Thursday, November 30, 2017



As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from disturbing dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous cockroach.
This, the most famous opening sentence of modern literature. And this, the most famous closing sentence of modern thought:

What we cannot speak of, of that we must be silent.

Between the two, there passed a life, Gregor Samsa’s life. It was not the life many suppose — a short life, a  filthy life, a gathering of dust, a festering wound, a dessicated death. Franz Kafka knew only what he knew, and his famous 1915 report disclosed all it could. But Kafka’s early death not only deprived us of a gifted writer; it also kept him, and all of us, from knowing the full story of Gregor Samsa, a life stranger than fiction, and worthy of contemplation.

From May of 1943 until July, 1945, Gregor, or G, as he preferred to be known, lived in a refurbished chicken coop behind my bungalow up on the mesa at Los Alamos. Both of us being bachelors, and neither of us involved in the technical demands of the project, we spent many long evenings talking, musing, and finally, plotting G’s path to transcendence.

I use the word advisedly; it was his word, the theme which had emerged for him ever more clearly in three countries, over two world wars, through multiple careers. Together, we nursed his wound (“the unhealing wound”, he called it, “the hidden wound that will not hide” , the “dolorous stroke”. He was referring, of course, to the place in his dorsal carapace, just over his heart, which his father had damaged so long ago with a fiercely hurled apple. It still oozed brown liquid, staining his clothes — causing him much embarrassment.) He understood his mission as a species of quest.  The object: the Holy Grail of transformation, a global urging of consciousness from bestial to human. A metamorphosis. Who but he would be better placed to break the spell on those of us wandering in the Waste Land?

The years since his death have not been encouraging. As grail hero, G was an utter failure. But as a person, a human being, if I may dare name him so, he profoundly affected me, and everyone with whom he came into deep contact. I have waited all this while to tell his story because I thought there were surely others more qualified to do so. But more importantly, I hoped that the passage of time would prove G correct, that his sacrifice would help restore the land, and free the waters of human kindness. By now it seems that if we, as a species, are to learn kindness, we will have to learn it from the unkind, in repellent pedagogy. 

But of G himself, how many of us were struck by
...that best portion of a good man’s life. His little, nameless, unremembered acts
of kindness and of love.
No matter that that good man was a cockroach.


My name is John Aschenfeld. I am a professor emeritus of History at Princeton, specializing in the History of Science. It was my good fortune to be asked by my friend and colleague, Harry Smyth, to be “present at the creation,” as it were, to be on his team, researching and writing the “Smyth Report: Atomic Energy for Military Purposes,” the official History of the Manhattan Project. 

Creation? More like Destruction. Had I really been present at the Creation, I would, like Alfonso X, King of Castile, have offered up some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.

I will describe G’s role “on the mesa” at the appropriate time. Let me deal first with the obvious objections of those readers literate enough to remember Franz Kafka’s so-called masterpiece, Die Verwandlung,  the Metamorphosis. By using the term “so called,” I in no way mean to impugn this marvelous work, a narrative which shocked a generation, and initiated, even defined, what is fondly remembered as “the modern age” in literature. But an author can write only about what he knows, and as sensitive and insightful as Kafka was, it turns out that he, like many others, was taken in by a scheme more masterful than his own, a plan issuing from the great heart of a transformed Gregor, and effected through a remarkable Putzfrau, whose cleanup was more than professional.

By G’s report, Anna Marie SchleƟweg was 63 at the time of his Verwandlung. But for him she might easily have passed for 40 when shoving her way through a crowded market, or for 140 in the swarming shadows of Walpurgisnacht. What kind of a person, he wondered, could open the door of a man’s bedroom, a room she had been cleaning weekly for four years, open the door, not find the room empty as usual, but occupied by a five and a half foot bug, what kind of a person could take in this scene, with the thing rushing about frantically, crashing into furniture, and finally secreting itself under the couch, what kind of a person could merely stand there, calmly, with her arms folded?
Gregor still cherished this early impression of true magnificence.

There is an injunction in the Yi Ging, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes: “the Superior Man sees many things, but lets many things pass.” And its determinant: “The Superior Man displays the highest virtue by embracing all things.”

Anna Marie, G asserted, was a Superior Man. She listened and she watched, but she did not let everything pass. She heard, for instance, how piteously G’s sister Grete wept, and saw Herr and Frau Samsa paralyzed with denial. It was her great wisdom to leave the door to Gregor’s room ajar as much as possible, so that worlds might intermingle, so that an uncanny convection might agitate the air and find some resolution.

Gregor then listened carefully at the slightly open door, and heard frequent sobbing. He heard slow, dragging footsteps. He heard his father say, “If he could understand us, then perhaps we might come to some agreement with him. But as it is...” followed by a long silence. And then, sister Grete: “He must go. That’s the only solution, Father. You must try to stop thinking that this is Gregor. That’s the root of all our trouble. How can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he’d have realized long ago that human beings can’t live with such a creature. He’d have gone away of his own accord.” So much did she love him. So much did she trust him. So much, in fact, did she know him.

From that moment on, the thought of disappearance became G’s ideé fixe. “Wahnvorstellung”, he called it. His crazy notion. He would simply go of his own accord. He would make it his decision. He would spare them the agony and guilt of such a verdict.

But how to do it? Here his astute Jewish thinking did inform against him. Were he to announce his decision to the family, they would think they had forced him out, and feel searingly guilty. Were he simply to disappear, they would spare no effort to find him, and failing that, he would be a permanent wound in their hearts, even in his father’s heart, the wounded heart of the wounder. Confused, he was. But Anna Marie had an answer to his neurotic debates: after listening to him while sweeping and straightening up his room, she sat her old bones down on the floor, leaned against the wall, and addressed him under his couch.
“ It’s simple,” she said. “Play dead.”
G was amazed he’d never thought of it. “It’s easy,” she explained. You just lie there.”


Here was her initial plan: She would discover him "dead", there would be mourning for a month, a year, then all would be able to get on with their lives. They would not be the only family in Prague to have lost a son, especially since the War.
“But they would bury me,” was G’s obvious objection. I’d suffocate.” And plan "dead" dead-ended there.

But only for a while. For shortly after their discussion, Sebastian Kramar, Bruno Klofac, and Matthias Soukup were allowed to move in as paying guests, Zimmerherren, roomers — an attempt by the family to bring new life into the morbid atmosphere, and to replace Gregor’s salary as the mainstay of the family income.

It did not take long for Anna Marie to see a possibility in the new situation: the three men had been recently let go from the same failed business, all were looking for work, and after two or three months, all would be desperate for money. Would they like to help the Samsas out, and earn some money besides? How could they say no? What else did they have to do? Did they know about the thing in the (now) locked room?
“What thing?” they asked her.
“Come, I’ll show you.”

Kramar, Klofac, and Soukup reacted as one might expect — with surprise, then horror, then fear. It was only Anna Marie’s calm that kept them frozen in G’s presence. Without explaining the genesis of the situation, she, with Gregor’s assent and support, was able to make a clear and convincing case for action. And G’s behavior was reassuring: he would not hurt them; he needed their help.

As predicted, a combination of empathy and self-interest prevailed, and the following complex plan took shape:
— Gregor would act sicker and sicker, and eventually, convincingly, would play dead.
— But just before T-day, (T for “Tod” — “death” in German), Anna Marie would leave his door open, and Gregor would venture out of his room to the feigned surprise and shock of the roomers.
— Horrified, they would announce their imminent departure, and threaten to sue the Samsas for emotional damages. This, Gregor assured me, would have made his parents wary of pursuing any leads as to their future whereabouts.
— On the next morning, Anna Marie would arrive early, before G’s parents were out of bed, and would announce his death in a simple, if brutal, fashion. Half awake, and thoroughly shaken, the 
— Anna Marie would then “dispose” of the body, while the roomers would inappropriately demand breakfast.
— Herr Samsa would in all likelihood throw them out immediately, and they and Gregor would all disappear at the same time, for seemingly unrelated reasons.

Quite the plot! The insect and the Putzfrau were proud of their playwriting. When the parents were out, Anna Marie would move Gregor into a damaged crate left out on the balcony, and would lower it into a waiting wagon borrowed from Klofac’s brother-in-law. From Prague, it was only a day’s journey to Vienna, where a potentially remunerative situation had been rumored.

Well. Hindsight can be arrogant, and as one who has got the story straight from the roach’s mouth, I have little right to pontificate. Still, acute readers of Kafka will be able to judge for themselves where his report is thin and his characters’ motivation doubtful. G’s own story explains the oddities at the end of Kafka’s story: why his door was so often left ajar; why Kramar, Klofac, and Soukup were so united in their behavior; and not as shocked on seeing Gregor “for the first time” as one might expect; why Klofac’s indignant speech to the Samsa’s seemed so prepared, so final, and so calculated to discourage further contact; why Anna Marie’s “discovery” of Gregor occurred so early in the morning, and her presentation was so brusque and almost comedic. These people were not actors; they played their roles with little finesse. Pathetic smiles and unexplained “fits of humility” were the best they could come up with in performance. Rude mechanicals. Yet it was enough to confuse Franz Kafka.

Please forgive my pocket-sized excursion into literary criticism. It is not my field of expertise.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Most of the noise concerning the F35 issues is about NOISE -- and rightly so, as many Vermonters will be hurt, their lives and homes devalued and in some cases destroyed. 

But let's not forget another aspect, at the moment relatively noiseless, but in the long run, equally worthy of note: the military's push for the F-35 is intimately connected with Obama's plan to upgrade the US's nuclear strike capability. The current F-16 fleet is incapable of carrying and delivering the newly-designed "smart" nuclear bombs. The F-35 has been designed to do so. 

By supporting the development of the F-35, in Burlington or not, Vermonters are willy-nilly upholding the US's evasion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- to which it is a signatory -- which contains a pledge to slowly lower nuclear strike capacity to zero.

The anti-F-35 movement itself has bracketed this issue, in part because the local, clearly predictable effects will be so severe, but partly out of wariness about being seen as "unpatriotic". What I think is unpatriotic is to allow one's own country to be the linchpin and supplier of WMDs beyond any local nightmare. 

Let this remain an undertone at least in the current symphony of noise.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


The South Burlington and Winooski City Councils are to be commended for arranging public forums on the proposed F-35 basing.  The opportunity for public process and the Council’s willingness to listen to resident concerns and opinions on the basing is most welcome.

The Air Force recently released a revised Draft Environmental Impact Statement, relating to proposed basing. After reviewing the revised DEIS, and other relevant information, I want state my strong and complete opposition to the basing of the F-35 jets at the Burlington Air Guard base, because of the damaging impact it will have on our communities. The reasons for my opposition are as follows:
Reliability of the Data 

The revised DEIS includes estimates of housing and population impact based on 2010 Census data. The estimates are significantly higher than the figures presented in the initial Draft EIS. However, the estimates are still incorrect and significantly understate the number of housing units and people that are located in the high noise zone. Using the reliable data source of municipal assessments / tax parcel data, the properties have been identified by property owner, address and indicate the number of housing units affected is substantially greater than reported in the revised DIES. This irrefutable data indicates that the Revised DEIS understates the number of housing units, located within the 65 db DNL zone (Scenario 2), by 505 units and understates the population affected by approximately 900. The EIS must be revised to accurately reflect the impact of the high noise on our homes and residents.  


A huge land area, encompassing thousands of homes and families is located within the designated accident potential zone area. The DEIS states that the F-35's will have a significantly higher risk of crash, as compared with the F-16's.  The very recent crash of an F-16 in Arizona at Luke AFB illustrates the risk.  Fortunately, this crash was in a rural area and not a populated area, and there were no casualties. The high crash zone near the Burlington Air Guard space is the most densely populated region of our entire state.  In other communities, the Air Force has gone to court to prevent residential development from occurring in Accident Potential Zones. This same standard of safety should be applied in this case.


There is credible evidence that children are at much higher risk of negative health impacts due to high noise levels. The DEIS does not adequately address the impact on the health of children and should be amended to include recent studies, including the study completed by the World Health Organization. Over one thousand children will be impacted.

Several schools are located within the 65 db DNL zone and would be negatively impacted by high noise levels. The South Burlington and Winooski school boards both oppose the basing because of the negative impact on their hundreds of students. The DEIS did not even consider the presence of the recently developed Community College of Vermont, located in downtown Winooski. This multi million dollar facility, serving hundreds of students, would also be impacted by the high noise. 
Property Values 

There is an abundance of evidence confirming that airport noise has a detrimental / negative impact on property values. The DEIS only briefly examined this issue; on one hand, recognizing the impact on property values, but neglecting to quantity the impact. There are many academic studies, as well as local market evidence, that should be reviewed in order to assess the impact of the basing on property values. There are thousands of housing units in the proposed 65 db DNL zone. The loss of equity for these mostly modestly priced homes could be financially devastating for the owners. The potential loss in home values must be considered as a cost of this basing and examined more closely in the EIS. The analysis should identify the value of the residential property which is located within the high noise zone, and estimate the potential loss in value of this property, as well as the potential cost to mitigate the noise damages, if mitigation is possible. 

Municipal and State Tax Revenues

Related to potential property value loss, is the potential loss of municipal tax revenues. The DEIS did not address this issue.  The EIS should quantify the potential loss of state and municipal tax revenues as a significant impact of the proposed basing. 
Quality of Life  

Because of the high noise levels, the quality of life will be significantly diminished for over 8,000 residents, including many disadvantaged families, elderly residents and children. The repeated exposure to excessive jet noise, up to 28 times a day, will greatly diminish the quality of living for these communities.


If the F-35's are based in Vermont, the 65 db DNL noise zone in Winooski will be expanded to include nearly 80% of all housing units in the City.  Large sections of South Burlington, Burlington and Williston are also impacted.  Aside from the very real negative impacts of high noise on property values, health and quality of life, the high noise levels will also bring the collateral Federal label to our communities and homes as being “incompatible with residential use” and “incompatible with educational use”. The FAA and Department of Defense both have policies which explicitly define this.  I believe that this will stigmatize these communities and homes through the perception that they are a less attractive and safe place to live. The affected neighborhoods and communities will be burdened by the negative reputation imposed by this Federal “label”.  Who would want to live in a community or home which has been labeled as “incompatible with residential use”?  Who would want to send their children to school in a community which carries this label?

Available Alternatives

As the DEIS informs us, there are several potential sites that are better suited to the F-35 basing. I fear that the decision is being controlled by politics.  I understand that “mission” is a controlling element in the basing decision and I am afraid that this somewhat vague term will be used to make Burlington the top choice, despite it being the worst choice from an environmental standpoint. If the Air Force and Air Guard are serious about transparency, there should be an investigation in the selection process, specifically focusing on the glaring “mistakes” in the application, which led to Burlington being erroneously selected as the preliminary top choice for the basing.

Support for Guard 

The Air National Guard has a commendable record of service to our country and state. As a community, we can support the Air Guard without supporting the F-35's. The DEIS indicates that only a small number of jobs will result from the basing, even under the most expansive plan. Air Guard leadership has publicly stated that it is unlikely that the base would ever close, while recognizing that the mission could change. The host of economic benefits associated with the ANG will continue, even if the mission is changed.  Most importantly, the marginal benefits of the F-35 basing should be weighed against the costs. For the affected communities, the costs are enormous and the benefits are minimal.

Steve Allen
87 East Spring Street

Winooski, VT  

Monday, June 10, 2013


A common assertion among proponents of basing an F-35 squadron at our Burlington airport is that noise from military aircraft is perceived as "the sound of freedom." This seems odd.
Freedom is complex. But for simplicity, let's examine a most American summary -- that of FDR's "four freedoms", a proposal for four fundamental feedoms everyone should enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
What do our military aircraft, noise aside, have to do with providing them?
Do these planes provide freedom of speech? No, the First Amendment gives us that.
Freedom of worship? Again, no. Again, the Constitution.
Freedom from want? Here, certainly not, and rather the opposite, as the enormous sums to develop, build, and support them drain the treasury for domestic needs.
Ah, fear. Surely they make us less afraid of "the enemy" -- whoever that might be. But what enemy has the air or missile capability to attack us? None on the horizon. And our overseas attacks to pre-empt any capability seem to be creating more, not fewer, enemies, enemies whose tools are not targets such aircraft. Our fear, if anything, should be increased.
To me, freedom comes not from our warplanes, but from collaboration with nature and humans trying to be healed.

Tell it to the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban? They too don't hear the roar in the air as the sound of freedom. Nor the buzzing.

Friday, March 29, 2013


“There is something repulsive about it.”

This was the composer’s comment about his Fifth Symphony after returning from a European tour conducting it.

True, Tchaikovsky was often neurotic about his compositions, announcing his joy with them to his brother, Modest, then doubting them — and himself — after performances. Schizy. He could fly like a swan, but once on the ground, he would waddle.

Waddling is one thing, but what is “repulsive” about the Fifth? Some clues present themselves.

In a notebook page dated 13 April 1888, the year of its composition, Tchaikovsky outlines a scenario for the first movement: “Introduction: Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro: (1) Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself in the embrace of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.”

A hopeful beginning. In opening the work, Tchaikovsky cuts to the core. The opening theme in the low clarinets recurs in every movement, commenting on other themes, or challenging them.

Thus, the opening theme carries a narrative function beyond its musical one, and it doesn’t take much imagination to hear it as embodying the Fate Tchaikovsky invokes in his primordial program. So let’s call it the “Fate theme”, and see how it functions throughout the piece.

Tchaikovsky always wore his heart on his compositional sleeve: the sublime slow movement is the expressive core of the whole work. The opening string chorale before the famous horn solo warns the audience to take this movement seriously, even religiously.

Halfway through this erotic movement, the orchestra begins a stringendo and crescendo culminating in fortississimo (fff) trumpets blaring out the Fate theme. It’s worse than hearing the steps of your parents entering the room when you are making out with your lover, or a cuckolded spouse returning home early. There’s only one possible effect of this interruption: to scare the hell out of the audience, and make it regret its emotional vulnerability. “Oh no you don’t. You’ll be sorry.” The avenging angel bares his sword.

If that’s the way the Fate theme can function, what is the meaning of its triumphant takeover of the last movement? Critics have always found this the least successful. Is it because it’s overwrought and only barely convincing? Protesting too much, and as such, repulsive?

I think there is little mystery what the XXX refers to in Tchaikovsky’s note to Modest. Throughout their extensive correspondence, both closeted gay men dealt in code with their “sickness”. X, it was called, or sometimes Z, in unmistakable contexts.  But in this case, there is more to it than that. What was going on for Tchaikovsky at this time?

It had been three years since Tchaikovsky had produced a major orchestral work — his Manfred Symphony. Manfred, a strange, programmatic inclusion in the series of numbered symphonies. Why Manfred?

Manfred is the subject of a dramatic poem by Byron, the story of a Swiss nobleman tortured by mysterious guilt. “Thou lovedst me/Too much,” he declares concerning his sister, “as I loved thee: we were not made/To torture thus each other, though it were/The deadliest sin to love as we have loved.”
Tchaikovsky was sympathetic to Byron’s love for his half-sister, and this for him brought up the dangerous theme of incest. At the time of writing Manfred, Tchaikovsky was already deeply in love with his nephew, Bob, his sister’s son, then 15, Tchaikovsky’s favorite age for sex with boys.  The composer dedicated his Sixth Symphony to him, and awarded him the lion’s share of his will.

Problematical family dynamics. XXX indeed, and a perfect vehicle for Tchaikovsky’s brooding about his sexuality. The noble outsider, rejected by a conventional world. He later disowned the piece, calling it “abominable…I loathe it deeply.” Sound familiar? Repulsive?

And what followed the Fifth? His fantasy overture, Hamlet, overlapping the scoring of the Fifth, and beginning again with a “Fate” theme. Over the first page, Tchaikovsky had written. “To be or not to be?” The Fifth — sandwiched between Manfred and Hamlet.

Within five years, Tchaikovsky was dead, probably by his own hand or tongue, possibly of arsenic, possibly of cholera, nine days after premiering his death-haunted Sixth Symphony, his Requiem.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


A recent Rasmussen poll found that 70% of Americans “Still Agree with Declaration of Independence.” If that is the case, it may be that they haven’t recently read beneath the fold to the fine print.

There, among others, we find as reasons for revolution a government’s

— refusing Assent to Laws,
— refusing to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people,
— invading the rights of the people,
— obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither,
— obstructing the Administration of Justice,
— keeping among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
— affecting to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power,
— subjecting us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws,
— quartering large bodies of armed troops among us,
— protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit,
— imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,
— cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world,
— depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury,
— transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences,
— taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments,
— transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny.

Because “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury,” the writers and signers of the Declaration conclude that the government is "unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

In their case, they did something about it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012



In his penultimate novella, “Worstward Ho” (1983), Samuel Beckett writes

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

It’s Beckett-ambiguous whether “Fail better” suggests an improvement or a worsening of conditions. What is absolutely clear, though is that the performance of the United States at the recent Rio +20 conference was intended as an energetic worsening thrust.

There has been general agreement that the final ratified agreement was a weak-kneed, weak tea failure, dashing the shrinking hopes of the last twenty years of conferences, and doing little to avert the multiple ecocatastrophes upon us.

The process started with a draft declaration, self-censored, of course, so as to be “realistic”.  Then the US delegation took out its red pencil.

The word “equitable” was deleted from the initial text, as was any mention of the “right” to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality or women’s empowerment. Any clear, enforcable target of preventing two degrees of global warming had to go, any commitment to change “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” along with it, any notion of “decoupling” economic growth from the use of natural resources.

Beyond that, many of the foundations of the original 1992 Rio document had to be erased, including all mentiion of the core principle of that Earth summit — common, but differentiated responsibilities for repair. The original implication was that those who had done the most damage, should take on the greatest burden. Out. No rich country payment without poor country payments too. Liberty for us, our version of equality, and certainly no fraternity.

Could we fail worse than that? Sure. By articulating a positive “green” rationale for corporate greed. We now hear that commodification,  putting a “fair value”, a price on nature — clean air, clean water — is not only a way of making money, but also a way of saving it. In capitalism, if something has no price, it has no value. Grabbing, owning and selling natural resources will help preserve biodiversity, slow climate change, and reduce the pressure for extraction. Capitalism can “save nature”.

A most excellent plan for Fail worse.