Monday, May 7, 2012


May 3, 2012

Now that he's beaten back his opponents and is marching unhindered to the Republican convention, I guess it's time for me to write about Mitt Romney.

But hell, it's springtime, and the world is awash with color and newness. Who wants to write about Mitt Romney in the springtime? I'll write about woodpeckers instead.

For the last couple weeks, I've awakened at first light to the rattle-tap of a woodpecker on some nearby tree. It occurs in spurts, a couple seconds at a time followed by short breaks, consistently through the early morning, then stops for several hours, then resumes in late afternoon and goes on till dusk. The noise is so loud it successfully competes with the jackhammers of Con Edison workers, who have been tearing up the street to lay down new conduit.

On pleasant days I've ventured out with binoculars to search for the suspect bird, but of course, just when I think I'm close, the rattling stops and I'm unable to spot it. I'm a lousy birder.

The reputation of the South Bronx does not lend itself to images of nature's wonders, but there is in fact a forest ecology here. A full quarter of the Bronx is parkland, more than any of the other four boroughs of New York City. Much of it has been developed for human use — playgrounds and ball fields and golf courses (three of them) and lawns for picnicking — but even in the most utilitarian spaces, like 130-acre Crotona Park two blocks north of here, ancient tall trees abound, and there are still many hefty ones shading the streets, hardy survivors of the decades of urban devastation. It's an agreeable habitat for birds of every sort, including large predators like red-tailed hawks, which I often see peering down from low-hanging branches at potential prey — pigeons, rats, squirrels, and off-the-leash Chihuahuas.

The only two kinds of woodpeckers I've actually seen in the neighborhood are the downy, a red-headed little lovely about the size of a starling, and the northern flicker, a larger bird with striking gray-and-yellow plumage. Birders have sighted several other species in the Bronx, such as the mid-size red-bellied, the majestic top-knotted pileated, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker, though these have been found mostly in heavily-wooded areas in the New York Botanical Garden and Van Cortlandt Park, a few miles north of here. So I'd say my guy is either a downy or a flicker.

We all know why bees hum, but why do woodpeckers peck? Of course, they peck to eat, drilling into a tree's bark to expose tasty insects, grubs, and often whole colonies of ants living inside. They also peck to excavate cavities for nesting. But most of the pecking we hear in the spring — the rapid-fire tapping that wakes me up these days — is, say the ornithologists, their version of other birds' warbles and songs, their way of staking out territory and attracting mates. In the forest as in the concert-hall, every symphony needs a drummer.

And as with all drummers, the woodpecker's governing principle is "The louder, the better." They'll always select instruments with the best resonance — hollow trees mostly. Where humans dwell, however, they go for heavy metal — gutters and drainpipes — to produce a sound powerful enough to show who's boss in the neighborhood.

The bird people say that every species of woodpecker has a unique drumming pattern of precise rapidity, duration, and pauses between sets. The downy, for example, drums at 14 taps per second; other kinds do 20 or more. The Cornell University Ornithology website features audio clips of woodpecker drums to assist birders in identifying species by ear, offering these words of encouragement: "With practice, most drumming sounds can be recognized with a high level of confidence." I've listened to all those clips and can barely tell one from the other. I'm no birder.

Another very practical question is: Why don't woodpeckers beat their brains out? Boxers get punch-drunk from blows to the head; do woodpeckers grow dotty after a season or two of passionate drumming? The answer, expectedly, is no. As ever- trustworthy Wikipedia puts it: "Woodpeckers have evolved a number of adaptations to protect the brain," including "short duration of contact" with the wood, "the orientation of the brain within the skull" (a half-turn different from other birds, "which maximizes the area of contact between the brain and the skull"), and "small brain size."

How these creatures can get up day after day and beat out the same old message without variance and without brain-damage is amazing to me.

Don't you wonder the same thing about presidential candidates? Maybe it's for similar reasons.

I guess it's time for me to write about Mitt Romney.


April 26, 2012

"I'm 84 years old, and I can say any damned thing I want to!"

You've heard that one before. If you qualify in the age category, you may have even said it yourself. It's a great exit strategy for an embarrassing slip of the tongue, usually evoking a good laugh all around and a comfortable transition to other topics.

But not if you're Günter Grass.

The Nobel laureate, the conscience of post-war Germany, the most renowned living German literary figure, found himself in scathing water early this month when he published his latest poem, "Was Gesagt Werden Muss" — "What Must Be Said."

What he felt must be said concerns the ongoing international furor over Iran's nuclear shell-game, and the international silence over a nuclear shell-game that another country may be playing as well.

"Why do I speak only now, / Aged and with my last ink?" he asks in the midst of the poem. Because, he replies, "even tomorrow may be too late" — and here, he's not only speaking about his own future.

Though he's 84 and can say any damned thing he wants to, this is obviously not a work of impulse. That he used the vehicle of poetry, where every line is crafted and every word has a purpose, to set forth his position only makes it the more irrevocable. He knew full well what he was doing, though he may not have exactly known the consequences.

Despite their rigorous construction, poems are often more existential than prose; they reveal in a highly formal way the progress of a thought, and so it is with this one.

He begins in the passive voice: A "right of first strike" that could "annihilate the Iranian people" ("enslaved by a braggart," he adds) is being invoked because "it is conjectured that an atom bomb is in construction."

He then sets up an ironic parallel. Like Iran itself, the country claiming the first-strike prerogative — and which, he writes, "I forbid myself to name" — also holds "nuclear potential," also has kept it secret, also has refused inspection.

Why the "universal silence" on this apparent contradiction? he asks; why his personal silence? His conclusion: "The verdict of ‘Anti-Semitism' is familiar." Though still unnamed, the country in question is now clear.

Compounding the irony, Grass then indicts his own nation for "delivery to Israel" (at last he speaks the word) of "Another U- boat, / Whose specialty consists in guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence / Of a single atom bomb is unproven." (In February, Germany sold a sixth Dolphin attack submarine to Israel after having donated two of them outright following the 1991 Gulf War and sold the others at deep discounts.) Whether this was done "on a purely commercial basis," or "with nimble lips calling it a reparation" doesn't matter to him; "The nuclear power of Israel endangers / The already fragile world peace," and "We — as Germans burdened enough — / Could be suppliers to a crime."

The situation to him is so critical that his guilt-induced silence toward the military policies of "the land of Israel, to which I am bound / And wish to stay bound," must be broken.

In the penultimate stanza, he expresses hope that his words "will free many from silence" and "prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger" — unnamed — "to renounce violence and / Likewise insist / That an unhindered and permanent control / Of the Israeli atomic potential / And the Iranian atomic sites / Be authorized through an international agency."

You have to wonder what Grass thought as he hit the "Send" button; we all know that feeling. Did he expect "the verdict of Anti-Semitism"? He says so himself. Did he expect that this work might diminish his reputation, already called into question by his late-in-life admission that he'd served in the Waffen-SS at the end of World War II? Surely. Did he expect his poem to open up honest discussion by Germans about their attitudes, positive and negative, toward Israel? So he may have hoped. Did he expect that his words would be exploited by his own avowed enemies, the Neo-Nazis? He may not have thoroughly considered that one.

His doomsday scenario, a preemptive atomic attack by Israel against Iran, sounds unthinkable, perhaps reflecting the paranoia of old age. But if in fact Israel has the bomb, and if, as has been speculated, Iran's nuclear development facilities are buried too deeply underground to be penetrated by conventional weaponry, and if Israel is indeed determined to "take whatever steps are necessary" to remove the Iranian threat, the unthinkable suddenly becomes thinkable.

Whether or not Grass's fears are justified, his very legitimate question remains: Would not the cause of peace be furthered if the international community sought, and Israel agreed to, the same accountability for its nuclear projects as for Iran's?

It's astounding that twenty years after the end of the Cold War, a Hot War is even conceivable. But the nuclear torch has been passed to a new and widening generation of nations equally mesmerized by mass destruction, from manipulative North Korea to unstable Pakistan and even to prosperous India, which just last week tested a missile that could send an atom bomb into the heart of China.

The mutual threats by Iran and Israel may be an elaborate bluff. But games like this have been played before — "at the end of which," Grass remarks in his opening lines, "we as survivors are at best footnotes."

In that respect, at least, he is right.

Here is the poem in German, followed by an English translation:
Warum schweige ich, verschweige zu lange, was offensichtlich ist und in Planspielen

geübt wurde, an deren Ende als Überlebende
wir allenfalls Fußnoten sind.

Es ist das behauptete Recht auf den Erstschlag,
der das von einem Maulhelden unterjochte
und zum organisierten Jubel gelenkte
iranische Volk auslöschen könnte,
weil in dessen Machtbereich der Bau
einer Atombombe vermutet wird.

Doch warum untersage ich mir,
jenes andere Land beim Namen zu nennen,
in dem seit Jahren - wenn auch geheimgehalten -
ein wachsend nukleares Potential verfügbar
aber außer Kontrolle, weil keiner Prüfung
zugänglich ist?

Das allgemeine Verschweigen dieses Tatbestandes,
dem sich mein Schweigen untergeordnet hat,
empfinde ich als belastende Lüge
und Zwang, der Strafe in Aussicht stellt,
sobald er mißachtet wird;
das Verdikt 'Antisemitismus' ist geläufig.

Jetzt aber, weil aus meinem Land,
das von ureigenen Verbrechen,
die ohne Vergleich sind,
Mal um Mal eingeholt und zur Rede gestellt wird,
wiederum und rein geschäftsmäßig, wenn auch
mit flinker Lippe als Wiedergutmachung deklariert,
ein weiteres U-Boot nach Israel
geliefert werden soll, dessen Spezialität
darin besteht, allesvernichtende Sprengköpfe
dorthin lenken zu können, wo die Existenz
einer einzigen Atombombe unbewiesen ist,
doch als Befürchtung von Beweiskraft sein will,
sage ich, was gesagt werden muß.

Warum aber schwieg ich bislang?
Weil ich meinte, meine Herkunft,
die von nie zu tilgendem Makel behaftet ist,
verbiete, diese Tatsache als ausgesprochene Wahrheit
dem Land Israel, dem ich verbunden bin
und bleiben will, zuzumuten.

Warum sage ich jetzt erst,
gealtert und mit letzter Tinte:
Die Atommacht Israel gefährdet
den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden?
Weil gesagt werden muß,
was schon morgen zu spät sein könnte;
auch weil wir - als Deutsche belastet genug -
Zulieferer eines Verbrechens werden könnten,
das voraussehbar ist, weshalb unsere Mitschuld
durch keine der üblichen Ausreden
zu tilgen wäre.

Und zugegeben: ich schweige nicht mehr,
weil ich der Heuchelei des Westens
überdrüssig bin; zudem ist zu hoffen,
es mögen sich viele vom Schweigen befreien,
den Verursacher der erkennbaren Gefahr
zum Verzicht auf Gewalt auffordern und
gleichfalls darauf bestehen,
daß eine unbehinderte und permanente Kontrolle
des israelischen atomaren Potentials
und der iranischen Atomanlagen
durch eine internationale Instanz
von den Regierungen beider Länder zugelassen wird.

Nur so ist allen, den Israelis und Palästinensern,
mehr noch, allen Menschen, die in dieser
vom Wahn okkupierten Region
dicht bei dicht verfeindet leben
und letztlich auch uns zu helfen.

Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long

What clearly is and has been
Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors
Are at best footnotes.

It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people--
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation--
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, an atom bomb is being built.
Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no testing is available?
The universal concealment of these facts,
To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force--the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of "anti-Semitism" is familiar.
Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
The very crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But through fear of what may be conclusive, I say what must be said.

Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I think my origin,
Which has never been affected by this obliterating flaw,
Forbids this fact to be expected as pronounced truth
Of the country of Israel, to which I am bound
And wish to stay bound.
Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say;
Also because we--as Germans burdened enough--
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.
And granted: I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
Prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
Likewise insist
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
Of the governments of both countries.
Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
In the end also to help us.