This Thing We Call Mortality

When do we apprehend our mortality?
When we look into the mirror and see the same face we saw yesterday?
When we wake stiff and hurting from a night of frequent tosses and turns?
When we look to the left and then to the right and to the left again and to the right again?
When we forget the names of the flowers in the garden we have silently tended year after year?
No.

When we look into the eyes of a child and see the wonder of what is new,
When we observe the tender expression of restrained passion in the faces of young lovers,
When we look at the straight lines and right angles of buildings mounted on the graves of forests,
When we watch as friends and acquaintances of long standing drift silently by as we sit quietly here,
Then we apprehend our mortality.

April 2018

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Existential Change

We generally change in response to what the past has done to the present, but frequently, we then ignore, even deny, what the present will do to the future. One day our past damages will exceed our resource for planned change. Ultimately, the grinding force of universal changes will sweep everything in, but we can’t do much about that. Meanwhile, how we change ourselves is ultimately our responsibility, and a clear definition of who we are.

From star dust to star dust, we are nothing special in the cosmos. There is no specialness, except what we create in the scope of our existence. In the year of a planet’s existence, life is but a millisecond, sentience a nanosecond, and then it’s over. In galactic terms, all sentient populations are effectively alone, incommunicably distant in time and space. The Here and Now is the universe we live in. Humans are all the sentient beings we will encounter and each of us is the only being of any kind we will fully encounter. Each of us lives in her or his own universe in effect. We can live there alone or we can try to merge into other universes, but our knowledge is our existential limit.

The Universe is everything we know; beyond our knowledge is Nothing. Heaven and hell are just our hopes for and fears of the Nothing. The Here and Now is the only thing we have. It is the only thing we can effectively change, and the effect will be the next here and now. Hopes and fears peer into nothingness. Only doing changes our course from one here and now to the next. Only learning grows our universe. We learn from what has been to predict what might be and that allows us to shape a plan.

A plan is a hopeful outcome of a calculated change, a shift in trajectory, an action taken or a stasis maintained. A plan guesses at the shape that will emerge from the nothingness of the future. As the future shapes itself into the here and now and slides into the past, we assess the accuracy of our planning.

Ultimately, each of us manages this process in his or her own universe, individually or in commune with others. Like vehicles on the roads, our plans and our changes will impact others, and others’ plans and changes will impact us. And like the galaxy, the solar system and the planet, the roads offer no support for the hopeful plans of the drivers. For all we can know, the road may end in a great void just over the next rise, or the truck on our left may suddenly swerve to the right. The only laws that truly apply to drivers’ planned changes are the laws of physics. What we see and hear and perhaps feel from the driver’s seat is all we know along with some rules of the road we have been led to believe. It is our known universe. It is our immediate knowledge of the here and now.

Knowledge is all we can have any faith in. Everything else is guess work, and its more courageous brother, belief, each weighting the wager placed on an outcome. Belief is not knowledge. Belief is a shroud to disguise ignorance. If knowledge enlarges our universe and who we are, then ignorance diminishes those.

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit…”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Gaining knowledge moves our here and now closer to heaven, while ignorance moves us closer to hell. The greater knowledge is on Earth then, the closer we are to heaven on Earth. Humans’ incredible capacity for learning is what most elevates us on the planet; not-learning then is bestial.

Learn to live.

Listen, Talk, Vote

It is an election year for Minnesota. Much is at stake.
Midterm elections don’t usually draw much voter turnout. When the state economy seems to be doing well, voters may think that not voting returns the status quo. These conditions favor the opposition, whose turnouts produce stunning defeats and are followed by dramatic reversals.
Minnesota stands out as a great place to live, for now. The governor’s efforts to hold off the forces of capital side pressure have preserved many gains for Minnesotans. That could come undone in November. There is a fragile and unreliable balance in power.
If the effects of an international trade war sharply depress the equity markets and the economy, pensions and other retirement savings could be similarly depressed and under renewed threat from the investment industry. Losses in farm exports could put further demands on our state’s resources. Meanwhile, prices for consumer goods as well as medical costs and inflation could rise. Social Security and Medicare are already under threat from blossoming Federal debt and the prevailing “everyone for her/himself” attitude in Washington.
We can anticipate debates around gun sentiment and actual education needs upping that piece of the next budget, while the 2017 budget standoff gets revisited attention. The #MeToo movement will rightly demand some actions. Meanwhile, other gender rights agendas lie right beneath the surface. And there will be water quality problems and climate change effects that are unpredictable but seemingly inevitable. Actions taken will have long-lasting outcomes.
Voting in November could not be any more important. Your everyday lives are far more impacted by state controlled factors than any other. Every candidate must be asked about all of the above points, and their answers must be clear and their positions firm. That’s how you must decide your votes.
If you’ve read this far, you were already committed to voting. Now commit to getting family and friends to do likewise. Find out where candidates are on the issues and get yourself and others to the polls in November. Every day you should think about what’s important in your life that the State of Minnesota affects in some way. Listen to what others are saying about these things and talk with them about why you feel as you do. Then every day, tell someone to vote in November.

Never a Truer Word

Things are not going well with the world. I have recently pondered the overwhelming, perhaps overshadowing, general sense of dysfunction, this decay of civility we now endure. It blares out of politics, economies, technologies and even organized religions. It erodes our quality of life, our access to necessities, our feelings of safety, our sense of humanity. As is natural, we strike out at the things that threaten us, usually people whom we are predisposed not to like. And we declare our injuries, real and anticipated, demanding justice, yet accepting revenge which is more tangible.

Even when justice and/or revenge is achieved, the sense of impending doom remains and seems to envelope us in a vague fog of unknowing. A place of victimization and powerlessness becomes the abode of tens of millions, even hundreds of millions. Much of what we hear when we listen are the screams of rage and fear. Reality is cracking.

There is a churning cloud of words and images hovering behind, around and over people, a cloud so unstable and so filled with threat, yet so impervious to any efforts to quell it or fend it off, that it can only be called the Darkness. It is as if the Void and the Chaos that were banished in Creation have truly crept back in, not from the starry heavens, offended by arrogant space venturers, but from the inner depths of the very people whom it afflicts.

It is as if malignant insecurity, buried under the nurturing soil of civilization is reaching up from its grave to fuel the chaos of misinformation, accusation, incrimination and virulent conflict that surrounds us. Nothing is as it seems; everything is confuted with evil forces reckoning to destroy each of us, isolated and confused. Yet, it is from within ourselves that this malignancy originates; it is our own internal dysfunctions, made manifest and fed on by parasites of power, that have created the Darkness that threatens us. We feed the turmoil we dread.

Walt Kelly’s words have never been more true, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Pogo, 1971)

Pogo quote

 

Who Am I to Say?

Below a bright, white sun there were clouds
     Scudding across the clear, sharp sky,

First white and puffy, then flattening and smearing,
     And now faded into a grey obscurity.

I know who I am – says the Black girl.
     Yo sé quién yo soy – dice el abuelo.

We know who we are – say the Grange men.
     We are who we have always been – say the Lakota.

I am not who you say I am – says Samira,
     But I know who I am. So who are you to say?

Who are we? And who am I to say,
     If we have faded into grey obscurity?

January 2018

Now It Is Really Winter

 

It is cold and it has been cold for days,

The cold that singes your cheeks

And makes your eyes run,

And your tears freeze.

Burningly cold.

 

So cold and dry the air feels like sand.

So cold that even with thick socks and mittens

Feet and hands feel buried in cold, sharp, dry sand

Drawing out the heat and moisture

Desiccately cold.

 

And it is quiet, dead still and cut off.

The windows and doors are closed and sealed

Two, even three deep, holding the cold dead air,

And curtained. The heavy drapes

Silencing the whoosh of traffic,

The thud of human steps

And the birds brittle song.

Deafeningly cold.

 

Inside, closed in and cut off as in a crypt,

Alone, holding a weeks-long breath of arctic air,

Staring at the white blankness of paper,

I chip words out of my frozen thoughts

As I listen to the booming in the walls

And the cracking of encasing ice.

Perhaps it is terminally cold,

Mummifyingly cold.

January 2018

Corrupting the English language for fun and profit

an icon

 

Here’s an icon representing Mary and Jesus. Speaking to it is speaking directly to Mary and Jesus.

 

an app

Here’s an icon representing text on a page inside a folder. Clicking on it, on your desktop, opens an app that you can type text on and read from.

 

a trainHere’s a picture representing the Orient Express. Speaking to it or clicking on it does not open any doors, allow one any access or (sigh) take one on an iconic journey. Yet the journey is “iconic” because it represents another opportunity for marketeers to misuse the ‘new word’ in Madison Avenue’s vocabulary. How very per-adolescent.

And awesome! Or wait…it doesn’t really inspire awe.
What is awe anyway. Awesome? Awful? Ah shucks? Ah well. Ah! Inspiring AH! Ahsome!

It’s not the Queen’s English anymore!

Outbursts of hostility seem more frequent?

It’s the resurgence of bigotry. It is an eddy in the cosmic tides, the universal back-and-forth between entropic chaos and structured order. How many genesis texts proclaim this very observation? What is troubling, on the side of the order that chaos opposed, is mostly that our order is what defines us, and defines our values. Of course, for individuals who attack the ordered group, order seems to devalue the strong self-interest that defines that individual. Everyone tries to do the “right thing.” Generally we accept Right and Good to reside on the side of Order, while Wrong and Bad imbue Chaos. That is a socially accepted evaluation: society being an ordered collective. The chaotic have values too, derived from a world view that tends toward: what is good for me and mine is Good, and what is bad for me and mine is Bad. The good and bad can be valued as right and wrong.

The undeniable truth of chaos and order has no value component. So acting out in impulsive, seemingly random directions has roots in the cosmic impulse to chaos, but it’s only wrong to the tidal swell of order. Acts of bigotry then are simply acts of chaos attempting to assert itself against order, while the societal response will be to suppress and even extinguish those chaotic elements. Extinguishing chaos will not happen of course, because in the dispassionate, nonjudgmental scope of the cosmos, we must have both forces. As Ravana said to Rama: each of us defines the other.

In the here-and-now of earthly existence, this cosmic interplay both condemns and forgives our actions in these days or terror and terrorism: condemned because we cannot escape these rending forces, which actually help to pull people closer together as victims and allies, and yet forgiven because we are all victims of ultimately primal forces, which cannot ever pull us all together. As chaos perpetrators, we lash out energetically to fend off what we perceive to be the domination of an adversarial order. As communities, we huddle together, cloaked in self-righteousness against the irrationality of bigotry. Yet, who we are is not as a result of the fact of their birth, but is a result of when and where we were born. All individuals are products of their conditioning, and all are acting out their own conditioned perception of what the world is.

I offer two cautions here. One is that chaos is ultimately ungoverned and unconstrained, seeing wrong and right uniquely, but seeing it. It would be easy to fit this to the term “freedom.” Freedom however must be freedom from something negative, not freedom from order or freedom from everything. The other is that order is governance which defines right and wrong and shapes us to it. It would be easy to try to define order as right or wrong, but it become an impossible circular rationale. Order is a state, like liquids or solids. Within that state things are ordered, but different things can be ordered differently. While things in an ordered state are indeed ordered, they are right. Therefore, there are no right or wrong orders. Understanding this leads us to examine acts of bigotry and hostility in better light.

Acts of hostility are in fact increasing. It’s not about white people, or Americans or Christians; it’s about individuals. The rise in individual rights and the sense of greater individual freedom has created the tinder. Astute individuals have recognized this development and now tap its potential. Tinder in place, a spark from the supremacist leadership has ignited the conflagration of hatred and violence against that which is identifiable as different, that difference being a contrivances of the same leadership. The messages have been about religious groups, color groups, language groups, national origin groups and even gender, as if the world’s reality descends from the commonality of these groups. That’s simply wrong. These commonalities bring individuals together to be sure, but the individuals define the group; the group does not define the individual. What the attacks achieve is often ironic, as it welds the attacked group into a tighter order and helps shape group members to the conditions the group defines. Meanwhile, individuals without the ordered conditions of such groups, who labor under ignorance, fear and hatred will also come together with their commonality, newly revealed by the manipulative leadership. These individuals bring unique perspectives to the group; they do not get them from the group. They do not bond in order to generate their stability; they are left with only negative definitions, anti-order. Seeing impunity under the masters of the new regime, this group of bullies can and will turn their bigotry against anyone who is ‘different’ and probably vulnerable. They have been told they are right; so, all difference is wrong. Remember we all define right and wrong either individually or by consensus.

Chaotic individuals derive validity for their values of self-interest from compatible, powerful and often simplistic ideologies. Ordered individuals derive validity through shared values and shared interests – one for all, etc. Hence, chaotic soldiers fight for god and country, while the ordered soldier fights for the good of comrades and citizens’ safety and well-being.

So the ordered groups, the ordered societies can define right and wrong to maintain the smooth operation of their group, and this is done by consensus; we are shaped by one another. On the other hand, disconnected individuals – social free radicals, as it were – are aimed at targets, generally defined by their apparent difference for the mainstream, real or imagined, by manipulation from without. As individuals, we are all subject to the defining influence of others.

Because it is part of the universal dynamic, this situation has always existed. It has always been used by malignant rulers first to mobilize destructive forces against relatively defenseless victims, as a common enemy, thus creating a new, seemingly powerful if deluded cadre which can be used as a weapon of power and terror. The rulers then redefine the bigotry group as a racial or national champion that can be moved against other, new, stronger targets on the way to domination.

Perhaps the good news in this chaos versus order view is that ordered forces cannot be turned around in short order. Only after the free radicals are sufficiently well established as a group to at least appear to be the mainstream will the existing organizations begin to realign, and thoughtful individuals, who value genuine order, will continue to exist, first as dissidents and later as the new free radicals. The universal tides will not be stopped.

So remember: “When good people do nothing, bad things happen.” The question will always be, “Who are the good people?”

Response for Stanford course on Poverty and Inequality module 2

It is said that nothing can be done about poverty. However, we probably know that many who say that, and who know it to be false, are masking a frustration at best or unwillingness at some worse level with efforts to invest in trying to do something. However as a nation, we widely suffer from two other ‘myths’ about effecting change in anything, which seriously hamper achieving lasting effects in anything. First, we expect relatively immediate results that allow us to terminate the effort. Second, we assume that anything involving large numbers of people must be handled by large institutions.
Poverty has certainly been around a long time, and it is clearly much worse in other places in the world than in the U.S., and that makes it look pretty intractable. It may appear rather like a cancer on humanity. So as with cancer, it seems reasonable that we would not say, "Oh, well, Humanity, you have cancer. So sorry. There’s nothing we can do." Poverty is certainly persistent and pernicious, and as with cancer, we must attack the cancer and its causes. We must continue that attack without looking for a quick return on investment, and with the understanding that we might not always have successes and we may never reach our goal in our life time. Furthermore those affected by poverty are people who feel the pain of that poverty. Grasping the idea of the suffering of millions of individuals, not just data sets, may suggest a way to strengthen solutions.
We too often expect institutions to handle all our big problems. We pay taxes that go out in Medicaid payouts. We contribute to food shelves. Often we write a check to an organization and consider our contribution to the cause has been made. These are all good things to do, but they are seriously diluted by overhead, and their work is often spread so thinly in has little effect. To support those efforts, volunteers working with individuals and families are already a valued asset, but there are few, and in many areas, no organized institutional efforts to locate, train and match up volunteers to individuals and families in need. In my city, if one person in 100 volunteered 1 hour a week to a child or family providing some of the factors we know lead to better school results, we might see an improvement in academic performance of roughly 3,000 students, about 10% of the public school population. A good thing about volunteering is that it is almost without cost; the best thing is seeing the direct results of the effort.
Just as with institutional efforts, the work must be ongoing – conception to graduation is about 19 years – and successes are never guaranteed. Combined with institutional programs, organized volunteering could make a significant impact.
This would be a culture change for American people, of course, and that’s a whole other Stanford course, I’m sure.

Squirrel are rabies carriers! Don’t walk near trees!

It’s the visceral 21st century. Conflict and alarmism charge your adolescent addiction to adrenalin. In this scary world, free marketeers, smart as well as greedy, are correctly reading the winds they have helped to create. They have picked up on the highly charged CNN delivery style for getting and leading viewers’ attention and offering them more that household cleaning products. Now you can go so far as to diagnose and prescribe for all the dysfunctions and diseases you are beset with as you drive a new car and have new carpet installed.

Even stalwarts such as BBC are rowing in the blood red river. It’s no longer just laundry soap advertisers who are surfing this wave of angst and fear. BBC needs massive government funds. They need to look friendly to the Brexit fanaticists trying to wrench the U.K. out the E.U. And the science community has fallen into the funding morass as well. We want to know all the threats that surround our paranoid selves, and science can find funding to do that.

The media glean scant evidence from often bad science to show us in vividly colored surging animations how our globe is overrun with disease, famine, drought, floods, storms and, the highest drama, war. In total, this churning, thrilling anarchy is merely a well-established understanding of humanity cultivated by the marketing industry and disseminated by ubiquitous media.

Aristotle said twenty-five centuries ago: among appeals to reasoning, appeals to authority and appeals to emotions, the last is by far the most effective. Knowing that, I have written into this piece several highly charged, low content adjectives, and assiduously avoided a complex line of reasoning. If you already get it, you may, I hope, have laughed a little sadly or at least nodded your way through it. If it felt serious, you may have gotten a little more rational as you fought back your sense of being used.