Archive for June, 2012

Midsummer in an Irish Permaculture Garden

June 24, 2012 2 comments

Hello from a blissful cottage in Ireland!    RT

Midsummer in an Irish Permaculture Garden.

The Quaggas of Creativity

June 19, 2012 15 comments

Consider the Quagga: a creature that must have been conceived in a dream; half horse, half zebra, it once roamed the veldt of  southern Africa with countless other herd animals, but is now extinct. DNA research has established that the Quagga was a sub-species of the zebra; hunted for its meat and hide, it went extinct in 1883. Attempts have been made to recreate the quagga via back- and cross-breeding.

Short of the unicorn, it seems unlikely that we will find an animal more suited to model the wonders and perils of the creative life. And at least the quagga actually existed. So RT, following the example of his Dragons of Grammar, is going to use this delightful but defunct beast to help explore the creative mind.


Before we proceed, a word about the genesis of this post is in order. Responding to my post on mountain climbing and writing, IAMZION wanted to know how putting words on paper or screen could be as dangerous as climbing the world’s most dangerous peaks. A good question this, and one that may have pointed out RT’s occasional propensity for hyperbole. But on more sober reflection, RT has decided to defend his suggestion and, in the process, to expound on creativity more generally. An ambitious goal to be sure, and as with the Dragons, we can expect more of an exploration than a definitive discussion, more of an adventure than a disquisition.


Let’s start with the Wikipedia definition of creativity: Creativity refers to the invention or origination of any new thing (a product, solution, artwork, literary work, joke, etc.) that has value.

On the one hand, endless vistas seem to open before us. This definition gives us a broad spectrum to work with, and under its umbrella we find such personages as Thomas Edison, Vincent Van Gogh, Steve Jobs, the Founding Fathers of the United States, John Nash, and Emily Dickinson. How should we approach such a range of genius?

On the other, we are mostly interested in a narrower set of issues, those that inform the life of our run-of-the mill, garden-variety, creative type: your average blogger, poet, artist, musician, dancer, and so forth. Folks, that is, that most normal people have actually encountered at one juncture or another. These issues include 1) wild bursts of inventiveness; 2) spaciness; 3) a concern with something more fantastical even than unicorns, namely, beauty; 3) emotions so intense that they can lift the creative soul into the arms of angels or drag it down into demonic clutches; 4) charismatic or dead-on-arrival personalities; 5) odd energy cycles and sleep patterns; 6) troubled relationships with work and money; 7) plain insanity ranging from psychosis to intense neurosis to mood disorders; 8) miscellaneous weirdness and odd behavior; and 9) the production of amazingly beautiful works in the arts, sciences, mathematics, business, and in fact, every field of human endeavor.


Here are some of the quaggas that we’re likely to encounter during the coming months:

1) the brain (that is, the neurology of creativity)

2) the muse (beauty in its several guises, or even undisguised)

3) the besotted poet (you know, the one who dropped out of college to get one step closer to his or her desire)

4) the poet’s pillbox (tactics, medical or otherwise, that help us deal with being in the presence)

5) the quagga that shot back (how the creative soul deals with the slings and arrows of modern life–and lives to make a million dollars)

6) the quagga that invented the computer (utility has its place on the slopes of Parnassus)

7) the quagga’s garden (care, feeding, appreciation, and protecting the threatened herd)

Drawing: A Quagga in Louis 16th’s Menagerie. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

What once was here

June 16, 2012 2 comments

creating beauty out of abandonment (from searchingtosee)…enjoy!


A collaboration between Emily and Alex Hughes

To see more of Alex’s pictures check out his photostream on flickr

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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A Summer’s Idyll: Of Fame & Achievement

June 13, 2012 5 comments

As of the 29th of May just past, 59 years had gone by since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain (29,029 ft). The pair instantly became world famous, models of dogged determination and romantic adventure.

Less well known is that roughly a year after Hillary and Norgay’s achievement (on July 31, 1954), Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni summitted K2, the world’s second tallest mountain at 28,251 ft. If you have never heard of this pair (part of an Italian expedition), you may not be alone. Who ever remembers what happened on the mountain that isn’t quite the tallest?

Here’s why you might want to take K2 seriously: it, by common consent among mountaineers, is the hardest mountain in the world to climb. A single statistic suggests this: as of 2010, 3,142 people have reached the top of Everest, but only 302 people have summitted K2. A couple more facts: K2 has never been climbed in the winter, and only 1 person has successfully reached the top and returned alive via K2’s notorious South Face (this man’s climbing partner fell to his death during the descent).

What makes K2 so much more dangerous than other mountains? The short answer is the mountain’s steepness and its total height. The mountain is essentially a single pyramid rising nearly 10,000 ft above the surrounding alpine valleys. The mountain rises at a consistent, steep angle, offering few stretches that are easier for climbers.

It’s fashionable (and perhaps sane as well) to wonder at the people who risk life and limb to climb dangerous peaks. But, fundamentally, we’re all climbing our own mountains, no matter how safe the ascent may seem. And as writers, we certainly have chosen a more demanding slope than most to call home. A healthy respect for what we’re up to should come with the terrain. So should an appreciation of the lesser known perils and accomplishments of the craft.



Photo: K2, West Face, 1909. WikiCmns; Public Domain.


Birthday #52–Summer Rain

for a poet, i don’t think much about age…no “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.”

Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. When recently, at work, I met a 15-year-old budding intellectual (he wants to be an astrophysicist and learn 11 languages), I had to stop and wonder what I was like at 15. Certainly I hadn’t determined what career might be right for me (or maybe I had; I had already fallen in love with The Lord of the Rings).

Anyway, 52 offers a certain hallow clang when struck. It is raining today (two days after the Big Event) and on certain occasions that would depress me. But not today. I could have 20, 30, or (who knows with advances in genetic therapy?) 200 years ahead of me. We could find a pale blue dot out there somewhere with chlorophyll’s unmistakable chemical signature attached to it (or a pod of albino whales floating in Europa’s hidden ocean). We could decide to feed everyone and set up food stations around the world. I could finish Gilgamesh.

Blogging can soothe the soul of the lonely beast, and I want to thank those folks who have gotten in touch with me in the last couple of days to wish me Happy Birthday. I’ll be in touch with each of you soon.      RT


Photo: Flowers in the Rain; Johnathan Billinger (geography org UK); WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Share Alike.



June 11, 2012 3 comments


What would the blogosphere be without Margo Roby and her amazing blog, Wordgathering?

Wordgathering is the first reader that poets dream of, the editor who is knowledgeable but not burnt-out, the support group that is both gentle and perceptive. This is a blog that teaches us how to write poetry.

Whereas many poets trust inspiration to get them where they need to go, WG relies on method and persistance (and a quick mind). For years, Ms. Roby has faithfully added a post a day during weekdays (& at least sometimes during weekends), each post linking us to online poetry resources or offering the fruits of her own poetic endeavors. Wanna get linked into the poetry scene online? You could do a lot worse than start at WG.

Don’t believe me? Here’s just one of WG’s suggested links: imaginary garden with real toads.

But that is just one of the services that Wordgathering offers. Perusing the posts will quickly expand your poetic vocubulary and technique. Just what, after all, is a wordle? RT will happily confess to scrambling around the net trying to answer this question as he sits here writing. And by the by, what is a decima (hint: it has something to do with Puerto Rico)? This blog will put new tools in your poetry kit pronto.

What we are talking about is a blog that offers a daily snapshot of poetry on the web–its practitioners and its means. Any blogger knows how hard it is to keep posting regularly (and to keep–more or a less–on topic). But to keep highly focused on a complicated topic (or series of them), all the while producing that daily post–that is an accomplishment any blogger can admire.

And now the coup-de-grace: Wordgathering’s experienced, intelligent, and generous perspective on things poetic. A career spent teaching certainly informs Ms. Roby’s outlook, but so does a broad and full life-experience. RT can’t help it, but the word wisdom comes to mind.  And all for the price of using your free library net connection.

RT hasn’t seen it often remarked, but generosity is one of the drivers behind the blogosphere. Now, RT will stipulate to the fact that Wordgathering has on more than one occasion posted about his blog, and that he has not been the only beneficiary of Ms. Roby’s thoughtful praise. Such encouragement is the lifeblood of bloggers, keeping us at our keyboards, trying to get the words right (or at least better). Sadly, I can think of only a handful of blogs that provide the quality of support that WG does.

If Margo Roby’s Wordgathering wasn’t with us, the blogosphere would be a notably less welcoming and necessary place.      RT

Image: School Culture Wordle; T. Goldins; WikiCmns; Public Domain.



June 9, 2012 2 comments



folks: wonderful image, unusual medium (from REAL GOOD THINGS)…enjoy!    RT


Beautiful Bureaucracies: The Chinese Imperial Examination

Perhaps nothing is more difficult for Westerners to understand about traditional Chinese society than the figure of the scholar-poet and the imperial examination that produced him. And yet nothing is of more interest and importance to us than the traditional Chinese bureaucracy and its examination system.

The Chinese bureaucracy was the voice of the Chinese people, set in balance against the decrees of the Emperor and his court. Any Chinese boy could aspire to service in the government, and the most talented of these administrators could and did rise to the very highest government posts. The mechanism that made this possible was the triennial metropolitan examination.

The origins of the examination system can be traced back to the establishment of the Chinese empire itself in 220 B.C. The First Emperor imposed profound changes on ancient Chinese society, eliminating the feudal system of Chinese states that preceded him, establishing a central state composed of provinces, and decreeing that the small-character set alone could be used in writing. These reforms paved the way for the emergence of the scholar-poet.

Social revolution on the scale imposed by the First Emperor can take centuries to play itself out, and this was the case with China. The important families that had governed China before the Empire were suppressed, but did not disappear; their power–and interest in an orderly, prosperous China–were too great.

And during the Han Dynasty, which replaced the First Emperor’s Chin Dynasty (which died with him), life was prosperous. The greatest of the Han Emperors, Wu-ti (r. 141-87 B.C.), expanded the boundaries of the empire far into the west. Until his reign, government officials had been appointed on the basis of personal recommendations and family connections; Wu began the transition to the examination system by requiring that all candidates for government posts pass a test in the Confucian Classics. Recommendations were still far more important than test scores, but the transition had begun. The Han Empire was followed by the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 A.D.), and during these years a new requirement was used to evaluate administrator candidates: their qualifications had to be assessed by a government official. Finally, during the Sui Dynasty (589-618 A.D.), the imperial examination system emerged–a system that lasted in one form or another until the collapse of the last dynasty, the Qing, in 1911.

Wang Anshi

As conceived, the system allowed any Chinese male who passed the imperial  examination to serve in the government. During certain periods, members of the merchant class were excluded from serving (this class being regarded as the least worthy in society) and the majority of administrative officials (or the mandinarate as they were known collectively) were not selected by examination until the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). The greatest practical impediment to taking the examination was the signficant cost of the education required–as a rule, only members of the aristocracy and monied elite could afford to prepare a son for the test. But at the same time, a boy of clear intellectual promise could hope to attract the interest of a local family of means, which would sponsor his education. In at least one case, the son of a relatively minor family (Wang Anshi–he placed 4th in the imperial examinations of 1042) rose to lead the entire government and institute major political reforms.

Before we look at the examination itself, we should bear in mind that the examination system consisted of a set of tests, rising from the provincial level to the imperial (metropolitan) examination conducted in the capital itself.

What did the Imperial Examination consist of? The short answer is: During the first centuries of its implementation, the examination was mainly a test of the candidate’s poetic skills. The reader tempted to think of this as silly or dangerous should bear in mind the difficulty of mastering the Chinese characters: today, it can take up to three years of daily study to master the reading of the characters–and of course, the quality of one’s calligraphy was considered in the grading of examinations. In fact, to gain the kind of mastery that produced China’s great poets, the effort took a lifetime.

This concentration on poetry did not last, however. During the Qing Dynasty, the emphasis moved away from poetry to the scientific disciplines as technology, affected by contact with western society, evolved rapidly.

What improvements did the examination produce in Chinese society? Perhaps most importantly, it enshrined the Chinese character set selected by the First Emperor as the hallmark of Chinese culture. It produced a class of educated and cultured bureaucrats who gave the administration of government a continuity, openess, and fairness that only a system opened to the broadest possible pool of talent could produce. And the mandinarate without question was the major producer and supporter of Chinese art and poetry through the centuries. China’s three greatest poets–Du Fu, Li Bai, and Wang Wei, were all products of the examination system (though not all of them took it).

It is also worth noting two political benefits of the examination: a) it gave ordinary people an important role in China’s government, easing resentments among the population as a whole; b) it gave the aristocracy, displaced by the First Emperor, a practical means of exercising their talents in government.

Of course, no testing system is totally objective, whatever kind of intelligence it tests for. The resources and career of a person who passes an examination and receives a government post will depend on his or her mastery of the complete spectrum of intellectual and emotional skills. But an individual who does pass an examination that strives for objectivity can at a minimum fall back on the learning and intellect responsible for their success, something that the examination has ranked against those who did not pass.


Images: Top: Page from the 1894 Chinese Examination; Middle: After Wang Wei’s Snow Over Rivers and Mountains (Artist: Wang Shi-Min); All images: WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Garden on a wet night

June 2, 2012 2 comments

folks: an exceptionally fine tanka from fellow-blogger x-ties; enjoy!   RT


Garden on a wet night.

7 Things to Know about RT

June 1, 2012 6 comments

Late on a Thursday evening (Friday morning?), RT finds himself the recipient of an unexpected honor: Arab Writer Chick has nominated him for a Tell Me About Yourself award. Thank you, AWC; your blog shoots down a whole slew of stereotypes about Arab women (and is entertaining to boot!).

The award requires its recipients to share seven things about themselves, so with a nod to whimsey and the perils of self-incrimination, RT humbly submits his seven:

1. RT and young Arab ladies go back a long way. RT will even go so far as to share that in High School (in Paris), he had a romantic interest in a certain attractive fellow-student of distinctly Arab origins. But it was not meant to be: the tides of fate pulled us apart, leaving us both sadder but wiser.

2. RT’s first encounter with the mysteries of the ancient Middle East also took place during his adolescent sojourn in Paris. Actually, the encounter took place in London, at the British Museum, where RT spent some time communing with the Gate of Ishtar. It’s remarkable how chance events while growing up can lead to life projects in adulthood.

3. Perhaps RT’s peregrinations as a child led to the varied topics on this blog. For instance, RT’s father arranged for him to see a spectacular collection of Pre-Columbian gold artifacts in Costa Rica when he was only 13…how different from, but in certain ways how similar to, the treasures uncovered at the Royal Tombs of Ur.

4. RT sometimes eats ice cream with a fork. BTW, his favorite flavor is mint chocolate chip.

5. RT secretly wishes he owned a sports car from the 50s, say a sporty little Triumph. When he sees pictures of Grace Kelly in her prime, he wishes that he had been born 30 years earlier than he was.

6. Some time ago, when RT was sitting down in one of the rooms at the Freer Act Gallery in Washington, D.C., soaking up the rich atmosphere and silence of the place, he heard an Asian lady standing behind him remark to her companion, “This is my church.”

7. RT has at moments when listening to “Do It Again” (by the rock group Steely Dan) wanted to come back as Walter Becker, the band’s amazing guitarist. He remembers being lifted up on waves of inspiration when listening to Becker’s guitar riffs.

So there it is, folks: while others are happily consuming Cheerios, RT is blissfully munching away at Wheaties with walnuts and blueberries in orange juice. (and did you know, walnuts are the richest natural source of serotonin?)



Photo: Seven-Colored Earths; author: Adamina; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 generic.