of the way, Zeus turned his attention to punishing the happy-go-lucky men of the earth.

You remember Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother? Well, he was now living on earth among men. (I forgot to say that up to now there were no women on earth.)  So Zeus had a beautiful young woman named Pandora created out of clay and brought her down to keep Epimetheus company.

Epimetheus was ecstatic. Life was finally perfect, as far as he was concerned. And for awhile the couple was ever so happy with their perfect life.

But as Zeus had anticipated, Pandora soon got bored with a life in which everything was perfect.

The next time Epimetheus came up for a visit to Mt. Olympus Zeus gave him a gift to bring Pandora. It was a beautiful chest. Perfect for a coffee table; cheaper than Ikea. “Give this to Pandora with my love,”  Zeus said, “but tell her that under NO circumstances should she open the lid.”

Of course, Pandora LOVED the box, and promised Epimetheus never ever to open it. However, she couldn’t help but notice that Zeus had not put a lock on it…  Hmmm. Maybe someday when Epi was out with the guys??

Indeed one day Epimetheus went off to drink mead with his buddies, leaving Pandora alone with the box. And of course we know what she did as soon as Epimetheus was out of sight.

She opened the box.

The instant she lifted the lid, Zeus’s revenge was complete. All the miseries of this human life flew out – all manner of poxes and plagues, pain and poverty, anger and hate, jealousy and sadness.

Pandora was horrified and tried to shut the lid but it was too late. The afflictions were off and gone to the four corners of the Earth and there was no getting them back.  She finally got the lid back down and just sat on the box in abject misery, wondering what to do.

It was then she heard a whimper and a scratching from inside the box, and a voice pleading “Let me out!!”

At this point, she thought, what did one more affliction matter?? So she opened the lid again and lucky for us all, out flew HOPE.

Today, as we face a really dark time in the world, may hope keep us going.

Powell’s in Portland: paradise for book lovers

Powell’s Books: n. a world-famous independent book store in Portland OR, occupying a full city block with a rabbit warren of rooms stuffed with new and used books – plus separate satellite stores for technical books, home and garden, and travel books plus a major online presence. Visitors to Portland MUST go to Powells.

Paradise: n. a place or state of bliss, felicity, or delight

Books are among the things I need to winnow out in this down-sizing project. So a couple of days ago I made a pilgrimage to Powells with three boxes of books I hoped they’d want.

The door to the book-buying room is on a very busy corner and it’s not always possible to park close by, so my son met me at the door and hauled the boxes in while I went to park.

He also helped me unload the boxes onto the counter for the buyer to view. This was a mistake, because I had included some children’s books in the collection. Every few books, he’d grab one with a little cry of delight and place it back in the box:

“Oh, The Woodland Folk! I loved that book. You can’t get rid of that!”

“Hey, Wembley’s Egg! Give me that!”

“Wait a minute! Why Cats Paint!”

This is my very manly 25-year-old son talking, not a nine-year-old. Sigh.

Nevertheless Powell’s bought about half of what I brought and gave me a decent amount of money for them. Immediately we got lost in the aisles, and the money would have gotten spent in a trice if we hadn’t had to be someplace else.

We both agreed that a it would be heavenly just to spend the entire day at Powells, getting lost in the stacks and not even noticing.

A friend of mine was telling me that when her son was turning ten, she was looking for a way to avoid throwing a birthday party for a bunch of rowdy boys. She offered him a day’s adventure anywhere, or a concert or movie or theatre experience. He immediately announced he wanted to go to Powell’s and stay as long as he wanted, maybe even all day. Which they did, and she says he still remembers it as his best birthday ever.

Privation: pain for public radio

Privation: n. : the state of being deprived ; especially, lack of what is needed for existence

Pain: n. acute mental, physical or emotional discomfort or distress

National Public Radio, my constant companion, is feeling the pain of recession as well. Because their corporate funders are feeling down, their contributions have dropped. Interest payments on the big endowment gift from McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc (the only good ever to come out of McDonalds IMHO) have pretty much disappeared as stock values plummeted.  Regular listeners don’t pledge or reduce their pledges – which I did last month with great anguish.

This is how the trickle-down theory really works.  When profits are high at the top, the little people stay afloat (some only just) down below. But when the big guys crumble, everyone all the way down feels the pain – some acutely.

There is so much to treasure about public radio. No commercials! Intelligent reporters, thought-provoking and (usually, relatively) fair reporting, a wide variety of subject matter, weekend shows to make the chores go fast (Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me) because I’m laughing so hard. No commercials!  I invite these folks into my home every day, so they feel like old friends.

NPR will be shutting down two shows in March, and with them letting go of 34 journalists and 30 others. According to their report:

NPR has grown mightily in the past dozen years, thanks to the Kroc bequest but also to sharp rises in listening audiences and corporate underwriting. NPR has expanded beats and added domestic and foreign bureaus at a time when many of its peers and competitors have scaled back their journalistic ambitions. It has been among the few American news organizations to have correspondents based both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is a hard day for NPR,” said Ellen Weiss, NPR’s senior vice president for news. Despite the bad news on the revenue front, the on-air and online audience for NPR is up significantly, she said. “At many levels, NPR’s best resources are its people. There isn’t a single individual person who isn’t going to feel pain today,” Weiss said.


Profligate propensities: haircut edition

Profligate: adj. wildly extravagant

Propensity: n. an intense preference

We care a LOT about how the dead cells that make up our hairs and nails look, even though however we fix them up they grow out in just a few weeks and have to be done all over again.  The hair and beauty salons bank on this constant growth, and bring $46 billion a year to the American economy. Even in a recession, it’s only down 2% over last year.

I too care about how my hair looks because it’s difficult – fine, short and limpish. A bad haircut can be disastrous.  Over the years however, I’ve found some hair stylists who were really gifted with the scissors, and I paid them well (I thought) to work their magic — up to $65  at a trendy salon in Portland. My current gal in Vancouver, who is every bit as skillful, only charges $35.

I knew prices were high in Manhattan but I had no idea HOW high. Evidently women just fork over the big bucks without a second thought.  But perhaps the recession is beginning to register with some of them?  Groups of friends are now organizing hair-cutting parties where they hire a fancy stylist to bob the group after hours at a discount – paying “under the table”.

Not all stylists find this appealing (hold your hats!):

“I had someone call me last week,” Ted Gibson, who charges $950 a cut, said recently. The potential customer was a guest at the Ritz-Carlton and wanted Mr. Gibson, who boasts a celebrity clientele and owns Ted Gibson Salon in Manhattan, to cut his girlfriend’s hair. “He was trying to negotiate for me to come and do it for $650. I was like, ‘No, I charge double if I go out,’ ” Mr. Gibson said. “Needless to say, they did not book me.”

$950!! For the price of a month’s rent could I get a haircut that was 27 TIMES better than what Gina gives me?
If I lived in New York, I’d just grow my hair out, put it in a pony tail, and call it good.
Ted Gibson can stuff it.

Pickin’ paragons: Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Mississippi John Hurt

Pickin’: v. vernacular for plucking or strumming a folk instrument, like a guitar, banjo or mandolin.

Paragon: n. a model of excellence or perfection

— From the pathetic (John Thain and Rod Blagojevich) to the pinnacle —

Last night I fell into the YouTube rabbit hole and got lost for a couple of hours in music videos. It’s one thing to hear a recording, but it’s ever so much better when you can also see the musician or musicians actually create the sounds. Live music beats all, but some videos do a pretty good job of bringing the music to life.

Anyway, eventually I found myself watching my guitar-pickin’ hero Merle Travis. Travis managed to make the guitar sound like two instruments in one – one playing bass and the other a jazzy treble melody – kind of like a hillbilly version of  the stride piano style of James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller.  His finger-style pickin’ has been imitated ever since – the apotheosis perhaps being Chet Atkins. Other well known Travis heirs are Jerry Reed, Doc Watson (whose named his first son Merle), Tommy Emmanuel, Mark Knopfler, the late great French picker Marcel Dadi, and Pat Donahue of Praire Home Companion fame.

Here are some Travis clips going back to the 1940s assembled by his son Thom Bresh (note misspelling of IMATATORS):

This duet with Chet and Jerry Reed totally knocks me out:

YouTube being what it is, that song led me to two guys playing the same Jerry Reed tune on ONE guitar, nicely demonstrating how the Travis technique really does separate into bass and treble:

Travis came from the coal-mining region of Kentucky. My other early pickin’ hero comes from the Piedmont region of Mississippi.  Mississippi John Hurt’s style is simpler but the beat is irresistible.  Here he is in the early 60s interviewed by Pete Seeger. He gets going about 2 minutes in, playing Spike Driver Blues:

Maybe another day I’ll share my fiddlin’ heroes. Another rabbit hole.

Plumber without portfolio: Joe “types without a clue”

Plumber: n. a person who installs and fixes toilets, and should have stuck to his day job

Portfolio: n. a selection of a person’s work (papers, artwork) compiled over a period of time and used for assessing performance or progress

Joe the Plumber (an unattractive adjunct to the McCain campaign second only in repugnancy to Sarah Palin) has written a book. Or typed it. (Or had someone else type it for him…).

Timothy Egan wrote a hilarious and angry commentary on it, “Typing without a Clue,” in yesterday’s NY Times. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are a couple of tidbits:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.

Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon. Who could forget poor John McCain at his most befuddled, calling out for his working-class surrogate on a day when Joe stiffed him.

With a résumé full of failure, he now thinks he can join the profession of Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.

Joe is evidently not in line to be the 100th monkey.

Egan goes on to bemoan the hard life of real writers and the sorry state of the publishing industry.

The idea that someone who stumbled into a sound bite can be published, and charge $24.95 for said words, makes so many real writers think the world is unfair.

On the other hand, plumbing is a career path that never goes out of fashion. “After the deluge,” says my ex-, who has plumbing skills, “they’ll still need plumbers.”

Prices plummeting – even for recyclables

Prices: n. amount charged to purchase or sell something.

Plummet: v. to drop sharply and abruptly

The stock market plummets. Real estate values plummet. Employment plummets. And now the price of recycled materials.

Visions of Wall-E: a planet buried in waste.

One of my small pleasures these days, since I can’t afford to acquire stuff, is getting rid of stuff. Much of that stuff is paper, which gets picked up once a week, hauled off someplace, then converted into something new and useful.  I’ve also become such a skillful recycler of plastics, cans, glass (and composter of plant materials) that I need only one garbage pickup a month.

However, according to today’s paper, the recycling pipeline has hit a major snag:

The economic downturn has decimated the market for recycled materials like cardboard, plastic, newspaper and metals. Across the country, this junk is accumulating by the ton in the yards and warehouses of recycling contractors, which are unable to find buyers or are unwilling to sell at rock-bottom prices.

Ordinarily the material would be turned into products like car parts, book covers and boxes for electronics. But with the slump in the scrap market, a trickle is starting to head for landfills instead of a second life.

Mixed paper (my specialty!) which sold for $105 a ton on the West Coast in October now goes for about $25. Prices are much much lower in other parts of the country, which leaves the collection facilities with heaps that look like this:


There are no signs yet of a nationwide abandonment of recycling programs. But industry executives say that after years of growth, the whole system is facing an abrupt slowdown.

Many large recyclers now say they are accumulating tons of material, either because they have contracts with big cities to continue to take the scrap or because they are banking on a price rebound in the next six months to a year.

China, once a big buyer of our crap, is also in an economic slump so they don’t want it any more. For quite awhile recycling was profitable for cities and businesses – a little extra income on the side.  No more – all that recycling infrastructure is expensive to maintain if the profit disappears.

We’ve got two possible paths:

  • Dramatically reduce packaging, as well as production of stuff that will need to be disposed of
  • Come up with some brilliant new uses for, and processes to convert efficiently, all the crap we’ve accumulated and no longer wish to keep

If you’ve ever been to a third world country where they lack the infrastructure to process waste, you know what a dismal mess our world could become if we don’t figure this one out. Scary shit.

Proximity of positive people: they’re contagious

Proximity: n.the state of being near or next; closeness.

Positive: n. characterized by acceptance, affirmation. Opposite of negative.

Have you ever noticed that happy people seem to attract other happy people? Or that when you’re unhappy,  it’s harder to find happy people nearby?

Evidently it’s not all in your mind. A new study by researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis published in a British medical journal proposes that:

…happiness is transmitted through social networks, almost like a germ is spread through personal contact.

It’s the latest in a growing body of work investigating how our social connections–neighbors, friends, family, co-workers, fellow congregants at church and other associates–affect us. The premise is that we live in a social environment that shapes what we do and how we think and feel.

“We’ve known for some time that social relationships are the best predictor of human happiness, and this paper shows that the effect is much more powerful than anyone realized,” said Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness” and a professor of psychology at Harvard University…

Their primary finding: People who are surrounded by happy people are more likely to be happy themselves. And it’s not only people in our immediate circles who make a difference–it’s the people surrounding the people we know.

Imagine several pebbles thrown into a pool of water that send ripples outward, said Fowler, an associate professor of political science. Each pebble represents a happy person and the waves the impact of that person’s mood on others. This impact, his study found, extends through several degrees of separation, to the friends of a person’s friends.

My ex  struggled with depression for decades before finally being diagnosed bi-polar and prescribed meds. He would sit reading in his favorite chair with a dense black cloud swirling all around him, saying, “Don’t mind me. Just go about your business and I’ll snap out of it in a few days.”

He could never figure out why this put other members of the household in such a funk.

When we separated and I found myself a circle of happy friends, my own outlook grew sunny again.  But this poses a dilemma – if you have an unhappy loved one you want to support, how do you maintain your own positive disposition?

Presidents: how many do we have? Ask Barney Frank.

President: n. CEO of the USA.
Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), ever ready with the pithy quip says, “[Obama’s] going to have to be more assertive than he’s been. At a time of great crisis with mortgage foreclosures and autos, he says we only have one president at a time. I’m afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have. He’s got to remedy that situation.”

Penny-pinching begins at home.

Penny-pinching: v. to spend little, to be frugal (holding pennies so tight they squeek).

“When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other”. – Chinese Proverb

This is why my garden is so precious to me. Every day a I find new “lily.”


Penny-pinching to me is less about spending reductions and more about making do with what I already have. Like reading books that have been mouldering on the shelves for years instead of buying fresh ones. Like resuscitating some ancient scarves to garnish some very ordinary sweaters and tops.   Like figuring out how to alter the shoulders on a couple of ’80s jackets to update their fusty look.

And last night I made a great soup tonight based on some canned veggies whose pull dates passed during the Clinton administration.

If I were sealed into my home I could probably keep myself fed, dressed and amused for a long long time, just with the stuff I’ve got on shelves and in cupboards, boxes and closets.

Surely one way to down-size is by simple attrition – just the way they do in the corporate world. After you’ve bought your lily, here are some other penny-pinching ideas to try: