The Why of Whys
Each month we offer readers
a puzzling if not impossible thought,
the why of what we might think we are.
Here are a baker's dozen of the best,
designed to addle your mind.
We list them here
in declining order of mystery.
Big Brother Isn't Watching You?
Are the spies doing what they're doing because they're interested in us? Civil libertarians say yes, and that the monitoring must stop; security advocates say no, not if we aren't doing anything bad. The paranoid reaction --- that if I use the word "bomb" in an email to my aunt from the vicinity of a Bali nightclub then I may find black-suited agents descending on my hotel room --- is just an extreme version of the narcissistic fallacy that someone is trying to see into my brain.

There are seven billion people on the planet, and nearly seven billion mobile phones; six billion emails are sent every hour; 1.2 petabytes of data travel across the internet every minute, the equivalent of two thousand years' worth of music playing continuously, the contents of 2.2 billion books.

Even if they don't get everything --- the NSA claims, with loving wording, to "touch" just 1.6 per cent of global internet traffic, or about 35 million books' worth of data a minute --- the spooks have an awful more to be getting on with than worrying about you.

So the question has to be not so much
"Is Big Brother watching?"
How in hell can it cope?
--- "How to Get Ahead at the NSA"
Daniel Soar
The London Review of Books
24 October 2013

Now We Are Four
I gave birth to my son at a hospital. Months later, walking past the same building with my baby in his stroller, I was stunned at the fact that new life was materializing, moment by moment, in the building before me. How could it be that new humans were literally emerging constantly? What if the nurses were called upon to account for the number of patients? How could they meet this request when life was constantly splitting, one individual becoming two?
When my daughter was born at home I was similarly bemused. I remarked to all who came to see her, "We were three. And now we are four. But no one came into the house."

--- From Mommyblogs
May Friedman
©2013 University of Toronto Press

The World to Come
The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.
--- 10:04
Ben Lerner
©2014 Faber & Faber

Let There Be Light
At first there was nothing.
Then God said,
"Let there be light."
Then there was still nothing ---
but you could see it.
--- From Rock Gardening in
the Ukraine

9/11 and Car Wrecks
Three years after September 2001 [according to the Financial Times] domestic airline flights in the United States were still 7 percent below their pre-9/ll levels ... During that period, some 120,000 Americans died in automobile accidents. If a small percentage of these deaths occurred to people who were driving because they feared to fly, the number of Americans who died in overreaction to 9/11 could well surpass the number who were killed by the terrorists on that terrible day.
One study, in fact, has concluded that over 1,000 people died this way in 2001 between September 11 and December 31.
--- From War and Ideas: Selected Essays
Hohn Mueller
©2011, Routledge

Eternity and Time

"Eternity is in love...

...with the production of time."
--- William Blake,
The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell

The Environmental Impact of Horseshit
There are two stories in particular that environmental debunkers love to tell. One comes from the 1860s Britain, when all sorts of intelligent people, including William Gladstone and John Stuart Mill, were worried that the country was about to run out of coal, meaning a new age of austerity was at hand. But of course "peak" coal was nonsense; the truth is that the country was only just starting to dig for it properly, thanks to new technologies; until that point we had merely been scratching the surface.
The other story comes from 1890s New York, when the city seemed in danger of drowning under a tide of horseshit. Rapid expansion, coupled with increasing dependence on actual horsepower to move goods, meant that there were too many animals in a restricted space. At predicted rates of growth the city would be buried in manure by the middle of the 20th Century. And then someone invented the motor car: the mess disappeared as if by magic. Now fracking stands to oil as oil once stood to horseshit. Salvation comes when you need it, if you have the nerve to wait. It's the American way.
--- David Runciman
The London Review of Books
21 March 2013

The Earth, The Sky and Molly
God has a wife called Molly,
together they made mankind.
They like to say they're lesbian
for God has a feminine mind.

He once had an affair with Mary,
it didn't last that long,
they had meant to have a girl
but then it all went wrong.

So Molly went off with an angel
and dyed her hair bright pink,
she left a note for God
saying she needed time to think.

But now they're back together,
they cancelled the divorce,
she forces him to go to church
and he cooks of course.

Molly has a husband called God,
they live above us all.
Even though she straps him to a cloud,
he's certain he will fall.

--- From Looking Through Letterboxes
©2002 Caroline Bird
Carcanet Press

The Dervish
There was a famous dervish in the neighborhood known as the best philosopher in Turkey. They went to consult him. Pangloss acted as spokesman and said, "Master, we come to pray you tell us why such a strange animal as man was created."

"Why should you care?" said the dervish. "Is it any of your business?"

"But my Reverend Father," said Candide, "there is so horribly much evil in the world."

"So what if there's good or evil in the world?" said the dervish. "When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry if the mice on board are comfortable or not?"

"Then what should we do?" said Pangloss.

"You should shut up," said the dervish.

"It would make me so happy," said Pangloss, "to reason a little with you about some effects and causes, the best of all possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and predestination."

At these words, the dervish closed the door in their faces.

--- From Candide by Voltaire
David Tucker, Translator

Companion Animals
According to the American Animal Hospital Association, 80 percent of American pet owners consider their pets to be their children rather than "companion animals," a point of view that provides the organic pet food industry with a large potential market. Every year Americans spend four times more on pet food than on baby food. In America, there are 70 million pet cats, 60 million pet dogs, 10 million pet birds, 5 million pleasure horses, and 17 million exotic pets such as rabbits, snakes, rats, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, and skunks.
In addition, although they are not yet sold in Whole Foods Markets, organic worms are available for environmentally focused fishers. Currently available are organic red wigglers and European and African night crawlers. The African variety is touted as a "good trolling worm" but is not recommended for ice fishing.
--- From America's Food
What You Don't Know
About What Your Eat

Harvey Blatt
©2008 MIT Press

Norman Lewis on Ernest Hemingway
He was nervous of celebrity well before he met Hemingway in Cuba. The meeting transformed doubt into a profound precept. For the rest of his life he retold the encounter as one of his key stories, referring to it as "an experience which was to change my outlook on life, not instantly but slowly over a period of time. There was something biblical about the meeting with Hemingway, Lewis wrote, like having the old sermon on the vanities shoved down your throat in the middle of whatever you happened to be doing with your life in the workaday world."
"They give funny names to the buses in this town [Havana] and there's one that runs past the hotel that says, 'We just ran short of greatness,' which just about sums him up, although perhaps understating the case. This man has had about everything a man can ever have wanted, and to meet him was a shattering experience of the kind likely to sabotage ambition --- which may or may not be a good thing. You wanted to know his opinion on the possible outcome of what is happening here. The answer unfortunately is that he no longer cares to hold opinions, because his life has lost its taste. He told me nothing, but he taught me more even than I wanted to know."
--- From a review of Semi-Invisible Man:
The Life of Norman Lewis

Andrew O'Hagan
The London Review of Books
25 September 2008

Take Your First Right Through Minor Elizabethan Drama
"Take your first right through Minor Elizabethan Drama. Comedies will appear on your left and tragedies will be on your right. Keep going past Ralph Raiser Doister and The Spanish Tragedy. About three shelves after Gorboduc, you'll come to a narrow fork. Do not continue through Shakespeare because that whole section is flooded and you'll ruin your shoes. Instead you'll want to detour through Cavalier Poets and Writers of the Couplet. Go straight all the way to Hobbes. Follow Hobbes through The Age of Dryden, then veer left. This brings you face to face with Pope and Swift. You will not have noticed anything in translation. If you do encounter any French political writing, you'll know you're in the wrong corridor. You'll have to make a half-turn and backtrack through Sir Walter Scott. This is tricky. Be careful not to go too far because the Waverley novels will return you, inevitably, to The Castle of Perseverance, and you'll never get out. It's better to remain in the 19th century if you can get there. As you know, we've had shelving problems, so don't panic if you see Russians mixed in with the triple deckers. Put your head down and charge through the War Poets. By now you're smack in the centre of The Modern Era. From here you can choose any number of directions. Pay attention because if you take the wrong route, you'll have to start over from Beowulf. Are you paying attention?"


"The New Critics. Stay with The New Critics and you'll get where you're going."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

--- From The Hundred Brothers
Donald Atrim
As quoted by Christian Lorentzen
In the London Review of Books
20 November 2014

Gregory Bateson and
Henny Youngman

According to the New York Times, Henny Youngman was the king of the one-liner:

    A man says to another man, "Can you tell me how to get to Central Park?"

    The guy says no.

    "All right," says the first, "I'll mug you here."


    Two guys are in a gym, and one is putting on a girdle.

    "Since when have you been wearing a girdle?" says his friend.

    "Since my wife found it in the glove compartment of our car."


    "I played in places where the check-out girl's name was Rocco, and the owner would stab me good night."

But the anthropologist Gregory Bateson said that Youngman's greatest joke, because of the Existential angst it implied, was:

    "How's your wife?"

    "Compared to what?"

In the realm of jokes, Bateson himself was no slacker. He took Heraclitus' famous dictum, "No man can step into the same river twice," and transformed it into,

    No man can go to bed with the same girl for the first time twice.

--- From Understanding Gregory Bateson
Noel G. Charlton
© 2008 New York University Press

To Never Be Born
Mrs. Rooney: I remember once attending a lecture by one of these new mind doctors, I forget what you call them. He spoke ...

Mr. Rooney: A lunatic specialist?

Mrs. Rooney: No no, just the troubled mind, I was hoping he might shed a little light on my lifelong preoccupation with horses' buttocks.

Mr. Rooney: A Neurologist?

Mrs. Rooney: No no, just mental distress, the name will come back to me in the night. I remember his telling us the story of a little girl, very strange and unhappy in her ways, and how he treated her unsuccessfully over a period of years and was finally obliged to give up the case. He could find nothing wrong with her, he said. The only thing wrong with her as far as he could see was that she was dying. And she did in fact die, shortly after he washed his hands of her.

Mr. Rooney: Well? What is there so wonderful about that?

Mrs. Rooney: No, it was just something he said, and the way he said it, that has haunted me ever since. When he had done with the little girl he stood there motionless for some time, quite two minutes I should say, looking down at his table. Then he suddenly raised his head and exclaimed, as if he had had a revelation, "The trouble with her was she had never really been born!" [Pause] He spoke throughout without notes. [Pause] I left before the end ... [Sobs] There's nothing to be done for those people!

Mr. Rooney: For which is there?

---From All That Fall
Samuel Beckett
As quoted in The Lourdes of Arizona

Becoming at One with the Gods
When we die, we float outwards but there is nothing around to protect us from ourselves: no light, no smell, no sound, no touch, no heat nor cold. No sleep (nor drinking, laughing, coughing, getting drunk, lying about with friends).

We become a cottony ball of self that wanders through nothingness in space complete and there is nothing to keep us from our thoughts and thoughts (and thoughts) ... which do go on.

No sleep, no solitary drinking, no pills, no work, no diversions at all. Since we can't kill ourselves (we're already there) we are left with our bobbling thoughts twenty-four hours (even though there are no more hours); for days (there are no more days, nor nights --- it's all space out there); weeks (there are no more weeks --- nor weekends); years (there are no more years or centuries or millennia or even supereons).

No distractions in our now new non sense sentient world.

We are free to go mad, even though we are without friends or family or doctors or strangers to show our madness; (no suicide, either --- we are already there).

Which means that we have the time (do we ever!) so we have no choice but to start to make it all up again, to try to get back to the things we think we need, the all that have disappeared we thought forever there in our new light-dark-feel wind-moon-stars-rain sing-life-dance-love joy-passion-peace space. We get to create it all again, on our own, in our own fashion.

Here we are alone in a new galaxyless featureless hole (black) slowly knowing we have the wherewithal to build ourselves all over again and to people this world with eternities and the new I.

This takes a while to learn, to make a nut a tree a people a planet a star a solar system a galaxy. It takes (real and imagined) time. Too we have to create a (real and imagined) me that we can come back to again and again.

What a job! For after we make you with me and the universes and the new eternity we have thus become The New Creator and at the same time the first inhabitants of a new day (and a new night too.)

We have, thus, as they say, become as the gods; and we are now free, perhaps, to try, this time round, to get it right.

--- A. J. G. Ross
The Beginnings of Nothing