18 April, 2012

Sing it Out

I think humans are born with an innate need to sing. Babies sing before they can talk. The last 100 years' generations in the modern world have sadly been brought up comparing themselves to the recorded voice, and it gets worse and worse as Autotune and synthesizers make the recorded voice superhuman. I have nothing against Annie Lennox manipulating her voice so we can hear the deliberate trick, but taking someone of mediocre talent and artificially turning them into someone with less mediocre talent... not so much. And I despise Simon Cowell and his ilk, who skewer vulnerable aspiring artists for fun... and teach those watching that it's ok to do so. It's not ok to shame someone for doing something they love.

All over the world, throughout human history, people have sung together - around the fire or the table or at worship or in the tavern, at war and at peace. It bonds us, helps us express emotion otherwise inexpressable. Singing is so good for us, it ought to be written into the bill of rights.

Not everyone can or should be a soloist, but everyone should be able to use their voice. Good for you that you help your boy conquer his fears!

26 March, 2011

Individual human Growth vs Humanity as a Whole

Michael L wrote:
>I think there has been a movement toward change, that the people can stand-up for themselves and fight for what they want, which essentially is to take back what has been stolen over the past 30 years. Obama inspired the youth in Cairo when he was there and, and look at how that inspiration has spread throughout the Muslim countries. This kicking-up of the right to continue to take all they can is their last-ditch effort and I think it is destined to work against them.

I agree with this whole-heartedly. If we were to look at the history of humanity as a macrocosm, look at "man" as a person going through developmental stages, then it seems pretty clear. Compare the most primitive folks to "nasty, brutish and short" toddlerhood. 4-year-olds are sweet, crazy-fun, and very imaginative; 5-year-olds are starting to find their place in the world; 6 year olds fall into very striated social groups, girls vs boys, etc., and on and on.

Our brains keep growing several years after legal adulthood; particularly the frontal lobe where decision making and recognition of consequences are regulated. I think that, down the line, someone is going to do research on what happens in the brain around age 27, when there's a subtle transition from youth to true adulthood, and not just in the waistline.

I'm not sure what stage humanity is in, but it seems like we're around 18. We've gone through grade school, we've been soaked in hormones, we're beginning to scratch the surface of understanding consequences, we've had some losses and some triumphs which we can remember and put into perspective; we're looking at the stars and wondering how we'll change the world. Question is, does humanity as a whole want to make its first million before 30, or does it want to join the peace corps, or does it want to get married straight out of high school and open up an auto shop? And how will the internet and media connection worldwide foster this growth, a sense of connection in our worldwide personality which would parallel the integration of an adult's sense of self?

Watching the news last night about Libya, I was struck by the mention of tribes being used against one another by Kadafi. Here in the Bay Area, I see a LOT of people obsessed with "tribe", and doing body art means a lot of exposure to tribal art and the permutations adapted/adopted by these folks. It's easy to romanticize the noble tribal archetype, but truth is that tribalism can be a trap. I'm charmed by cultural practices as they relate to art, and can see how survival would have dictated such things as ritual circumcision and scarification and food laws. I think we developed tribalism to evenly distribute resources without any one area being too pressured and depleted. It works well in a hunter-gatherer situation. It doesn't work so well when anything more advanced than a spear becomes available to do harm.

America has its own tribalism going on. Elephants and donkeys, red states and blue states (isn't it hilarious how the reds used to be communists, then republican states became red, now Wisconsin's labor movement colors are red and white? Dang, we need a new color!) The totemism of our ancestors is still seen in the iconography of our marketing.

Maybe we who wish to move forward and make the world a fairer place should be green dragons, or purple lions, or orange lotuses. I don't know. I sure wouldn't want my affiliations symbolized by a used-up tea bag.

25 August, 2010

Ending for Mark Twain's story, A Stranger in Vienna

The contest is over; I wrote an ending but never submitted it because heck, I needed way more than 300 words, which would barely have done justice to many of Twain's better paragraphs. In my sheer verbosity, I disqualified my little filly before she even left the gate.

(By the way, I have never smoked a cigar nor drunk single-malt whiskey, but I understand a good deal about the nature of temptation and longing; the rest is merely chemistry.)
Conversations with Satan
(the first part, by Mark Twain)

IT WAS being whispered around that Satan was in Vienna incognito, and the thought came into my mind that it would be a great happiness to me if I could have the privilege of interviewing him. “When you think of the Devil” he appears, you know. It was past midnight, I was standing at the window of my work-room high aloft on the third floor of the hotel, and was looking down upon a stage-setting which is always effective and impressive at that late hour: the great vacant stone-paved square of the Morzin Platz with its sleeping file of cab-horses and drivers counterfeiting the stillness and solemnity of death; and beyond the square a broad Milky Way of innumerable lamps bending around the far-reaching curve of the Donau canal, with not a suggestion of life or motion visible anywhere under that glinting belt from end to end. If the square and the curve were dim or dark, the impressiveness would be wanting; but the multitudinous lights seem to belong properly with life and energy and the roar and tumult of traffic, and these being now wholly absent, the resulting impression conveyed to the spirit is that they have been suddenly and mysteriously annihilated, and that this brooding midnight silence and solemnity are the signs and symbols of the tragedy that has happened.


Now, with a most strange suddenness came an inky darkness, with a stormy rush of wind, a crash of thunder and a glare of lightning; and the glare vividly revealed the figure of a slender and shapely gentleman in black coming leisurely across the empty square. By his dress he was an Anglican Bishop; but I noticed that he cast a shadow. That gave him away, as Goethe phrases it; for by the ministrations of lightning no legitimate Anglican Bishop can do that-nor can any other earth-born creature, for that matter. This person was Satan. I knew it. It was in his honor that the sudden storm had been summoned and its thunders delivered in salute. It was inspiring, it was uplifting, this sublime ceremonial. If I had been a monarch it would have spoiled, for one while, my satisfaction in my little artillery salutes. And yet I would have tried to be properly philosophical, and ease and content myself with the reflection that the honors had been fairly and justly proportioned to the difference existing between Satan’s importance and mine, I being but a passing and evanescent master of a limited patch of empire, and he the long-term master of the majority of the human race.


I had that glimpse of Satan and his shadow, and the next moment he was by my side in the room. He did not embarrass me. Real royalties do not embarrass one; they are sure of their place, sure of its recognition; and so they bear about with them an alpine serenity and reposefulness which quiet the nerves of the spectator. It is the prerogative of a viscount or a baron to make a person feel small, and of a baronet to extinguish him. Satan would not allow me to take his hat, but put it on the table himself, and begged me not to put myself to any trouble about him, but treat him just as I would an old friend; and added that that was what he was-an old friend of mine, and also one of my most ardent and grateful admirers. It seemed a doubtful compliment; still, it was said in such a winning and gracious way that I could not help feeling gratified and proud. His carriage and manners were enviably fine and courtly, and he was a handsome person, with delicate white hands and an intellectual face and that subtle air of distinction which goes with ancient blood and high lineage, commanding position and habitual intercourse with the choicest society. The usual portraits of him are but resemblances, nothing more. They are very inaccurate. None of them is recent. The latest is as much as three hundred years old. They were all made by monks, and from memory; for the monks did not tarry. The monk was always excited, and he put his excitement into the picture. He thus conveyed an error, for Satan is a calm person; aristocratically calm and self-possessed. Satan’s face is notably intellectual, and fine, and expressive. It suggests Don Quixotte’s, and also Richelieu’s, but it is not so melancholy as the one nor so austere as the other; and neither of those grand faces has the winning quality which is the immortal charm and grace of Satan’s.


In Germany the sofa is the seat of honor and is always offered to the guest. It may be so in Austria also, therefore I tendered it to Satan, and called him by the loftiest titles I could think of-Durchlauschtigst, and Ihro Majest├Ąt-but he declined it, saying he would have no ceremony, and so took a chair. He said-

“You are very comfortable here. The German stove is the best in the universe.”

“I agree to that, with all my heart, Durchlauscht. That one there is eleven feet high and four feet square, and looks like a graveyard monument built of white tiles; but its looks are its only blemish. At eight in the morning it burns up one small basketful of wood in twenty minutes, and that is all it requires for the day. This great room will keep the same level and pleasant and comfortable degree of warmth hour after hour without change, and there is no artificial heat in the world that is comparable to it for wholesomeness, healthfulness. It does not inflame the skin, it does not oppress the head or make the temples throb; there isn’t a headache in a hundred years of it. As for economy, it is a good ten times more economical than any other house-heating apparatus known to the world.”

“You use it in America, of course?”

I was pleasantly surprised at that, and said-

“Is it possible that Ihro Majest├Ąt is not familiar with America?”

“Well-no. I have not been there lately. I am not needed there.”

At first I was gratified; but next I was suspicious that maybe his remark did not quite mean what I had thought it meant; so it seemed good diplomacy not to stir the matter, but leave it alone and go on about the stove again.

“No,” I said, “we don’t use the German stove in America. We have the name of being the most ingenious of the nations in the matter of inventing and putting to practical use all manner of conveniences, comforts, and labor-saving and money-saving contrivances, and we have fairly earned that name and are proud of it; but we do not know how to heat a house rationally, yet, and it seems likely that we shall never learn. The most of our stoves are extravagant wasters of fuel; the most of them require frequent attention and recharging; none of them furnishes a continuously equable heat, and we have not one that does not scorch the skin and oppress the head. We have spent tons and tons of money upon furnaces with elaborate and costly arrangements for distributing dry heat or steam or hot water throughout a house; but they are all ravenous coal-cannibals, and if there is one among them whose heat-output can be successfully regulated I have not seen it. As far as my knowledge goes, we have none but insane ways of heating houses and railway cars in America.”

“Then why don’t you introduce the German stove?”

“I wish I could. I could save the country money enough annually to pay the silly pension bill. And if we had that admirable stove we should soon find a way to rid it of its grim and ghostly look and make it a pretty and graceful thing to look at, and an ornament to the room; for we are a capable people in those directions. But I suppose we shall never see the day. The Americans who come over here do not study the German stove, they merely make fun of its personal appearance, and go away without finding out what a competent and inexpensive miracle it is. The Berlin stove is the best that I have seen. When we kept house there several winters ago we charged our parlor monument at 7 in the morning with a peck of cheap briquettes made of refuse coal-dust, let the fire burn half an hour, then shut up the stove and never touched it again for twenty-four hours. All day long and up to past midnight that room was perfectly comfortable, not too hot, not too cold, and the heat not varying, but remaining at the same pleasant level all the time. Do you like the German stove, Durchlauscht?”

“Not for my boarders-no.”

“What do you use, Durchlauscht?”

He named sixty-four varieties of stoves and house-furnaces. Dear me, those old familiar names-they were all American! But I didn’t say anything. I was ashamed; and yet at the same time I was conscious of a private little thrill of patriotic pride in the reflection that in a humble way we had been able to add a discomfort to hell.

Of course we were smoking, all this time, for Durchlauscht has had experience of the chief joy of man for many ages. The early American Indians introduced it in Sheol twenty or thirty thousand years ago, and out of gratitude he is never severe on that race. I thought I would venture to indicate in an unobtrusive way that by rights I was an Indian, though changed in the cradle through no fault of mine-and waited timorously for a comment. But I was disappointed. He only looked. It may be that he did not mean anything by the look, but often a look like that is discouraging, anyway, if you are conscious yourself that you have been trying to pull a person’s leg, as the saying is. In such cases you let on that you did not know you had said anything; and it is the best way, and soonest over.

Then you change the subject; and I did. I asked him to try the Navy Cut, and I loaded his pipe with it and gave him a light. He liked it. I was sure he would. He sent up a cloud of fragrant smoke, and said admiringly-

“It is good; very, very good; burns freely and smells like a heretic.”

That made me shudder a little, but that was nothing; we all have our metaphors, symbols, figures of speech, and they vary according to habitat, environment, taste, training, and so on.

“Where do you get this tobacco?”

“In London, Durchlauscht.”

“But where in Vienna?”

“It is a pity to have to say it, but one can’t get it in Vienna at all.”

“You must be mistaken about that. You must remember that this is one of the most superb cities that was ever built; and is very rich, and very fond of good things, and can command the best of everything that the world can furnish; and it also has the disposition to do it. This is my favorite city. I was its patron saint in the early times before the reorganization of things, and I still have much influence here, and am greatly respected. When you intimate that there is anything of first excellence which one cannot get in Vienna, you hurt my feelings. You would not wish to hurt my feelings?”

“I? Indeed, no. Do not look at me like that, Durchlauscht; you break my heart. But what I have said is really the truth. Consider what this noble city smokes-latakia! It is true, just as I say. It smokes latakia, and fine-cut Turkish and Syrian ordure that burns your tongue and makes a mephitic odor which suffocates.”

We are a vain and thoughtless race. In criticising in this large and arrogant way other people’s tastes in the matter of tobacco I was satirizing myself, without for the moment being conscious of it. For it has been my habit to look down in a superior way upon persons who were so low in the scale of intelligence as to believe such a thing possible as the establishing of a standard of excellence in tobacco and cigars. Tastes in this matter seem to be infinite. Each man seems to have a standard of his own, and he also seems to be ashamed of the next man’s taste and hostile to his standard. I think that no one’s standard is steadfast, but is at all times open to change. When we travel, and are obliged to go without our favorite brand and take up with the cigar of the country we chance to be in, we presently find ourselves establishing that cigar as our standard. In Venice we are at first too good to smoke those cheap black rat-tail “Virginias” that have a straw through them, but a fortnight’s familiarity with them changes all that and we adopt the Virginia as our standard. In Florence and Rome we are sorry for a people who are condemned to smoke the cheap menghettis and trabucos, but soon we prefer them to any other cigars. In Germany, France and Switzerland we take less kindly to the native cigars; but in India we quickly come to believe that the Madras two-cent cigar is much better than the Cuban cigar which costs twenty cents in New York. I must not claim to speak fairly and justly about high-priced cigars, for I have never bought any myself, and have not smoked other people’s when I could substitute a cheap one of my own without being discovered; for to my mind there is no cigar that is quite so vile and stenchy and inflammable as a twenty-cent Havana. This is probably a superstition; for I am well satisfied that all notions, of whatever sort, concerning cigars, are superstitions-superstitions and stupidities, and nothing else. It distresses me to hear an otherwise sane man talk about “good” cigars, and pretend to know what a good cigar is-as if by any chance his standard could be a standard for anybody else.

We have all noticed this-and it tells its own story: that when we go out to dine at another man’s house, we privately carry along a handful of cigars as a protection. We know that the chances are that his standard and ours will differ. We take his cigar, but we manage a substitution furtively. From long habit-backed by prejudice and superstition-I dread those high-priced Havanas with a fancy label around them; a label which costs the hundredth part of a cent, and augments the price of the cigar twenty-seven degrees beyond its value. I have accepted tons of those; and given them to the poor. It is not that I hate the poor, for I do not; but only because I cannot bring myself to waste anything, even a fancy-labeled execrable cigar.

Not more than two persons in eight hundred thousand know even their own cigars when they are outside of the box; they think they do, but that is another superstition. Years ago several friends of mine used to come to my house every Friday night to play billiards. They patiently smoked my cheap cigars and never said a wounding word about them. With one exception. That was a gentleman who thought he knew all about cigars, and whose opinion was like the rest of the world’s-not valuable. He had a high-priced brand of his own, and he did not like my cheap weeds. He tried to smoke them, but he growled all the time, and always threw the cigar away after a few whiffs, and tried another and another and another. He did that all one winter. The truth was, that they were his own cigars, not mine. By request, his wife sent me a couple of dozen every Friday afternoon. He may not believe this when he sees it in print, but the other witnesses are there yet, and they will confirm the truth of my statement.

And I have another case. One winter, along in those years, I heard that the “long nine” of fifty years ago was being manufactured and marketed again, and I was glad, for I had smoked them when I was a lad of nine or ten and knew that twelve or fifteen of them could be depended upon to make a day pass pleasantly at light cost. I sent to Wheeling and laid in a supply, at 27 cents a barrel. They were delightful. But their personal appearance was distinctly against them; and besides they came in boxes that were not attractive; boxes that held a hundred each and were made of coarse blue pasteboard; boxes that were crazy, and battered, and caved in, and ugly and vulgar and plebian, and looked like the nation. Just the aspect of the box itself would make anybody sea-sick but me; with the burnt-rag aspect of its homely contents added, the result was truly formidable.

I could not venture to offer these things, undisguised, to my friends, for I had no desire to be shot; so I put fancy labels around a lot of them, and kept them in a polished mahogany box with a perforated false bottom that had a damp sponge under it; and gave them a large Spanish name which nobody could spell but myself and no ignorant person could pronounce; and said that these cigars were a present to me from the Captain General of Cuba, and were not procurable for money at any price. These simple devices were successful. My friends contemplated the long nines with the deepest reverence, and smoked them the whole evening in an ecstasy of happiness, and went away grateful to me and with their souls steeped in a sacred joy.

I carried the experiment no further, but dropped it there. A year later these same men were at my house to discuss a topic of some sort-for it was a social club, and its members met fortnightly at each other’s houses in the winter time, and discussed questions of the day, and finished with a late supper and much smoking. This time, in the midst of the supper, the colored waiter came to me, looking as pale as amber, and whispered and said he had forgotten to provide proper cigars, and there was no substitute in the house but the vulgar long nines in the blue pasteboard boxes-what should he do? I said pass them around and say nothing-we could not help ourselves at this late hour. He passed them.

It was usual for these people to smoke and talk an hour and a half. But this time they did not do that. They looked at the battered blue box dubiously, and in turn took out a long nine hesitatingly, and lit it. Then an uncanny silence fell upon the company; conversation died. Then, after five minutes, a man excused himself and left-had an engagement, he said. In a couple of minutes, another man lied himself out. Within ten minutes the whole twelve were gone and I was alone; and it was not yet eleven o’clock.

In the morning at breakfast the colored man asked me how far it was from the front door to the upper gate. I said it was a hundred and twenty-five feet. Then he said, impressively, “Well, sir, you can walk the whole way, and step on a long nine every time.”

What an exposure of human nature it is. Those were the same cigars that had lifted those people into heaven a year before. They had smoked all their lives, yet they knew nothing about cigars. The only way that they could tell a fine cigar from a poor one was by the label and the box; and the great majority of men are just like them. The wine merchant and the cigar dealer have an easy chance to get rich, for it is merely a matter of knowing how to select the right labels.

In the continental States, tobacco is a government monopoly, and the tobacco used is native-almost altogether. In Vienna there is but one shop where importations can be had. But it keeps no endurable brands of English or American smoking tobacco. When I speak of English tobacco I mean American tobacco manufactured in England. America has many brands of good smoking tobacco; and could have good and cheap native cigars, I suppose. In fact we had good native cigars fifteen years ago, but none now, so far as I know. I am not hard to please, but to my mind the American native cigar is easily the worst in the world-and it costs from seven to ten cents, too. The trabuco cigar, furnished by the Austrian government, suits my taste exactly, comes up to my strictest standard, and even a little above it; and it costs just 40 cents a hundred. The best native American cigar cannot compare with it. Perhaps it is our high protection that has degraded our tobacco. There being no foreign competition, we can compel ninety-nine Americans in the hundred to smoke any rubbish we please, since he cannot afford the imported article; and as a result we are the only considerable nation in the world which smokes supremely villainous cigars.

Possibly my approval of the Austrian cigar pays it but a doubtful compliment, but I do not think so. For I am one of the sixteen men now alive in the world who estimate a cigar by its personal qualities, not by its name and its price.

***

here ends Twain's writing. I propose to finish it thusly:
***

I had paused for a moment. lost in a reverie about cigars and the nature of man. Durchlauscht leaned back on the couch, and his calm gaze swept the view of my window. He said quietly, "From this perspective, this courtyard could be anywhere in the civilized world. Is it not remarkable, how much of the truth can be revealed or concealed simply by a trick of light or dark? He smiled and took a long draught from his pipe, held it out judiciously at arm's length, and smiled wryly. He cleared his throat, very softly. Ah! the sound of a thirsty man. I was forgetting my manners! I jumped up and went to the mahogany sideboard.

"Would you care for some libation? I have water, and a whiskey that I bought on my travels last year."

He smiled, his dark eyes glittering slightly. "Thank you - no water for me, but I should like some whiskey very much. You are very kind." I poured two small cut-crystal glasses from the decanter. I noticed again that I felt no sense of nervousness; my hands did not shake, nor did my mouth feel dry. He was indeed an unassuming and comfortable companion, and I was greatly relishing our visit.

I handed him his glass, sat down with mine and took a sip. Its warm, velvety taste complimented my Austrian cigar perfectly; I presumed that my guest would equally appreciate the marriage of his whisky with the smoke from his dying pipe. I said "I greatly enjoyed visiting this distillery and purchased two cases; one for travel, one sent directly home. It was a most gratifying excursion. What is your impression of Scotland?"

He smiled. "It is a beautiful country. Aside from their execrable cooking and their peculiar treatment of ferrets, its people give me little to do. The Scots are frequently stubborn but not prideful; they are parsimonious but not acquisitive. I find it much easier and more profitable to work with the English."

He raised the glass to his lips and sniffed deeply. Pleasure spread over his face like dawn over a new day. He was indeed a handsome and agreeable man, appreciative of the truly finer things. "I detect just a trace of smoke, a touch of heather honey, and fine oak tannins." He closed his eyes a moment, as if he wanted to shut out sight to give the whiskey a greater benefit of smell and taste. He raised the glass to his lips, tilted his head back, and the whiskey ignited with a white flash, like a tiny bomb. I had a hellish vision as he swallowed the flaming beverage; the skin on his face for just a moment blackened then peeled away to reveal a death-mask of rotting flesh, bone, and exposed bloodshot eyeballs; the black beard, moustache and eyebrows became crawling worms of red flame; the elegant white hand holding the glass burned briefly into a grasping, charcoal claw. The glass made a soft tinkling noise, like the sound of a hummingbird egg breaking.

In my astonishment, I shrank back in my chair, dropped my cigar, and my own whiskey sloshed out of its glass. "Good God, man!" I cried from sheer shock, then panicked as I realized I had probably said the most offensive thing possible to my esteemed guest, whose ghastly visage seemed to be reassembling itself. I could only hope that, in the aftermath of the conflagration, he did not hear my outburst. I set down my glass, scrambled about to find my cigar stub, and when I had recovered it from the carpet, rose unsteadily to my feet. My guest's appearance had almost returned to its cool, composed semblance of healthy perfection - except for wisps of smoke trailing from his ears and nostrils, and a certain ashiness clinging to his facial hair. He did not seem at all affronted by my reflexive invocation of the Almighty, but rather smiled in blissful gratitude for the whisky and sighed happily. He sniffed at the empty glass once again, and when he set it delicatedly on the tray with his undamaged hand, I saw that the crystal was feathered with a thousand tiny cracks, hazed with smoke on the inside, and the delicate rim that had touched his mouth was slumped and melted like candle wax.

Like a true gentleman, he kept his eyes averted from me while I regained my composure, gazing once again at the view out the window with a relaxed and genial air. I went to the water pitcher, sloshed mightily as I tried to pour water with trembling hands, and gulped it down, then poured myself another which I also hastily consumed. When Satan next spoke, his voice was raspy and dry, as if his tongue was a dry leaf, and the breath wheezed in his burned lungs. "Ah. Highlands single malt. Aged - 16 years? No. Twenty." His voice cleared. "I see that you truly are a man of discernment, Mr. Twain." He took out a handkerchief and dabbed delicately at his face. Although the ash disappeared, the kerchief remained spotless. He wiped his hand of remaining ash too, and tucked the kerchief away.

Thus back to normal, he said, "Sir, I shall be taking my leave of you shortly - unfortunately I have other obligations. There are several parties tonight and a short meeting which all require my brief attendance. It would have been delightful to have had a longer chat. Would you care for another smoke before I go?"

Then he put away his own pipe, took out a small pocket humidor, sized to carry two cigars. The humidor had a slightly singed look to it, and I noticed a reddish gleam of dying ember along the eges. Durchlauscht smiled at me and opened the box with a flourish. I must confess I shrank back a little in fear, not knowing whether to expect cinders, cigars, or an imp to grab me by the nose, shrink me down, and haul me into Hell through this magic box.

When opened, the humidor revealed a scene of beauty inside. It was lined with crimson satin, and nestled therein were twin expertly-rolled cigars of moderate size, banded simply and tastefully without pretense, marked with a simple five-pointed star. An aroma wafted out from these cigars, and I was stricken by its complexity - the faintest floral scent of the nicotiana flower, a whiff of innocent childhood and a pinch of eager harlot, the richness, the sharpness, the depth, the mild sweetness, the promise of a smoke that would transport me to a height of pleasure I'd never before imagined. And yet something else was woven into that scent... the barest underlying hint of brimstone, and the memory of a Mississippi funeral parlor's smell on a hot Saturday afternoon, just after the coffin has left the building. But I must confess, that bitter deathly tang somehow made the brilliant qualities of those cigars even more alluring. The only missing component was smoke to complete and release perfection. Unsmoked, I could have steeped myself in that aroma for a century. Alight, and imparting all its charms to me, this would be the smoke beside which anything else would be swamp gas by comparison.

My hand, almost of its own accord, began to reach out for one. I could barely take my eyes off its velvety, brown, papery, delicious beauty. It was the dry chrysalis from which the butterfly of my future would spring, fully formed, and fly. My fingers trembled. And then I noticed that Durchlaucht's fingers trembled slightly too. My hand stopped in mid air, and I looked up at his face. I just caught the fleeting end of an expression of ineffable greed and triiumph, as if he had gambled away a goat and won a thoroughbred. I had a sensation of ice water poured down my back even as he instantly cloaked his desire with that air of gracious and easy civility. I blinked. Oh, that scent, that... heavenly, hellish scent. I wanted to inhale it all in, set the fire that would make it part and parcel of my lungs and being. The smoke would imbue me and cloak me; it would make me the greatest writer that ever lived; my entire family would live in health and happiness; all doors would be open to me; I would have the key to every great city in America and on the continent. And yet I knew that to light the match now would be to sell myself more completely than any signature, handshake, or seal ever could. And this compact would make all that I chose to do, all my success, dependent upon it. The old book says that pride generally goeth before a fall - however, greed's generally the boot that kicks pride over the edge. It would be easy to allow both pride and greed to have the upper hand, but the easiest route does not always lead to the best destination. Being a typical specimen of the human race and the American race in particular, my pride in independence fought valiantly in my heart with greed for security, and won. Perhaps for the first time, immodesty and pride actually served me well; I was not about to share the credit for my work with anyone, no matter how illustrious. My words and scribblings might be barely distiguishable from the Devil's, and some may suspect that he inspires many of them, but they are indeed my own, and they remain my own even now.

"I think" I said, "That, ah, perhaps I have had enough smoking for now." My words, which usually come easily, dragged protesting out of my mouth like a possum fighting extrication from a tree.

Durchlauscht smiled easily, with no trace of dismay. "Oh, but my dear Mr. Clemens, I insist! I know you can easily smoke one more tonight, and I shall keep you company. You have been a most gracious host, invited me in, shared your spirits with me. It is only fitting that together we enjoy this small token of my friendship and esteem. Can you not smell this? It was hand rolled in my homeland with great care and at great cost, although it is modest compared to the respect in which I hold you and your writings, which I am sure will become even more widely read and lucrative than their current happy state." He plucked a cigar from its little coffin and held it closer to my nose, waving it gracefully back and forth. I noticed the absence of tobacco stains on his nails, which were very clean and white, neatly manicured. My eyes watered as they followed the slowly waving cigar, and a miasma of longing formed about me, swaying my will, body and soul.

With great effort I shook my head, and my voice shook as well. "My dear Durchlaught, I deeply appreciate your very kind offer. WIth the greatest of due respect, and meaning no insult, I am indisposed to smoking any further tonight." With mixed emotions of longing, dread, regret, and firm resolution, I bowed. "Perhaps when we meet again, as I am sure we will."

Durchlaght hid a flicker of anger, then smiled coolly, replaced the cigar, closed the humidor, and proffered it to me. "I understand. Then please, if you are disinclined tonight, keep this as a remembrance, with my highest regards"

Knowing better than to displease him further, I accepted the box, which was surprisingly heavy - as if lined with lead - and still hot as blazes. I suddenly noticed that the humidor's ebony lid was inlaid with the initials "SC" in blood red wood. My fingers sizzling slightly, I hastily set the thermidor on the table next to the cracked glass where they both sat, fuming slightly.

"Thank you for the cigars, sir, and for granting this interview. It has been an intriguing evening. I assume the time will be short before we continue our acquaintance."

Durchlaght put on his coat, then his hat, which he tipped to me elegantly, once again the picture of kindness and good manners. "Thank you again for your excellent hospitality. I eagerly anticipate that we will soon converse together again - over whiskey and a smoke". He waggled his eyebrows playfully.

Speechless, I nodded and stretched my lips into the semblance of an affable smile. We shook hands, and somewhat to my surprise, his handshake was not unusual in any way. It was firm and smooth, of a moderate temperature, with no sign of the deathly claw that had caused me such distress only a short time before. Satan vanished with a brief flash and burst of whirling black wind; the curtains rose and flapped wildly then fell back to rest.

I staggered over to the table and leaned on it, breathing heavily as if I had run a race, and stared. The whisky glass, which had been so severely damaged, was once again sparkling and perfect, each ornate cut reflecting the gaslight. There was no burn-hole in the carpet from my dropped cigar. Only the slight blisters on my fingers, and the still-hot humidor, testified to the presence and nature of my visitor.

I thought about opening the humidor, taking out a cigar, and smelling it again, then putting it back. I contemplated smoking a cigar immediately, calling old Scratch back to share and enjoy the moment for all it was worth, damning myself - or at least damning mysef further and more efficiently. I could not give it away to someone blameless and ruin them; I could not give it to a scoundrel who had already set his own course to hell; I could not leave it in a dustbin or drop it in the ocean for dread of poisoning the life of any scavenging innocent who chanced upon it. I thought about incinerating the source of my temptation in the German stove - but I suspect that destroying the humidor would require greater heat than any normal stove could produce - even of the myriad infernal American types. In the end, there was nothing for it but to keep the cigars in their humidor until the appropriate occasion arose. The humidor cooled off by the next morning, and has been with me ever since, although I occasionally leave it at home when on short trips. On longer journeys it is tucked away at the bottom of my valise, always awaiting the day when I feel ready to stop postponing the inevitable. I hear tell that Halley's Comet, which flew over on the day of my birth, will be making another appearance on my 75th birthday. I think I shall ride out on its coattails, trailing a puff of the finest smoke the world has ever known.

***

Alana Guy Dill

originally written 4/21/09

The Door is Open

I took this phrase from two sources:
the U2 song "Gloria", and my favorite Rumi poem:

"The Breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you
Don't go back to sleep
you must ask for what you really want
Don't go back to sleep
People are going back and forth
Across the doorway where the two worlds touch
The door is round, and open
Don't go back to sleep"

I have spent a fair amount of my life wide awake and dreaming, other times sleeping where my dreams were so vivid I wanted to go back and figure out how to make them real. How do I bring dreams into the waking world - dreams of creativity, of joy, of peace, of fun? How to take the shadow of my psyche and use it to heal myself and others instead of hurt?

I have eclectic taste - possibly insane taste - ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. I like silly humor more than I like sarcasm. I have a lifelong interest in why the heck the world is the way it is... cause and effect? G/d/s? Quarks? Who knows. Even if I thought I knew, that would be faith. The intersection between faith and knowledge - a dangerous and blurry place.

As the Firesign Theater states ".... a force that can only be used for good... or evillllll..." but I don't remember what they were talking about, was it a time machine?

I'm blessed with brilliant and creative friends; you'll find links to their blogs, art and ideas here. I'll add my own art and interests as time permits. Daring to put ourselves out there is one of the greatest challenges many artists face. Creating is easy, sometimes it happens all by itself. Communicating... hard.