blunt essays with sharp points


by Scrvpvlvs
Feb 14, 2014 8:00 AM–

My lover, if my poems should be lacking all art, do not leave me oblivious. Instead, be blunt. Lest I continue, please confront me with the facts. Let them be free, thy private thoughts. Thy willow-tree curtains pull back so that I see your heart. I will no more affront My lover. My always wish is to please thee. More than move heaven, or earth, or sea I wish to move myself – to hunt the selfish out – turn best to front and give what makes thy life lovely, My lover. (If my poems should be lacking all art, do not leave me.)

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Howard Schultz of Starbucks: firm on support for marriage equality

by Scrvpvlvs
Apr 9, 2013 1:29 AM–Tom Strobhar buys small quantities of stocks for the privilege of making regressive statements at shareholders meetings. He made a statement opposing corporate support for marriage equality at the March 20, 2013 Starbucks shareholder meeting. Howard Schultz, CEO, gave the response for Starbucks.

Starbucks has video of this exchange at Note: access requires registration. If you look closely at the frame below, you can get quite a good sense of Mr Strobhar’s demeanor.

Inaccurate excerpts from this exchange have been widely circulated. What follows is an accurate transcript of the entire exchange. Corrections are welcome.

[2:23:35 Begin transcript]


[Unintelligible] Schultz, my name is Tom Strobhar. I’m in the investment business. I’m also a longtime shareholder. And to paraphrase Mr. Lincoln: that’s two scores and two years ago our company was founded. Until January a year ago, we existed without making gay marriage a core value of our company. [Unintelligible] we did quite well.

At last year’s annual meeting I asked you if it was prudent to risk the economic interests of all the shareholders, possibly jobs of our partners, for something that would benefit the private lives of a small number of our employees. You responded a couple things: one, indicating that the sales and earnings, the stock price, which then was near record highs, seemed to vindicate that decision, and that, two, you respect other people’s opinion on this subject, and I appreciate that.

Unfortunately, after last year’s annual meeting, the National Organization for Marriage called for a boycott of our company. It’s my understanding that something like tens of thousands of people signed on to this particular boycott, and in the first full quarter after this boycott was announced, our sales and our earnings, shall we say politely, were a bit disappointing. Now was it all due to this boycott? Probably not. Was some of it due to this boycott? Probably so. Our stock value in a couple of days dropped about six or seven billion dollars, and about thirteen billion dollars from its high. And though we did well on a calendar year basis in two thousand and twelve, if you look back twelve months from this date a year ago our stock’s up about six percent, the S&P five hundred is up about eleven or twelve percent.


What is your question?


My question is this, and this is a really specific one: you also say—you've mentioned civility, and you've written about civility—


I want the question, sir.


My question is this. A human rights campaign which calls everybody a hater and a bigot if they disagree on marriage, which is very hurtful and it’s designed to silence people. When will you stop funding, as Starbucks does to the tune of ten thousand dollars a year, an organization that uses the most uncivil language in the most direct way?


And I welcome that question as I did last year. Because not every decision is an economic decision.

Despite the fact that you recite statistics that are narrow in time, we did provide a 38 percent shareholder return over the last year. I don’t know how many things you invest in, but I would suspect not many things—companies, products, investments—have returned 38 percent over the last twelve months.

Having said that, it is not an economic decision for me. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity: of all kinds.

[Speaking over fifteen seconds of cheers and applause:] If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38 percent you got last year, it’s a free country. You could sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much. [Cheers and applause.]

[2:27:00 End transcript.]

Makes you want to go out and buy a cup of coffee.

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In each of us, two natures are at war

by Scrvpvlvs
Feb 24, 2013 9:56 PM–Reflection given at Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, February 24, 2012.

Long time listener, first time caller.

I have often told myself that I should keep company with people who make me better than I am. That feeling led me to take my first job in Texas, led me to make a life with Anita, and led me to become a member of this church. I am grateful for you, and I feel a bit intimidated. As I prepared my talk I was both excited and fearful: excited by the chance to give something of value, fearful that anything I had to say would be inadequate.

I have heard that there were three Unitarian Universalists returning by air from a conference when a hijacker demanded that the plane be flown to Cuba. When the pilot refused, the hijacker threatened to shoot some passengers. Purely by chance, he picked out the row of Unitarian Universalists. The nearest one asked for a last wish: to sing her favorite Unitarian Universalist hymn. The hijacker agreed, then asked if the other two had any last wishes. The second UU asked that after the song he be allowed to stand and give the talk he had prepared to give at church that next Sunday. The hijacker agreed, then turned to the third UU, who asked, “please shoot me after the song.”

Some social scientists might say that I have just made several common face-saving and face-threatening gestures associated with favor seeking. According to politeness theory, there are two basic wants in a social situation: wanting to be appreciated, called your positive face, and wanting not to be imposed on, called your negative face, and that people either cooperate to satisfy these wants, called face saving, or oppose them, called face threatening. When I stand here in the pulpit and speak to you, while you sit and listen, that can be analyzed as a potential imposition on you, a face-threatening situation. So it is important that I make face-saving gestures such as expressing my gratitude for you, minimizing my importance, and acknowledging that you could choose to shoot me instead of listen to me.

You could say that face saving is a big part of the work we do here at Westside. Westside is part of a progressive movement towards love, truth, and harmony, and that work takes many forms, but what I think makes all of that possible is our basic doctrine of equality and mutual respect.

I knew a person who attended a Unitarian Universalist explorer class at a different church. This person was taught the basic beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, including the idea that each person comes to Unitarian Universalism with unique beliefs and perceptions, and that the UU faith values this diversity. In fact, the UU faith was contrasted with the creedism of mainstream Christianity, and some rather impolite disparaging comments were made about the inflexibility of the Catholics. This person, who in fact held many Roman Catholic beliefs, felt a little humiliated by the Catholic bashing, and ultimately decided not to join.

About twelve years ago, I was a member of a group of people who met regularly to share their experiences of growing up with an alcoholic parent. The meeting format was designed with face saving in mind. Chairs were organized in a circle to create a sense of equality. We each took a turn to speak for up to five minutes about our experiences. Other members were expected to listen quietly without making comments or giving advice, and to keep what they heard strictly confidential. This very simple social structure was so unintimidating, nonjudgmental, and generally respectful that we learned to speak honestly about extremely personal feelings and perceptions and shocking or humiliating actions and experiences that we had never been able to disclose before with anyone. This was therapeutic because it dissolved guilt feelings made it easier to speak honestly about the same things with trusted counselors, family members, and friends.

That group embodied for me what I now know as the affirmation we read at the beginning of every service:

Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve others in community, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with creation, thus do we covenant with one another.

Each person came to these meetings with unique beliefs and perceptions, but we gathered in peace and love, for the purpose of finding and sharing our truth, serving one another to the end that we would grow into harmony with creation.

When I started attending Westside, I realized that it operates the same way. Westside embodies our affirmation. And I feel that this is the greatest work that we do here at Westside. Like other world religions, our religion is, at its heart, therapeutic. It is a joy and a relief for us to come here where there is love, peace, freedom, and community. Westside lifts us up, gives us the hope of harmony, and makes all our other work: our religious exploration, our activism, our teaching, our service to the larger world, possible.

Now I would like to talk a little about the two faces of that larger world.

The opening legend of the 1920 silent movie Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reads,

In each of us, two natures are at war--the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose---what we want most to be, we are.¹

If you are a parent, you certainly know that babies are naturally helpful. According to a 2009 article in The New York Times, biologists are coming to believe that this is a distinctively human trait. Long before parents start teaching children to be polite, they are innately helpful. “When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full,” says the article, “and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help.”²

My first proud memory is also my earliest memory. I was about two years old. My baby sister, who was cradled in a bassinet on the dining table, dropped a toy over the side. I just remember reaching the toy way up to the bassinet and seeing her tiny hand grab ahold of it.

But I also remember the summer when I was three or four years old and fascinated by daddy longlegs. Depending on what part of the country you are from, this name may mean something different to you, so I will describe mine: they are arachnids, slow and spiderlike with eight very long legs, no silk glands or venom, harmless and defenseless. That summer I delighted in pulling the legs off them. The next summer, when I saw my first daddy longlegs, I remembered what I did. I felt so remorseful about it that I nearly threw up. I still feel uncomfortable remembering it.

Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg was a writer and authority in child study and parent education. Of Jewish heritage, she embraced the secular humanism of Felix Adler and made parent education her life’s work. She valued the latest scientific discoveries and had a gift for translating them into meaningful information for parents, beginning with her 1912 book Your Child Today and Tomorrow. She wrote many other books and advised the White House on family issues, and was active in her field into her nineties.³

In her 1916 book Sons and Daughters Sidonie wrote that

a child with a certain amount of initiative and curiosity will investigate the structure and insides of everything that he can possibly take apart. While he is still young and inexperienced, he makes no discrimination between dissecting a toy dog and a live insect. … There is a suspicion of cruelty only when the child is old enough to have a clear idea what suffering means, and to realize that other beings can suffer as he can, and from the same causes as those that make him suffer. Moreover [she continues], we must distinguish between the brutality that is a rather negative callousness or indifference to suffering, and the positive cruelty that derives satisfaction from the suffering of others. There are very few children who manifest cruelty in the latter sense.

Notice what she does not say. She does not say that we lose the capacity to be callous to suffering as we grow older, or lack the capacity to be cruel. She says that we gain the capacity to know when other beings suffer. And as innately helpful as we are, we then want to help. This combination can be deadly. Dudley Kidd, an anthropologist who studied the social lives of native South Africans more than a hundred years ago, is notable for the attention he paid to the unique lives of children. He observed:

But there is deliberate cruelty in the way [children] torture some insects and animals which they think hurt men and women. They often choose a harmless lizard, under a mistaken idea that it stings human beings; they slowly torture it to death, talking to it all the time, and telling it that it deserves to suffer because it is an enemy of man. … Instances are not wanting where children under eight or nine years of age have rushed to the defense of the mother, or some other close friend, with the exclamation, “I’d like to kill you!”

These are examples of what we call contempt, which is the devaluation of something or someone, the sense that a person is no longer deserving of our help, that their suffering matters less, or not at all. Some of you have no doubt read Blink, the 2005 book by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, Gladwell discusses some research results by Dr. John Gottman, a professor of psychology whose special area of interest is relationships and marital stability. Dr. Gottman developed something he calls the Mathematics of Divorce. 10 He became an expert in reading facial expressions, and found that one hour of videotape of a married couple contained enough information to let him predict with 95% certainty whether the couple would still be married fifteen years later, no matter what they thought. The most important piece of information for Dr. Gottman’s predictions turned out to be bits of body language which reflect contempt: nearly imperceptible facial twitches, eye rolls, vocal tones which signal that one person considers the other person to be inferior, that (at least for a moment) they have devalued that person.

What we can do to other people we have devalued is truly frightening. The book History of Windham County, Connecticut relates a story of a public hanging of a man who had murdered his wife, attended by a crowd of six to ten thousand in 1831. This was not an unusual spectacle.

In expectation of the … influx, landlords and liquor sellers provided vast supplies of all kinds of liquor, and hired a special guard to keep watch of the criminal the night before execution, lest he should commit suicide or in any way escape [which naturally would eat into liquor sales]. Long before the break of day, … the various roads were thronged with wagons and foot travelers, single men and families, coming from all parts of Windham county and adjacent states. A gallows was set up in a hollow … where the vast multitude of spectators crowding its sloping sides enjoyed a distinct view of the whole proceedings. “There were never half so many drunk at any one time and place in [the] county”; … the throng was so vast that long before night not a mouthful could be procured in the village either to eat or drink except water …

Love is the doctrine of this church, and we do not believe in devaluing others. We believe that every creature is precious and deserving of love and respect. We are a gentle people who wish to dwell together in peace. But in the larger world we serve there are people with more aggressive personality traits.

Bob Altemeyer is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. About six years ago, he released a book titled “The Authoritarians”, in which he describes something called an “authoritarian personality”. The problem of the book is to understand the rise of tyrants in a democracy. Such a person needs the support of large numbers of ordinary people. How did someone like Adolf Hitler gain the enormous popular support he needed to take over political power in Germany? Bob Altemeyer’s answer is that there is a large minority in every population of people, perhaps one out of every three or four, who share three personality traits:

  • “a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society”
  • “high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities, and”
  • “a high level of conventionalism”.

These are people who readily disagree with statements such as “there is no one right way to live life, everyone has to create their own way” and agree with statements such as “what our country really needs is a strong determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path”. According to Altemeyer, in experiments, the best predictor of who will have these traits is a person’s fear of a dangerous world. These are people who love their children, work hard, support their communities, but also feel threatened not just in dangerous situations, but all the time, day after day. And so it is no wonder that they want an aggressive savior, and that terrible things can happen when they get one.

I have long wondered at the difference between peaceful and aggressive people, and one clue I have found is in the work of a Russian geneticist called Dimitry Belyaev. He carried out a massive breeding experiment with foxes in which each generation was bred by selecting the tamest individuals from the previous generation. And something surprising occurred. The new breed of foxes which developed purely by selection for tameness gained many physical characteristics common to dogs: floppy ears and curly tails, for instance, but also smaller adrenal glands and higher levels of serotonin, which made these animals less fearful and aggressive. It is very possible that we Unitarians are largely a community of the floppy eared, curly tailed variety of humans, genetically predisposed to be peaceful, loving people because we are less fearful. And it is equally possible that people with the authoritarian personality are genetically predisposed to be more aggressive because they are more fearful.

If this is true, then when we are interacting with people in the larger world, face saving gestures are very important because for many people it is natural to feel threatened. Unitarians want to change the world, and change can be very threatening. I could wish that when people think of Unitarians, they think of us as mostly as the polite, loving, and above all safe people, with floppy ears and curly tails, that we are.

As we rise in body or spirit …

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Clorox does not understand how to measure bleach

by Scrvpvlvs
Jan 24, 2013 6:45 PM–

Dear The Clorox Company:

To treat new, fresh water in a 6 000 gallon pool, should it cost me 4 cups of “Clorox” regular bleach, or only 3?

After reading the instructions for pool water treatment on your service bulletins page[PDF] I believe you have something wrong.

Your service bulletin says 200 ounces “Clorox” regular bleach supplies 10 ppm available chlorine in 10 000 gallons of water. Based on this, it should cost 3 cups of bleach to supply 2 ppm available chlorine in a 6 000 gallon pool.

And 3 cups must be right because it works out to “Clorox” regular bleach containing 6.4% available chlorine by volume. Your service bulletin says it contains about 6% sodium hypochlorite by weight (and you describe it elsewhere as containing 6% sodium hypochlorite) and this also works out to 6.4% available chlorine by volume, assuming the specific gravity is 1.12 which is a reasonable value for household bleach. So all these facts make sense together.

But your service bulletin also says 4 cups of bleach supplies 2 ppm available chlorine in 6 000 gallons of water, and gives a table of values for other pool sizes which are proportional to this.

4 cups only makes sense if “Clorox” regular bleach contains only 4.8% available chlorine by volume, which can’t be right. And if this is wrong, then your whole table is wrong, and is causing pool owners to overdose their pools by a factor of a third.

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This season’s pie recipe

by Scrvpvlvs
Nov 22, 2012 12:55 AM–… and I complain about my crust.

I have never gotten the hang of pie crust. I feel I should almost say, I cannot.

Two pumpkin pies are in the oven, baking. Roasting the pumpkin: successful. Adding cream, sugar, and spices: easy peasy.

Turning flour and shortening into pie crust without misjudging the amount needed and making a hopeless, crumbly mess of it: failure.

In past years, I used the Better Homes & Gardens crust. This year at A’s suggestion I tried the Crisco crust and was painstakingly careful about keeping the dough cold until ready to roll. It still fell apart.

My solution, sticking the bits of crust together to make a jigsaw piecrust in the pie pan, is reasonably satisfactory. People love the pie and are polite and say nothing about the frankencrust. I would just like the satisfaction of making a good crust sometimes.

This year’s recipe is a repeat of two years ago:

Roasted pumpkin (for pie)

Ingredients: 1 small (6–8” diameter) pumpkin, heavy for its size

Cut the pumpkin in half at its middle with the knife. Pull out the seeds with pursed fingers and thumb and save the seeds in the small bowl. Scrape out and discard the slimy, fibrous strands which held the seeds. Place halves cut side down on a baking pan. Put in a 375 °F oven to roast.

The pumpkin is ready to remove when fragrant pumpkin juice is bubbling in the baking pan and a fork or toothpick goes in easily and comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and set aside to cool enough to handle. Scoop the meat of the pumpkin out of the rind and into a mixing bowl. Discard the rind.

Toasted pumpkin seeds

This can be started as soon as the pumpkin is in the oven.

Ingredients: 1 T olive oil 1 T sugar 1 t cinnamon ½ t paprika ½ t coriander seeds from 1 small pumpkin

Line a baking pan with parchment. Combine oil, sugar, and spices, and pour in the center of the parchment. Pour the seeds over the mixture. Fold with a spoon until the mixture has evenly coated the seeds. Spread the seeds out over the parchment. Put in a 375 °F oven to roast.

The seeds are ready to remove when they have begun to darken. Allow to cool a little before eating … if you can wait.

Pie crust … arggh …

Ingredients (for two pies): 2 C flour 1 tsp salt ¾ C shortening 4–8 tbsp ice cold water

(This was not quite enough for two pies.)

Blend flour and salt. Cut cubed chilled shortening into flour mixture into pea sized pieces. Sprinkle half the water over mixture; mix with a fork. Add more water by the tbsp, mixing until dough holds together. Divide into two equal parts. Flatten into 1/2 inch thick round disks. Wrap in plastic, refrigerate 30 minutes.

For each pie: lightly flour surface, put cold disk on surface. Flour rolling pin, roll into circle 2" wider than pie plate. Ease onto pie plate and trim evenly. Curse.

Pumpkin Pie

Ingredients: 1 ½ C cream 6 eggs ¾ C sugar 1 ½ t ground cinnamon 1 ½ t ground ginger ¾ t salt ¾ t ground cloves ½ t ground nutmeg

(This year, my pumpkin was big enough that I doubled the ingredients and ended up with enough filling for three pies.)

Mash and mix thoroughly together the ingredients with the pumpkin meat in the mixing bowl.

Pour the filling into the crust, leaving at least ¼ inch for expansion. Put in the oven to bake for 45–60 minutes depending on the size of pie. The pie is ready to remove when the crust and filling have browned, the filling has swelled up, and a fork or toothpick comes out of the filling clean. Remove the pie and let it cool.

Extra crust dough can be scattered with sugar and cinnamon and baked in the oven to a light brown.

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by Scrvpvlvs
Sep 4, 2012 12:58 PM–She did her best, but she was young. She had been paying attention in lecture, really she had; well, much of the time.

The new garden seemed perfect. Moist, red clay, rich with minerals. Uncounted colonies of fungi and bacteria, transforming the land into soil, fit nourishment for the higher organisms: fragrant grasses, trees, vines heavy with fruit. Small creeping things, making homes for themselves or spreading seed from place to place.

She was particularly proud of her bees.

But it had been hard not to daydream, sometimes, about new worlds, worlds she would one day make real. Now, at her lab station, her first real garden was getting away from her.

The problems surfaced when she introduced the wolves. She was horrified to discover that they had an innate craving for mutton. It was the same with the cats. Her cows and goats quickly became lion food.

Her professor shook his head ruefully, then reminded her that her garden reflected her design decisions, right down to the basic DNA template. This was not something she could repair or work around; a world is an organic whole. She would have to start again from scratch.

The thought of destroying her new creatures was heartbreaking to her. Sadly, she carried her garden to the recycle bin. There she stopped. She couldn't bring herself to tip it in.

Maybe I could repurpose one of my creatures to be a shepherd, she thought, one to rule them all.

She mused over the problem as she returned to her table. She would need to edit one of her beasts. None of them possessed the necessary innate intelligence. And the DNA template did not contain the necessary potential.

She wondered if a drop of her own blood might do the trick.

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week’s exercise: Write a microfiction story (no longer than 600 words) using the first line prompt: “She did her best, but she was young”.


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by Scrvpvlvs
Aug 28, 2012 4:03 PM–Even from behind, I sensed he was nervous. He walked quickly down the crowded sidewalk, with his coat shrugged high up and his head down.

Good, I thought. You can push them out of the way tonight, and I’ll follow. Nobody looks out for anybody, and the crowd tires me out.

I trailed him easily, all the way to 36th Street and down the subway stairs. Maybe somebody was looking out for me after all. He was still with me at the platform, elbowing his way to the front.

When we reached the ledge, he didn’t stop. He hopped down onto the track as I stepped into the space he left behind.

He turned and looked up. His shoulders relaxed, and there was an expression of profound relief on his face as he lowered himself to sit on the third rail.

I tripped once as we all pushed our way back up the stairs to 36th Street.

This blog post is a writing exercise from Visit the Writers chat room every Tuesday for new writing exercises. This week’s exercise: Flash micro-fiction (10–300 words in 0–10 minutes) on the topic: “walking to and possibly riding on the subway”.

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