Friday, February 26, 2010

Trouble In Mind

It was another one of those nights. I dreamt I was being harassed by small children and woke to find it true. Things went downhill from there. I set out a coffee cup and a sippy cup. I poured my morning brew, then cleverly added apple juice to it. Oops.

I wondered if it was still drinkable. It wasn't.

I tried again, paying closer attention to which bottle I chose from the refrigerator.

I left my three year-old in the care of PBS and went to spend some time alone with my thoughts.

I wish I had just watched Clifford instead.

Seven out of ten customers who switched to Allstate saved money.

What happened with the other three?

Wouldn't you think guys named Dick would try a little harder ?

Why on earth is this song stuck in my head?

My jar of peanuts reads: Warning! Contains Peanuts.

So does the peanut butter.

The jar of almonds? Contains Almonds. Good to know.

The milk jug doesn't warn me it contains milk. Is someone slacking?

Take-out coffee cups warn me that the beverage is hot.

My lawnmower suggests I keep my hands and feet away from the vicious, ugly blade. Sounds like a plan.

2-Ton Epoxy is not to be taken internally. Don't forget, now.

Am I missing something here?

Three cups later I opened my other eye.

I need to ask my doctor if Lunesta is right for me. Or something.

Very Truly Yours,



Monday, February 22, 2010

Just Like Us

Lascaux painting.jpg

I don't believe in progress. Not really. It's the fate of anyone who studies ancient history. This isn't to say we haven't done things since the dawn of civilization. We have. Even so, in the big picture, the human condition hasn't changed much: only the specifics. I have come more and more to agree with Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun.

It's the reason ancient literature still speaks to us. From the Epic of Gilgamesh on down, we consider the big issues: birth, life, love, death: war and peace, good and evil. Ultimately, we confront the greatest questions of all: What does it mean to be human? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?

As a race, I think we're no closer to any real answers.

We are caught up in the illusion of progress. We like to picture ourselves standing at the apex of evolution. We often see the ancients as a bunch of credulous fools: docile and ignorant, easily led by kings and priests, living in a world of false gods and evil spirits. It makes us feel good to focus on our penicillin, automobiles, and computers. While these are real achievements, a little humility is called for. We need to remember something important that we seem to have forgotten.

Ancient people were not stupid.

It sounds obvious, but it bears repeating; ancient people were not stupid, at least no more than we are. They were fully human. They thought about everything we think about, and just as deeply. They felt everything we feel, and just as deeply. All the universal questions occurred to them long ago. They looked at themselves, they looked at the world around them, and they wondered.

I can tell you very little about the painters at Lascaux, but I can tell you one thing for certain; they were just like us. They created their paintings and saw the beauty in what they had done. They left the cave, looked up at the stars, and wondered. Just like us.

They felt joy when their children were born, sorrow when their loved ones died. They buried them with flowers. They sat by a fire, looked up at the stars, and wondered. Just like us.

We use "stone age" as an epithet, but a stone age people built the Pyramids. They are still standing. Have we built anything that will outlast them? Where will our skyscrapers be in a thousand years? What monuments will we leave?

Over two thousand years ago, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth. His answer was so accurate it was not improved upon until the days of the space program. No one but fools thought the Earth was flat. Ancient people were not stupid, at least no more so than we are. A little humility is called for.

Remember this the next time you read the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Bible. Ancient people were fully human. They lived their lives as we do, and just as deeply. They pondered all the questions we do, and just as deeply. They looked up at the stars and wondered.

Just like us.

Respectfully Yours,


Saturday, February 20, 2010


Some days are like this. I awoke with all sorts of strange ideas.

If, one day, I find myself elderly and in the rest-home (don't bet heavily on either of those) can I still listen to the Sex Pistols?

Will hard rock bands come to entertain us? In the morning?

Will kids think punk is old-fogey music?

Will fashion come full-circle and I'll wind up being attended by cute young nurses named Agatha, Ethel and Mildred?

What will the rest-home be like when it is full of Tuckers, Tylers, Britneys, and Madisons?

Why would it seem so horribly wrong for a man to cover the Divinyls' I Touch Myself ?

What is wrong with me, anyway?

Do normal people wake up in this condition?

Do I need a new mattress?

I think I might need a new mattress. Or something.

Very Truly Yours,



Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Dirge For The Proud World
by Thomas Merton

Where is the marvelous thief
Who stole whole harvests from the angry sun
And sacked, with his bright sight, the land?

Where he lies dead, the quiet earth unpacks him
And wind is waving in the earth's revenge:
Fields of barley, oats, and rye.

Where is the millionaire
Who squandered the bright spring?
Whose lies played in the summer evening sky
Like cheap guitars?
Who spent the golden fortunes of the fall
And died as bare as a tree?

His heart lies open as a treasury,
Filled up with grass and generous flowers.

Where is the crazy gambler
Amid the nickels of whose blood have fallen
Heavy half dollars of his last of life?
Where is he gone?

The burning bees come walk, as bright as jewels
Upon that flowering, dark sun:
The bullet wound in his unmoving lung.

Oh you who hate the gambler or his enemy,
Remember how the bees
Pay visits to the patient dead
And borrow honey from their charitable blood.

You who have judged the gambler or his enemy
Remember this, before the proud world's funeral.


Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. With these words from Genesis we mark the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. As a boy I never cared for Lent. I always thought of what I would be giving up, often candy or sweets: the candy that would become infinitely more desirable in the moment of renouncing it. I thought of fasting and abstinence, confession and penance. The whole thing seemed to add gloom to the dreariest part of the year.

Certainly all of these things are part of traditional Lenten observance. Just as certainly, I had made a mistake in emphasizing them. At best they are only half of it, probably less than that. It took me years to see the beauty in Lent: to see something of its true purpose. Truly we are dust, and to the dust we shall return. That is our fate. Yet these words point not only to our insignificance, but also to our importance: to the absolute miracle that we are here at all.

Think of it: you and I and everything around us: dust, yet what wondrous dust. The stark beauty of trees in winter, a barren field, a frozen waterfall: all dust, yet what becomes of this dust in the hands of the Lord. Look into the eyes of a child: all dust, yet how clearly we see the Light reflected in them. We are surrounded by miracles, called forth from the dust.

Our Lenten practices are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. Like pruning a vine, they strengthen us and prepare us for new growth. We pray not because God needs our prayers, but because we need to offer them. Why fast? Because you will learn things you cannot learn any other way. Like spring cleaning, Lent is a time to clear away the clutter of our lives and make room for what is truly important. We strip away all that is useless to seek the essence of our souls.

Where is the thief, the millionaire, the gambler? They have returned to the dust. What has become of their souls is not for us to judge, but Merton shows clearly what has become of their dust. It has been made new: transformed into fields of grain, beautiful flowers, sweet honey. Remember this, Merton tells us. Remember this.

Remember, O Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. Yes, we are dust. One day we shall return to the dust. That is the way of it. Yet miracles have been brought forth from the dust: beauty, love, life itself: all dust, but dust in the hands of the Lord who makes all things new.

Remember that you are dust: not in fear, but to better see the miracles that surround us. Absolute miracles, called forth from mere dust.

Respectfully Yours,


Friday, February 12, 2010

Another Nutshell

This is what it has come to. The campaign of disinformation has truly done its work. Rep. Robert Inglis (R - SC) was reportedy told by a constituent: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" Dear Lord. A Republican congressman in a Republican state is forced to try, unsuccessfully, to convince his constituent that Medicare is a government program. Ah, the irony. Republicans have done such a good job convincing their public that government programs are bad, people don't even realize that the Medicare they seem to like so much is a government program.

Of course, just because the Republicans are wrong, this does not mean the Democrats are right. No, the Democrats are wrong too, just not for the reasons the Republicans give. Myself, I lost any hope for healthcare reform when President Obama met with the stakeholders to map out his plan. How nice. Too bad the biggest stakeholders are insurance and pharmaceutical companies: folks who are getting filthy rich off the current system and like things just fine as is.

Perhaps we should sit down with the foxes to see if they might self-regulate the number of hens they eat. I'm sure that would streamline the system. Think of all the money we'd save on dog food and shotgun shells.

Let's see if a prickly but honest Porcupine can clarify matters a bit, shall we?

First of all, we don't have a healthcare system in the US; we have a healthcare market. The problem is, healthcare is not really a commodity in the usual sense. If I need my appendix out, I can't very well shop around and compare estimates, can I ? Furthermore, the purchase isn't exactly optional. Buy or die, is what it amounts to. I think we might all agree this is different from choosing between Ford, Toyota, or taking the bus?

Secondly, what is the biggest source of waste and inefficiency in our current system? Insurance companies. They contribute nothing while siphoning off money at every level. Think about it: patients hate them, doctors hate them, hospitals hate them, even employers hate them. Am I leaving anyone out? How do insurance companies make money? By taking in more in premiums than they pay out in claims. If we're talking about health care, they have a clear incentive to give you as little as possible while charging as much as possible. That's how they make their money.

Pause briefly to consider just how much money this is.

Of course, this drives up the price of everything. Doctors and hospitals charge more to compensate for the discounts they give the insurers. For those of us with decent insurance, doesn't it seem like you're asked to come in for an awful lot of "follow-up" appointments? Yup, you're still breathing. Heart still beating. Feeling ok? Yes? Great. See you in 3 months. (Ka-ching!) Is this how the doctors work the system? Quick easy money? Makes you wonder.

What of the concerns we hear about: health care rationing? Wake up, people. We have that now. Don't believe me? Your claim has been denied. Believe me now? How about this: I'm sorry, that's a preexisting condition. And let's not forget the millions of Americans whose health care "ration" is zero.

"Death panels?" We have that now. Still don't believe me? That treatment is experimental. Your plan doesn't cover that. See what I mean?

While the drug companies deserve their own ration of quills, let's not forget their interest here: high drug prices. No pesky negotiating for them, although they do this with almost every other industrialized country. But don't they need the money for research? Guess what? Most research is done at the NIH, paid for by us. The drug companies just buy in at the end. They make nice ads though. Ask your doctor if Damitol is right for you.

Why should we have universal health care in America? Aside from the fact that every other industrialized nation has some form of it, it's good for society to have relatively healthy citizens. Right now, it's practically illegal to get sick in America. Worried about the flu? Well, it would be nice if sick people didn't go to work and spread it because they can't afford to stay home. I think that might help, too. Here's another common scenario we could do without:

1. Get sick
2. Can't work
3. Lose job
4. Lose insurance
5. Lose it all

Only in America, folks. Now, maybe single-payer would, in fact, be difficult to implement here. That could be, I don't know. I'm just a Porcupine. That doesn't mean I have no suggestions, though. I think two simple changes could do quite a bit.

1. Require health insurance to be non-profit
2. Require each plan offered to be sold at one price to all customers

That's it. First, we remove the profit motive. Then, we stop insurance companies cherry-picking and selling plans only to young healthy people. That's the only reason the insurance industry didn't oppose Medicare and Medicaid. It let them get rid of people who actually need expensive healthcare. And boosted their profits enormously, I might add.

Pause again briefly to consider how much money this is.

The biggest inefficiency we have right now is all the money we spend keeping rich people rich. If we could cut back on that, I bet we could find a way to provide health care for all. That's it in a nutshell. Now, wasn't it the truth I told ye?

Very Truly Yours,



Monday, February 8, 2010

I Sent You

It may make sense for a sick man to pray for health
and then take medicine, but I fail to see any sense
in his praying for health and then drinking poison.

Thomas Merton

Why does God allow so much suffering in the world? Why would a loving God allow children to die of cancer? Why are so many people starving? Why is there war? Where is God?

Sometimes we look at the evil in the world and ask these sorts of questions. We ask them as if they require no answer, as if no answer is possible. Perhaps we even find some relief in asking them, as if by raising the question we show our concern. We ask "Why Lord?" and blind ourselves to the obvious.

These questions cannot be answered because they are not the right questions.

Why does God allow so much suffering in the world? This is not an intelligent question. The question is: why do we? Have we done so much to alleviate these problems that we need Divine assistance? We look to God for answers because we are afraid to look to ourselves.

People die of cancer because we have poisoned them. People starve because we are unwilling to share with them. We spend hundreds of billions on weapons and wonder why we fight wars. Why blame God? Why do we allow so much suffering in the world? That is the question we need to ask.

Where your heart is, there your treasure will also be. Where is our treasure? Where does the money go? The answer to this reveals our priorities. The answer is ugly, painful to consider, but it's true. We could do worse than to ask the right question and answer it truthfully.

It would be a start.

There is a modern parable, perhaps you have heard it. A man prayed saying: "Lord, there is so much evil in the world. Why don't you send someone to do something about it?"

The Lord heard him and replied: "I did send someone. I sent you."

Respectfully Yours,


Thursday, February 4, 2010


Maybe it's a guy-thing, I don't know. Mrs. Porcupine gets concerned when her friends haven't called in a few days. If we didn't hear from her mother and sisters every day I don't know how she'd react. I don't know because it's never happened. That's just the way it is.

I have friends I haven't talked to in a year or more. Ok, so I'm bad. On the other hand, they haven't exactly been beating down my door either. The way I see it, if nothing has happened to change things, we still like each other and we're still friends. We'll catch up later. Maybe much later, but we'll get there. We'll pretty much pick up where we left off, too. I don't know. Maybe it's a guy-thing.

Or maybe it's just me. Here's the opening line from an article I came across: "Unless you're living a seriously alternative lifestyle, you've probably been communicating via text for a while now." Wow. All this time I thought I was just old-fashioned, reclusive, and crabby. "Alternative" sounds so much better. That's what I'm going with now. I'm not a misanthrope. I'm alternative, seriously alternative.

Really though, I've never sent or received a text message in my life. Probably because (brace yourself) I don't have a cell-phone or any other gadget to do it. Honestly, I don't even pick up my land-line too often. What? Just because you can push a few buttons I'm supposed to drop everything and come running? I don't think so. Or maybe I just don't feel like talking. I'll admit it: maybe I'm standing right there. Maybe I know who it is from the caller ID already. Maybe I just want to see what you want. Leave a message. If it's that important, I'll pick up or call back.


All right, I am a misanthrope. So? I reserve the right to be out. That's what it boils down to. Sorry, I can't take your call. I'm out. Maybe I'm physically out, maybe just mentally, but I'm out. When will I be back? Later. Right now, I'm out.

Not so long ago, this was the rule. No answering machines, no caller ID, no call waiting, and certainly no cell-phones: remember? Phones rang and were either answered or not. Or maybe the line was busy. Somehow we all managed. I may be in the minority, but I seem to be doing just fine still.

Mrs. Porcupine was with me on this for a long time. Then, when she was pregnant with our youngest, my mother-in-law slipped her a cell-phone "just for emergencies." She may as well have given her a vial of crack. Now she's hooked. Now she's one of them. Actually, I have wonderful in-laws, but when telephones become available as implants, I bet they'll be first in line.

I don't see any advantage to being instantly available. There's almost no reason for it. I admit, if a loved one were in hospital I might pick up a prepaid, just in case, but that's about all. What if I break down and need a tow? I'll manage. I managed before cell-phones; I'll manage now. It might be a pain, but it would be a pain anyway. I'll live. Really.

I imagine someday I might have to get one. Technology has a way of ooching into our lives, welcome or not. I'll deal with that later. Until then, I'm going to enjoy my gadget-free, seriously alternative life. Most times, when people call me from their cells, the news is either bad or trivial. Both can wait. Call me if you like, but be sure to leave a message.

I'm probably out.

Very Truly Yours,



Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In A Nutshell

For a nutshell explanation of why things are the way they are, you might look here. Otherwise, read on for an oversimplified, but not by much, discourse on how things are and what might be done about them.
- Porcupine

When learned men begin to use their reason,
then I generally discover that they haven't got any.
G.K. Chesterton

The talking heads are useless. All they do is confuse the issues. I suppose that is what they are paid to do: to pretend there are no objective truths to be discovered. As if the problems we face are so complex they can be understood only by experts. As if there are always two sides to every issue. Well, in a sense this may be so. Unfortunately, those sides may well be one that is true and one that is false. That is common sense. Of course, what is uncommon about common sense is how rarely we see any.

When you think about it, the reason for this is obvious. Most politicians and most of the media are, in essence, employees of their corporate masters. It doesn't matter whether they are Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. The ultimate question is: Who is paying the bills? We all know the answer to that. See how far a little common sense can go? Let us examine the current economy in this light, shall we?

First: does Wall Street create any real wealth? No. It might sound crazy but it's true. What Wall Street creates is meaningless paper. The paper is worth whatever I can sell it to you for. Often this price is based on numbers cooked up by, you guessed it, Wall Street. It isn't real wealth, though. Real wealth is things; things have some intrinsic value. My house is real wealth. It may not be spectacular but I can live in it, regardless of what it is worth on paper.

Wall Street creates pieces of paper of dubious value and sells them. Back and forth they go, often among the same group of insiders, driving the price up. The insiders cash out while the paper is still perceived as valuable. They take that money and turn it into real wealth: land, gold, diamonds, whatever. They leave the chumps to finish the game, which was rigged from the beginning. Always.


Now, for the housing bubble and recession: Who is to blame? Wall Street, without question and almost entirely. They created the bubble, then they popped the bubble at the time of their choosing and they made billions. They still are. The whole thing is little more than a variation on the stock pools of the 1920s. Here's the common sense nutshell version of how it worked.

They decided to sell paper they called CDOs: collateralized debt obligations. These are made out to be extremely complex in the news. Individually, they are; as a class, they aren't. Essentially, they are selling the interest you pay on your mortgage as an investment. Pooling a number of mortgages into one security should, in theory, cover the risks of any one mortgage going into foreclosure. Are you with me still?

They made billions. Then they ran out of mortgages to collateralize. They needed more, fast. So they encouraged the lowered standards of subprime mortgages. Both legitimate and shady lenders were happy to oblige. There was no longer any risk for them. Wall Street bought the mortgages as quickly as they could be written, securitized them, and sold them.

To encourage the sales of these CDOs, they also sold CDSs: credit default swaps. Basically, insurance policies on the CDOs in case of loss. Common sense says these should be completely illegal. They aren't, of course, but they ought to be. Insurance is one thing, but these are similar to allowing me to take out fire insurance on your house. Not only do I have no risk of loss, I now have a clear incentive to burn it down.

Overall nutshell: Wall Street insiders made billions on the CDOs, then popped the bubble. They got bailed out on the CDOs by us, thanks to their puppets in Washington on both sides. Meanwhile, they're cashing in on the CDSs. Pretty good, huh?

See, that wasn't so complex: how Wall Street tanked the economy this time in seven paragraphs. All it takes is a little common sense. Best of all, I'm not selling a party position. Those are irrelevant. Either what I have written is true or it isn't. It is.

To me, common sense says that this is why Wall Street should be regulated and taxed far more than it is. It's relationship to society is currently parasitic. If it can't be made beneficial, at least we could try for some sort of symbiosis. Republican and Democratic positions are irrelevant. Policy needs to be based not on ideology, but truth. Now, wasn't it the truth I told ye?

Very Truly Yours,