Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Intellectual Mine Field



Think.

It's what the brain does. Always. The brain is always thinking, processing information, taking a trip around the block along familiar paths and ruts in the ground from one point of reference to another. Taking information in, running it through the meat grinder and producing a sausage of interpretation. And sometimes those ruts run deep. And unavoidable. And inevitable.

Big words to say the brain is just like a marble rolling down a track. In the back yard. Across the path between the hen house, cock coup and pig stye in the farm of our lives. Around the garden. By the well and toward the river. Plunk! An idea! The ruts run deep. It follows the easiest, maybe only, path. Thinking is comfortable. Thinking is reassuring. Thinking is self satisfying. Thinking is self reinforcing. Thinking is Self.

So don't.

Follow the path, that is. Just because the marble runs that race doesn't make it inevitable. Try another path. Another race. Another meat grinder. Read something you disagree with. Are you a Communist? Read Smith. A Capitalist? Read Marx. A Creationist? Read Darwin. An Athiest? Read the Bhagavad-Gita. A Monarchist? Read the Algonquin Constitution. And don't just push them through the sausage maker of your preconstructed talking points. Read them as someone who belives them will read them. Some thinking brain out there thought this stuff up. And for good reason. To them it made sense. Was meaningful, even. Worth living their lives for. Worth dying for. Think again. Worth dying for. Would you read something some other person felt was worth dying for? However despicable? They thought it. Why not you?

We die for an ephemeral sodium atom in the brain? A neural connection? The machine of the mind? A computer made of carbon? Or maybe a soul? How does that work? I don't know. That is the whole point. I don't know. I don't know. That's why I say...

Borrow that mind for an hour. Take a chance. Believe what you don't believe and sense what you haven't sensed. Feel something felt only by a stranger. Taste the honey of another tongue! Give your brain a holiday! You could lose your mind.

I routinely view things that I disagree with. Mein Kampf. Christian survivalists. Thucydides. Heck, he would be comfortable in the Internet today. Love his blog.

Strain your brain. Twist it with knowledge. Roast it with experience. Birth of a Nation? Scary. But bring it on! The Goulag Archipelago? Long and painful. But lasting. War and Peace? It speaks today. Metropolis? Cool science fiction from the twenties. The Prince? The Art of War? Quills? Shocking! But a shock is only a sense we have not yet felt.

Step outside your brain, the brain you have come to know and love. It's served you well so far. See what it can do with new paths to follow. It's better than you think! Trust your brain. It brought you this far.

Think.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Nine Eleven


I remember 9/11. The horror. The outrage. The feeling of helplessness while I watched the symbols of my culture's greatness crumble with real people inside! Not just Americans, but citizens of the world! It was, "The World Trade Center," after all. Not just "America." Not just, "The Pentagon." This was an attack against "The World!" 2,996 people died on September 11. Besides the US, 62 countries lost citizens in the attacks.

People were jumping off the top of the towers! People like me and the ones I love. Normal Citizens of the World. Christians. Muslims. Jews. Hindus. People. Like you, I immediately saw my loved ones in those towers. In that desperation. In that hell. In that breath away from death. They should not have been there yet. It wasn't their time. It took my breath away.

And what did we do? How did we respond? My daughter called me at work. She was shocked and horrified. Daddy? Did you see what happened? She and I went to New York regularly and considered it a safe place. A welcoming place. A place full of new experiences and science and art and culture and theater and great food and funny people and sidewalks. History, novelty, and lots and lots of nice people. People who loved their city and welcomed visitors. People who gladly extended a helping hand to a stranger. And we loved to be welcomed to their city. To our city. People I'd gladly extend a hand back to in friendship. I have a nephew who lived within blocks of the towers. He saw it crash out his window. How do you process such a monstrosity?

How do you not become a monster in response? This was an attack against the world! Do we attack the world back? Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, was the first world leader to contact President George W. Bush. He offered his condolences and sympathies to the American people, plus an offer. He offered to form a partnership between Russia and the US to hunt down and bring these criminals to justice. Russia had lost over 1,000 people to terrorist attacks and had fought terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We could benefit from mutual cooperation against this attack against the entire civilized world. We could put up a unified, solid front against the forces of chaos and hate and give a resounding “No!” to the workers of terror.

Bush turned him down.

War doesn't remember. War doesn't think. War doesn't feel. War doesn’t commemorate itself. War doesn’t require praise or pardon, reason or remorse, memory or memorials. War doesn't put up monuments. War only kills.

And kills it does. Efficiently. Quickly. Repeatedly. Anonymously. Sometimes brazenly. And sometimes quietly. Always cowardly. Some people profit. Many die. Most suffer.

Former Secretary of State Madame Albright was once asked if the deaths of six hundred thousand Iraqi children was "worth it." "Yes," she said, "It was worth it." Worth what, exactly? What is the ‘it’ that we gained from the hideous deaths of half a million children, which is 125 times the number dead at the World Trade Center? Was it the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, countries which were no threat to us and had nothing to do with 9/11? The creation of a recruiting ground for terrorists? The creation of ISIS? The souring of world opinion until the US is now considered the greatest threat to world peace and security, according to a Pew Research poll? The flood of refugees into Europe, some of them terrorists? Small scale and frequent terror attacks becoming a regularity on our soil? The ascendency of reactionary candidates like Trump and, undoubtedly, future Trumps? Because that’s what we got. That’s the ‘it.’

And that’s just Albright’s calculus from the civilian deaths in Iraq. Then factor in Libya, Ukraine, Syria; drone attacks on Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan; NATO expansion in Eastern Europe; and the installation of nuclear capable missile systems in Romania on Russia’s border. Studies have put the number of Muslims killed at two to as high as four million people, most of them innocent. Most of them sympathetic to the US after the attacks. Most of them our friends.

So. We kill. And kill. And kill. And feel justified and righteous and like we're the injured party. Always US the aggrieved victim. But it wasn't always so. We were once the shining city on a hill. The beacon of peace.

My God, what have we done?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Fathers' Day



A Dad's Meditation on Fathers' Day

My girl.

From her smallest form, I nurtured her. Picked her up when she cried. And stowed bottles of formula in the fridge. One, two, three. I can microwave them when she stirs. Or put them in warm water. You know. Sprinkle the milk on my wrist to check the temperature? If I don't scream it's OK for the baby? Right? I was out of my league.

I slept soundly through loud noises from the garage across the street, but woke suddenly to a brief sigh from the next room. I built a changing table for her, with drawers for diapers and lotions, powders and cream. The first time I changed her after bringing her home from the hospital, the room with the table was cold and she turned blue! I BROKE MY BABY! God, what a bad dad am I!

She was bundled and secure. Oshkosh B'goshed and perfect in pink! When she had the croup, I put her in a carriage and placed my foot on the axel. I rocked her back and forth, back and forth, night after night, to sooth and comfort her while I read a book. Then placed her gently into her crib. Night after night. Until she was at peace.

And the reading! When she was of an inquisitive age? Lowly Worm! Care Bears! Narnia! Alice! Oz! Middle Earth! All the classics of youth that she and I could discover together! Look! Point! Read! Learn! Night after night we looked forward to reading time!

And so she grew. And grew. Brownies. Girl scouts. Kindergarten. A project for her dad on fathers' day. She made a car air freshener for me as a Girl Scout project. A bit of felt cut into a star with a drop of vanilla as an air freshener and a string to hang from my car mirror. I've had it in every car I've owned since then for the past twenty five years. And will have it in every future one forever.

And then we were own our own. She, an eleven year old girl and me, a clueless near forty year old father.

And then the first day that I had to go to work and she had to stay at home, alone. We had placed phone numbers on the fridge. Grammy. Uncle Dan. 911. Me at work. They were all available and nearby at a moment's call. We rehearsed it all. She's a smart girl. She can take care of herself. So, I left her in the kitchen, got in my car and drove down the driveway. As I looked in the mirror, I saw her running out of the house. To me. For me. What do I do? I could feel the terror in her, even through the steel of the car! If I went back I knew I could never leave again. Never teach her to be on her own.

And if I left?

I cried all the way to work.

She was OK. She is strong. Stronger than her father.

I came home from work once to a kitchen filled with baking powder. No, she hadn't been baking. She had made some toast and it had started to burn, so she got the fire extinguisher and proceeded to blast the ever living daylights out of the kitchen. Take that, toast! I couldn't have been prouder. She had a challenge. And faced it. And prevailed. Take that, life!

And she became an adolescent. And a young lady. And a lady. And I watched. And participated. And stood back. And gnawed my fingernails as she navigated waters I dared not plumb! She was a seventeen year old girl subletting an apartment for the Summer in Boston with a girlfriend and pouring coffee by Quincy Market. A college student making her own rules and recklessly breaking a lot of mine. She spent a summer in Manhattan living in a friend's shoebox apartment, sleeping on the couch and doing, I don't have a clue what. School, I think? She brought boys home that she proceeded to eviscerate. One tough chick here. Friends would ask me how could I let Krisitin do that. “Let?” I asked. “There’s no ‘Let’ about it. You try stopping her!”

I held my breath and ventured my opinion only if I thought it might be heeded. And I hurt inside, wanting to help and guide, but also wanting to let her find her own way.

Where is the little girl I read to before nightnight? She's gone. And she is here in her place.

My girl.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Pacifism

I am a pacifist. I admit it. I don't want to fight anybody. I embrace the world on the basic assumption that nobody wants to fight me. Why should I fight them? That's not always the case.

I remember during the space race. How the Soviets were putting a satelite in space: Sputnik. Then a man: Yuri Gagarin. And that was bad. We were the good guys. They were the evil Soviets. We had to win the space race. Put a man on the moon, and bring him back again. And do the other things. Within this decade. Because we are great we would stick it in their face. And I thought differently. Why don't we work together? I wrote an eighth grade essay where I suggested that astronauts and cosmonauts work together to explore space. Why not? We both want the same things, don't we? Wouldn't it make sense to work together? We could pool our green stamps! Buy a soldering iron or something.

I was the kid who was always bullied in school. Tall for my age. Gangly. Nerdy. Pubescent when I should be pre-pubescant. Attracted to girls when they weren't attracted to me. Then I didn't know what to do when they were. Awkward. Out of the ordinary. Out of sync with my childhood peers. One step ahead or behind. Couldn't care about sports. Liked to read. Liked to ask questions. Liked to have answers. Liked to like. Was fascinated by the space program. Liked math. Smelled like a chemistry set. Generally without a clue. Not ready for life. Still not.

Spit balls shot from the tough kids in the back of the room hit my head. Roughed up in the halls. My books stolen and dumped in the 'forbidden' elevator. Did you do that, Jonathan? Did you use the school's elevator? We found your books there. No. Even then I realized the question was ridiculous. Why ask me? Does the presence of one of my books in the elevator incriminate me? Do you really think I'd use the forbidden elevator and then leave incriminating evidence behind? Talk about clueless! The Intellegencia aren't!

All I wanted to do was do my lessons and learn from the teachers. Who were these cretins bothering me? And if I returned in kind? If I got my own pea shooter and shot back? They squealed to teacher. Look! He's shooting spit balls at us! He's a bully! That's how it always works. They shit in you. If you shit back, you're the toilet.

Once, while playing during recess in the school yard, a couple of bullies grabbed me and pulled me around the corner of the building. One held me with my arms behind my back and another hit me. I had enough. I hit the one holding me in the ribs with my elbow. Thump! Thump! Soft impacts between the harsh clutch of arms. Thump! I felt like I was striking the feet of the gods and they were clay. Thump!

He started to let go. He wasn't invincible after all!

Just then a teacher, who had noticed our fight, came along and broke it up.

You were doing good, he said. Stand up to them and fight for yourself! He was a tough guy and wanted me to be tough, too. I knew he thought I was a wimp. You have to stand up for yourself in this world and fight! You'd better learn that soon! What to do. Bullied by bullies and bullied by teachers who wanted me to fight back against the bullies, just like the bullies, by being a bully.

Fight! Fight? I don't like to fight. I don't want to fight. I don't believe fighting does anything. Not anything good. If I lost I would be nothing. A pulverised, beaten down scum of the big boys, forever trod under their feet. And if I won? Would I be right? Does anybody ever fight to be right? You either fight to gain or fight not to loose. Nothing more. Does a school house bully's might make him right? Do they even care what is right? Do I really want to live there? In their world? Do I want to be that?

And I stood in the school yard, by the building, around the corner from the playground, in the bully field, and asked myself: Can I fight the bullies to be right? Suppose I did?

And what would that make me?

Immigrants

A few hundred years ago I brought my daughter to the Tenement Museum in the lower east side of Manhattan. I wanted her to see how my grandparents had lived just a mere hundred years before. My grandfather fled Tsarist Russia and my grandmother came from Poland in the 19-aughts (I don’t know what that’s called. The aughties?)

They both got out before the famed Iron Curtain fell. They lived a few blocks further uptown, but the conditions were the same. If you have immigrants in your background that went through Ellis Island, or even if you don’t, it’s worth the trip. We also took a walking tour around the area. At the time the lower east side was mostly filled with German Jews who were mostly tailors. It was the garment district of the day.

Further down town there was what could loosely be called a department store. The owner of the store would come out on Saturday afternoons onto a balcony and preach the wonders of capitalism. He would extoll his listeners on the virtues of hard work and frugality and the evils of union organizers, communists, socialists, and other vermin. He also ran a sort of savings bank where the locals could deposit a few cents a week until they could buy passage over for their relatives still in the Old Country.

Up the street was the socialist newspaper. The editor would also come out on Sunday and give his sermons on the necessity of workers coming together and building a socialist workers’ paradise instead of living under the crushing weight of capitalists, robber barons, aristocrats, and other vermin. Back then any major city had several privately owned presses devoted to socialism, communism, capitalism, and any other ‘ism’ in the dictionary, each with its own propaganda and appeal. You could read the same story with five different slants and five different selective edits. Or puzzle over why it was reported in this publication but ignored in that one.

My mother in law told me a story of when she was the editor of a newspaper in Stamford, CT. They were in competition with another paper and the business was cut throat. She managed to get a certain picture of some politicians published on the exact same day as their competitor. Theirs showed four people in the photo. The other paper had only three. It was obvious that they were both the same picture, but that one had had one member air brushed out. Trotsky would be proud!

Today over 95% of the media in this country is owned by one of six huge corporations. Draw from that what you will. Politifact.com is put out by one that is still independent. For now.

In the evenings, after working ten to twelve hours, people would congregate in the pubs on the first floors of the brown stones. They’d eat, read the papers and discuss the issues of the day. Politics, what the ‘Little Flower’ was doing in town hall, sports, science advances, or whatever was current. People participated in government by keeping informed, debating (shouting matches), attending public meetings, and listening to the candidates lie. I won’t say the government was any better back then, but at least people participated. At least they were informed. They knew they were being lied to by the other guy.

They say that television changed that. There’s a reason it’s called the Boob Tube. Marshall McLuhan’s vision of people being better informed, learning languages and history, art and science, etc., never really happened, except, maybe, in public television or the Learning Channel before it gave in to sensationalism.

The restructuring of education during the sixties had an effect, too. The classical liberal arts education was watered down and sterilized. Before, it was understood that by the end of high school a student was proficient in the liberal arts, loosely defined as: grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy (well, science in general.) That basically meant that by twelfth grade a person should be equipped with all of the mental tools to function in society. Then you could go on to a trade school or a university or just get a job and do just fine. You were the informed citizen that Thomas Jefferson so valued in society.

I won’t drone on about the Good Old Days or How These Kids Today (Have It Too Easy/Too Hard/Are Too Stupid/Too Smart/Too Lazy/Too Whatever.) As anyone who has studied history knows, the good old days never existed. Let’s just call them the Different Old Days.

Oh, what the heck. Why not? What’s the use of being old if you can’t talk down to young people? At least then people were expected to know something of whence they came. History was in the present. Look at old movies from the thirties and think in terms of what it was assumed the audience knew. References to classic myths, literary or historical characters were left unexplained. Groucho Marx could make a quip about Croesus. Fawlty Towers could have Basil say he was waiting for a new wall ‘as long as Hadrian’ and expect to get a laugh. (It seems the dumbing down took a little longer in England.) Or the Lincoln/Douglass debates. Granted, they were mostly name calling and posturing, but the audience had an average eighth grade education and could still follow.

Well, things change. Things become the same. I’m not really going anywhere with this. Just some mental stumbling on a rocky slope.