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Friday, December 05, 2014

A CRABBY CHRISTMAS

I should have been a pair of ragged claws, Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” 1915 T.S. Elliot
I want to tell you an odd story that might make you believe in Christmas again. Or not. It's human characters include a virgin queen, a dope addicted Emperor, a crusty sea captain clawing his way to the top, some cannibalisticely inclined pirates, a pair of Scottish kings and a serially espoused alchemist. Its non-human benchmarks run from a bowl of boiling urine to a great pile of bird poop and culminate in a crimson decapedal arthropod, all bringing new meaning to the phrase, “Merry Christmas”.
The crab instructs its young: "Walk straight ahead -- like me." “
Indian proverb
It all begins in 1591 when English Queen Elizabeth I (above) dispatched three ships on a three year voyage to seek the wealth of the Spice Islands, beyond India. That gamble paid such huge profits that three years later, when the second expedition sank, the investors wasted no time dispatching a third. And three years later, when it came back with several Queens' ransoms in its holds,  "The Virgin Queen" Elizabeth granted a charter to the investors, known as the Governor and the Company of Merchants of London,. And thus was born the English East India Company.
You cannot teach a crab to walk straight.”
Aristophanes
But there was already a Dutch East India Company, and a Portuguese one as well, and they did not want to share their profits. The competition got so cut throat, and profits so tight that in 1609 King James I of England (aka James VI of Scotland) threatened to revoke the company charter if it didn't show a profit for three years running. So in September of 1612, when the rap-scallion Captain Thomas Best led the tenth trading squadron into the north western Indian port of Surat, and found 16 Portuguese ships waiting for him, he had claws for concern.
Have you ever watched a crab on the shore crawling backward in search of the Atlantic Ocean, and missing? That's the way the mind of man operates.”
H. L. Mencken
Captain Best made a quick deal with the local Mughal Governor, Sardar Khan, to open a trading post, probably because Khan was putting down a local rebellion and needed the bribes Best was offering.  But any deal had to be approved by Kahn's boss, the Emperor Jahangir (above), a Sunni Muslim who was best known for four things: his opium addiction, his alcohol addiction, his sex addiction, and the Jesuit Catholic priests who resided in his court. Captain Best worried that Jahangir would favor the Portuguese Catholics over the Protestant English, so he sidled his ships 12 miles south to the little port of Suvali, to await the Emperor's decision. Then, on 28 October 1612, four Portuguese galleons appeared, trapping Best against the shore.
If you didn't catch anything when fishing, then a crab is a fish.”
Russian proverb
After thinking things over for 24 hours, Best decided to start shooting. He broke out of the trap, sailing rings around the clumsy Portuguese ships and leading three of them to run aground. Captain Best's boldness impressed Jahangir, and actually he didn't like the Portuguese Jesuits very much, as they were so militantly anti-Muslim, and his promised share of the new English business profits also helped him decide. So in January of 1613 the Emperor granted the English a trading post, or a factory,  in Surat. The shell was cracked, and the omnivorous English came scurrying in, snapping up everything they could.
Let the crab take counsel with its leg.”
Samoan proverb
Over the next thirty years, Great Britain mussel-ed first the Portuguese and then the Dutch out of India. And in December of 1643, the 800 ton East India ship “Royal Mary”, under Captain William Mynors, was exploring the edges of their new shell, 220 miles due south of the western tip of Java and ten degrees south of equator, when a lookout spotted green earth on the southern horizon. Mynors did not attempt to land, but he noted the island's position on his charts and he named the mysterious 9 mile long landmass with a mountain on each end, after the date of its discovery. Over time, and by general agreement, the division between the English sphere of influence in India and Burma, and the remaining Dutch influence in Malaysia, ran right down the middle of Christmas Island.
Until a crab finds itself in a very hot pot of soup, it will never understand that water can be both cold and hot.”
African proverb
Then, in 1669, and 12,500 miles away, in the German port of Hamburg, a merchant named Hennig Brand was slaving over a hot bowl of urine. Brand had already gone through the dowries of two wives, and his financial failure bore all the marks of an amateur alchemist – he was almost blind from reading ancient books on sorcery by candle light, almost broke from buying ancient books on sorcery, and his hands were scared with acid and alkali burns. Brand was intent on finding the miraculous Sorcerers Stone, which would turn base metals into gold and make him rich, and the unpleasant recipe he was trying to tweak called for boiling urine for 16 hours.
A crab does not give birth to a bird.”
African Proverb
Brand's second wife, Margaretha, must have been shell shocked. The stench from her husband's
experiments was discouraging to visitors, the heating bill to keep the urine boiling was literally burning a hole in their savings, and they were reduced to eating see food. The minuscule amount of urine syrup Hennig Brand produced did not turn anything into gold. Dried to a powder, it did however faintly glow. And that, what ever “that” was, was enough to get a couple of sympathetic scientists to buy the formula, giving Hennig enough to redeem his wedding ring from the prawn broker.
A lame crab walks straight.”
Afghan proverb
In 1737 another broke scientist sold the recipe for urine syrup to the French Academy of Sciences, and the world finally learned what Hennig Brand had actually synthesized. He had called it “phosphoros” - Greek for the bringer of light. It took another forty years before a Swedish scientists discovered that Brand had actually been throwing away most of the phosphorus he had produced, and that the element phosphorus made plants really, really happy - it was a revolutionary fertilizer, or would be if anybody could find a large enough toilet to harvest enough urine residue.
The crab that walks too far, falls into the pot.”
Haitian Proverb
Proof of just such a gigantic toilet arrived via the Royal Mail in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1885. It was a package containing a single fist sized tan colored rock which the sender had picked up on Christmas Island, twenty years earlier, but could not identify it. He was now seeking the help of a Scotsman, raised and educated in Canada – Geologist Doctor John Murray.  To his shock, Dr. Murray found the nondescript rock was almost pure phosphate of lime – solidified weathered bird poop. Dr. Murray quickly did some research and discovered that no one had ever actually claimed to own Christmas Island. Even though he had never set eyes upon the island, Murray immediately urged the British government to seize it. And in June of 1888, the H.M.S. Imperieuse raised the Union Jack over this ancient avian toilet, claiming Christmas for Queen Victoria.
That means that the crab can eat his victim's brain, absorbing his mind intact...Once they were men; now they are land crabs.'”
Attack of the Crab Monsters” 1957 – Roger Corman
Dr. Murray also filed a personal mining claim, which caught the attention of another avaricious Scotsman, this one with his own kingdom 350 miles south-southwest of Christmas Island - George Clunies-Ross - the recognized King of the Cocos, or Coconut, Islands. Assuming the Scottish geologist must be looking for gold, Clunies-Ross sent out claim jumpers. They found no gold, but an estimated 200 million tons of phosphate. There was so much molting rock at both ends of Christmas Island that the two greedy Scotsmen agreed to share.  And in 1891 Dr. Murray and Clunies-Ross were granted a joint license to mine phosphate as “The Christmas Island Phosphate Company”. The first shipment was sold to Japan in 1901.
We will rest in the caves and plan our assault upon the world of men!”
Attack of the Crab Monsters” 1957 – Roger Corman
After one visit to the toilet source of his new wealth, the newest member of the upper crustaceans, Doctor Sir John Murray, contented himself endorsing royalty checks and accepting honors, while George Clunies-Ross ran the open pit mines on Christmas.   In response to George's kelp wanted ads, he hired 200 Chinese coolies, five Shikh policemen to watch over them, and eight European bosses to boss them around. The workers were encouraged to bring their wives, but their rent for company housing was deducted from their paychecks, which could otherwise only be used in the company store. The Kings and Queens of Christmas even insisted on approving the name of every child born on their property. Any employee who quit was permanently expelled from Christmas And they may have been the lucky ones. In the first four years of mining 550 workers died of beri-beri.
Well, Herman told his folks about the girl that he found, They said, 'Herman there must be other girls around. 'Cause crabs walk sideways, lobsters walk straight, and we won't let you take her for your mate.'”
The Smothers Brothers
And at last we arrive at that other, previously unappreciated, natural resource in Christmas's open forests between the highland toliets  - something between   44 to 106 million red Gecarcoidea natilis (the red land crab of Christmas). Miners could easily capture the 4 ½ inch wide Decapoda (10 legged) creatures, and one crab easily provided a meal for two men.  And the chickens and pigs abandoned on Christmas Island, which every where else in the world had decimated native species, merely fed the opportunistic omnivorous, carnivorous arthropodal occupants of Christmas Island.  Which is how the crabs here have survived. For ten months each year these mini-monsters remained hidden in their burrows and caves inland, eating wayward pigs and chickens. But every October, as the full moon approaches, and with males leading the way, the Christmas crabs march in mass cross-country to the sea.
She said, 'Let me talk to your mom and dad, I'll show them crabs really aren't that bad.' But they turned her away 'What will the neighbors say.' And they laughed at the funny walk she had.”
The Smothers Brothers
For ten thousand years the Christmas crabs had only to contend with each other, and the 40 other species of crabs on Christmas. With the invasion of humans to mine the phosphate there were now roads and railroads, dogs, horses, cars and cattle and bored children with sticks. But in an echo of other tales, the greatest threat to the Christmas crabs remains their fellow Christmas crabs. And still, with clinking and clapping claws, the Christmas crabs march to the coast to mate, brood their eggs, and then spew the offspring in their hundreds of thousands from their abdomens, into the surf. So numerous each year are these tiny plantonic future crabs that they have fed generations of 20 ton whale sharks which appear off Christmas Island to scoop up the bounty with yawning mouths, without endangering tomorrow's crab domination.
Then one day on the sandbar what did Herman see, But his little ol' Sally walking straight as can be. He said, "Sweetheart now they'll take you in the family!" She said, "Don't you sweetheart me! Hic!"
The Smothers Brothers
In 1955, the United Nations paid off the last King of the Cocos and Christmas, John Cecil Clunies -Ross, paying him $6 ¼ million to go away.  He promptly sank the windfall in a shipping company which promptly sank, leaving John an empty shell of himself,. Today Australia owns Christmas, and the workers own the Phosphate mines. The democracy down under now uses Christmas as an out of sight out of mind refugee center, storing those boat humans who didn't drown while seeking freedom from poverty, political and religious oppression, under secure lock and key,  until they can be returned to their oppression.
Christmas for crabs; their island blooms with a rare largesse of flesh mashed to pulp on rocks —
They too migrate, ten million scuttles, on their yearly prickly walk from forest to sea. But roads are cleared for them, cars parked, as the needful eggs pull them down —a crimson shawl over grinning cliffs. We make space for the moon-mad crabs...”
P. S. Cottier
The heartless annual death toll is enough to make you lose faith in Santa Claws, and to see precious little difference between the opportunistic omnivorous, carnivorous cannibalistic humans on Christmas Island and the Christmas in the island crabs.

The right eye looks south. Apricot moonscape, centuries upon centuries of fish and crustaceans digested from sea to sky to soil. The left eye looks north. In and out of view, the swell permitting, Charging  from
Flying Fish Cove to the other side of Murray Hill, the refugee bus squelches the carapace of a red crab on its way to breed. Both eye stalks face west, seeing without seeing...at the edge of hearing, wave upon wave of scarlet crabs scuttling like lunatics across the forest, the spectacular migration of a hundred-million-strong battalion scratching its way toward the camp, a red carpet unstoppably rolling, two hundred million pincers now hacking at the razor wire, klikk, klakk, klikk, klakk, klikk”
Antoine Cassar
- 30 -

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

YES, VIRGINIA

I know of only two moments that justifies the sin of pride. Both are a Horace Mann moment, the first, of course, when you have “won some victory for humanity”, and the second is when a child raised by you does the same. Consider the example of Philip F. O'Hanlon, who in his own life achieved wealth and professional and public recognition. In 1886, right out of N.Y. University Medical School, this sixth generation physician became the head of surgery at the new Gouverneur Community Hospital, on Manhattan’s lower east side.. He was appointed the State Medical Examiner in 1891, and in 1895 became New York City Coroner and Police Surgeon. The later two posts made him famous, and his testimony front page news in several big murder trials. But it was as a father that Philip O'Hanlon won his victory for humanity, because his daughter was Laura Virginia O”Hanlon.
Laura Virginia (above, she was named after her mother), was born July 20th, 1889, the same year the family leased a larger home, at 115 West 95th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, just a block west of Central Park. It was a relatively new brownstone, with a red brick front and peaked roof, having just one previous owner. As she reached the age of reason, she decided she preferred the name Virginia. And in the late summer of 1897, Virginia approached her father with a simple but profound question, belying her innocence and tender age. 
Fifty years later Virginia remembered the event this way: “Quite naturally I believed in Santa Claus, for he had never disappointed me. But when less fortunate little boys and girls said there wasn't any Santa Claus, I was filled with doubts. I asked my father, and he was a little evasive on the subject....It was a habit in our family that whenever any doubts came up as to how to pronounce a word or some question of historical fact was in doubt, we wrote to the Question and Answer column in “The Sun”. Father would always say, “If you see it in the The Sun, it's so,” and that settled the matter. “Well, I'm just going to write The Sun and find out the real truth,” I said to father. “He said, “Go ahead, Virginia. I'm sure The Sun will give you the right answer, as it always does.”
Consider for a moment this privileged Victorian child, Virginia O'Hanlon  (above) -  the daughter of a well known community leader in New York City. At eight years of age she knew children who were less fortunate than herself,  knew them well enough to talk with them, to share the theology of childhood. She was raised in a home in which the family shared knowledge, and the joy of discovery. Parents and their only child learned together. And she was encouraged to seek truth on her own.
So early in September of 1897, Virginia wrote the following letter. “Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun it’s so.” Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” She mailed it to The Sun newspaper offices, at 280 Broadway, New York City.
The Sun (“It Shines for All”) had been published in New York since 1833, but in 1868 it was acquired by its most famous editor, Charles Anderson Dana (above). Under Dana “The Sun” was a strongly Democratic newspaper, and “a newspaper man's newspaper”, and first of the modern newspapers, introducing editorials, society news, and human-interest stories, along side the “news”, all forced into eight pages or less, two editions every weekday, and recently even a Sunday edition, with a circulation at its peak of 130,000.  Dana collected about him young, talented writers, and who followed his concisely stated revolutionary approach to news: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
But as Dana aged, “The Sun” became “notoriously inconsistent”. Others improved upon his method, like Joseph Pulitzer at the “New York World”, and built larger circulations, like William Randolph Hearst via his “Yellow Journalism”. By Charles Dana's death in 1897, and his replacement by his son Paul, “The Sun” had slipped to fourth along Newspaper Row (aka Park Row, above ) in lower Manhattan - “The World”, “The Tribune”, “The Times” and now lastly “The Sun”.
It was one of Dana's talented young writers, now an editor, Edward Mitchell, who was the father of modern Science Fiction. And in early September Mitchell handed Virginia O”Hanlon's letter to a 58 year old editorial writer, Francis Pharcellus Church (above). He was a Columbia graduate, who had reported on the horrors of the Civil War. With his brother, Church co-founded two successful magazines. According to Mitchell, after reading Virgiinia's letter  “At first he pooh-poohed the subject a little. Then he took it, and in a short time handed me (the) article” And on September 21, 1897 in a standard 500 word unsigned editorial, printed in the middle of page seven, the journeyman writer responded to the little girl's letter.
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age...Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence....Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus...Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
The letter was not an instant success. It was not until the 1920's that the newspaper reprinted it annually. But by 1930, “The Sun” was receiving over 163,000 requests for reprints every year. Since then it has appeared in thousands of newspapers and books, decade after decade , and remains the most reprinted editorial in the English language. But it was not until after his death on April 11, 1906, that The Sun broke their own rules and named Francis Church as the author. Church never married and had no children. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
In 1898, young William Randolph Hearst, in building his own newspaper empire, drove America into war with Spain. Virginia's father, Dr. Philip O'Hanlon, volunteered as lieutenant in the Medical Reserve Corps. He survived that service, and was listed as still alive in 1920, and still living on 95th street, although now on the south side of the street.
Virginia O'Hanlon  (above) received her B.A. from Hunter College in 1910, a Master's in Education from Columbia University in 1912, and the same year she began teaching underprivileged grade school children in New York City schools. In 1913 she married Edward Douglas, but he abandoned her just before she gave birth to her daughter, Laura Temple Douglas, in March of 1914. She was eventually promoted to principal, and in 1930 was even awarded her doctorate from Fordham University. Her dissertation was titled “The Importance of Play.” Her daughter had seven children.
One of those grandchildren, Virginia Rogers (above, with Virginia), remembered as a child visiting her grandmother in New York City. “Gram was a lady. Very elegant. She would dress up to go across the street (to the)...post office. At Christmastime, there would be literally box-loads of mail addressed to my grandmother.” Another granddaughter said, “She was a woman ahead of her time.”
Virginia never took credit for the column her letter inspired. She told her nephew, James Temple, “All I did was ask the question. It was Mr. Church who did something wonderful.” Virginia told an interviewer, Church's column “gave me a special place in life I didn’t deserve. It also made me try to live up to the philosophy of the editorial and to try to make glad the heart of childhood.
What Virginia did was to teach at Brooklyn’s P.S.401, which held classes for chronically ill children confined at home or in hospitals. Eventually she became a principle at the school. Shortly before she retired she wrote another letter, this one addressed to the “Children of Yesterday.” She pleaded, “Some little children doubt that Santa still lives because often their letters ...never seem to reach him. Nurses in hospitals know who some of these children are. Teachers in great city schools will know others....Won’t you try to seek out these trusting children of today and make sure that their letters in some way reach Santa Claus so that “he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.” Laura Virginia O'Hanlon Douglas had made that her life's work, finally retiring in 1950.
Nine years later she moved to North Chatham, 15 miles south of Albany, New York, to live with her daughter. During the Christmas holidays in 1969, heart problems forced Virginia to be admitted to the Columbia Memorial Hospital, in Hudson, New York. There she was visited by Santa Clause (above), disguised as John Harms, a hospital maintenance man, who often visited patients. He kissed Virginia on the cheek, and she whispered in his ear that she still believed. Virginia died, in the Barnwell Nursing Home, in Valatie, N.Y., on May 13, 1974. She was 81 years old.
Her original letter, which the newspaper had returned, was saved in a scrapbook by a granddaughter and somehow survived a house fire. Today, the brownstone at 115 West 95th street (above), is occupied by The Studio School, where children from “an economically diverse student body” (20% receive financial aid), “ learn to value intellectual and creative ideas, and to take pleasure in the process of discovery.” The school maintains a Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship Fund to help students with financial needs.
Late in her life, Virginia wrote the following. “Those whom Santa visits think of Christmas as a beautiful, sacred occasion which it should be — but today seldom is. But for every child tucked into bed Christmas night with his new toy, there are hundreds, no thousands, who huddle in ragged bed clothing sobbing in the night at a fate at best cruel.” And she asked us all to “Remember the children at Christmas.”  
Will you?
- 30 -

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