Okay. It’s about me.

I don’t typically write about myself. Actually I don’t even think of myself that much, except perhaps to coach myself about what I eat, how much exercise I am or should be getting, or when I have to start moving in order to be on time. Yes, self-discipline is a conscious effort. That sort of thinking however is attuned to the idea that this life is what we have. I believe there is more to be gotten from good quality life even if it means there is less of it. Anyway, living longer won’t get me into any post-mortal resident’s housing any more easily.

The payoff for quality of life is like an annual salary. Let’s say I’m earning at a rate of 50,000 smiley faces a year, and I live my last twenty years at this rate, right up to the end. I die a smiley millionaire, and while the faces surrounding my last hours may not be smiley faces, they are at least there. Now let’s say I’m living out my last years in a life conserving way, not exerting myself, not remaining active, not engaging in new and interesting adventures – basically, not taking risks. Sensible, perhaps, but a sacrifice of quality for quantity of life, this plan only pays about 40,000 smiley faces for the first year. Because the return to the world from such a life is weak, that rate decreases by about 5% in smiley faces each subsequent year. When I do the math, I see I’ll be able to live ten years longer enjoying what I can of an ever decreasing rate of smiley faces. That decrease will allow only a poverty rate for the last ten years of so, leaving me with under 700,000 smiley faces for enduring my extra, impoverished years. I will have out worn or out lived some of the faces that would have been with me at the end.

So when I think about myself, I think about things like this. I spend little time in such contemplation. I just get on with trying to live my life out at the highest quality I can achieve, and set about working to do that. But once in a while, my attempts to impose the sort of order that is the goal of self-discipline is knocked out by the relentless, entropic forces of the cosmic chaos. I contracted a case of what was probably gastroenteritis, something I had not suffered for about fifteen years. The rug came well and truly out from under my quality of life, two days before Christmas while out of state visiting my angelic wife’s family. I’ll spare you the details which did nothing to ameliorate my quality of life level – au contraire. By the end of the week, I was pretty much well again. I had only to endure a very busy day of air travel, which I consider a violation of human rights under almost any circumstances. (I would as soon prepare for and accept a colonoscopy as fly within a week of Christmas or Thanksgiving.) I could then however look forward to the New Year’s week with my wife working from home and part time. This would certainly be an increase in life quality.

Then, on an achingly cold New Year’s Day, as we were assembling a fairly easy jig-saw puzzle, I found my nose running, my eyes straining and my energy flagging. I was ushering in an upper respiratory infection as severe as any I can recall. I work in close contact with elementary students, and sometimes bring home their little colds, but this one should have been stricken the rolls of viral variants. So much for divine oversight. Now, seven days in, I am waiting for at least a decent night’s sleep, if not a surcease of post ocular pain, congestion, sneezing and coughing.

In the last two weeks that include two holidays and air travel, I had what amounts to four good quality days. I don’t count the air travel day. So, yes, I am writing about myself today, because I’m hurting and miserable and am indulging in a very low life-quality inactivity, feeling sorry for myself. And I am steeped in indignation that all life on the planet, which I regard as sacred, has ascended from organisms much like the miserable viruses that have had their way with me these last two week, and which are dancing around my head even now in sarcastic glee.

And don’t pity me. It won’t help.

Yelling Fire

So if yelling “Fire!” in the crowded auditorium is not free speech but a disruptive and dangerous act, what would it mean if someone started to whisper “Poison gas! Pass it on.” Would that be free speech? Many free speech advocates are perhaps no more than adrenaline driven anarchists who revel in the spreading of incendiary discourse and hate speech through digital media outlets and social networks. Does this fall under American rights?

Will the courts take on a clarification of where free speech ends and dangerous speech and gestures and symbols begin, and how we can judge which is which? Free speech, as has the right to bear arms, seems to have run aground on the centuries old question of adhering to the letter of the law, or Constitution, or to the spirit of the law. Without a clarification that accurately describes in words the intent of such laws, putting aside how much the nuance of American English, and the milieu of contemporary life have shifted over two hundred plus years, we must get moving on creating practical mechanism for protecting the rights of the many without empowering perpetrators and threatening victims.

I suspect all of the creators and drafters of the Bill of Rights had that at heart. If we can’t accept that, then it’s time to reexamine what it is be an American.

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

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

Three days of rain

The rain comes, relentless,
Tapping out the rhythm of solitude.
As it darkens again, vision diminishes again,
And time is stretched out farther still.
Alone, how do I comfort myself,
When, alone, I cannot confront myself?
The cat follows me around the house
Feeling exposed to the haunting damp?
And yet on it rains and rumbles.
The plashing of a car ebbing and flowing
Outside as things are washed away.
Inside they are not;
Inside it is already empty.
Outside a downpour,
Inside a deluge of solitude.

    May 2017

Our common enemy is conflict

During the Viet Nam War, it was clear that the demonstrations, while they did not create the divide in positions, did amplify it. There we were in a Wagnerian opera, screaming across our mystic gulf with suspended disbelief. Our “rightness” and their “wrongness” were absolute and diametrically opposed.

This division, which had many less than desirable collateral effects, subsided with the revelations of the Watergate cover up, a pathetic collapse of one camp. Among other issues, such as that in the Guardian article herewith (“Protesting Trump’s immigration policy? You might be accidentally helping him.”), the resistance, a high energy expense, must be maintained until one side or the other fades. Then the remaining side must pull back as well. Attempting to overwhelm the weakened camp, as the Republicans seem to be attempting, simply reinvigorates the insurgency.

The only true victors will be those who, when the opportunity, arises will attempt to put us back on a track of collaborative problem solving, and effectively sideline the zero-sum, single issue activists. No one can win until we all stop trying. Our common enemy is conflict.

How progressed we are!

Do you remember when writers knew what their words meant and could use them in a way that produced clarity, even precision? Of course you don’t. Probably because such a time never really existed. Perhaps I should say—Because such a time probably never existed. If you do not see the difference in the two causal clauses, you may struggle a bit with what follows.

We have achieved an unintended consequential situation through almost universal education—a situation exacerbated by the science-technology-engineering-math emphasis in that education. I won’t belabor what I believe is the broadly detrimental effect of that emphasis, but I hope you will be able to discern its complicity in the changes we see in writing today. The situation is that more and more often I see uses of the English language that would have earned an editorial circling in any middle school English classroom as recently as 50 years ago. And yes, in a language that only had two changes of amount in the last 400 years, those being the loss of the second person singular pronoun and the loss of the final “t” on the end of singular third person verbs, the last 50 years represent a recency.

I hasten to add here that 400 years ago, the written English word sprung from an attempt to capture the English spoken word of the day. Greek and Latin came to Tudor England as print, and so were as formal and consistent as the few Greeks and Romans, who were educated enough and had the time to write, had written them. Ben Jonson wrote English words that sounded like the 16th century courtiers among whom he lived and for whom he wrote. William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd wrote a broader language for an audience of all levels of wealth and education in London among whom they lived and for whom they wrote. They spelled and arranged the spoken language as they heard it every day.

And that brings me back to my point: we are now a 21st century loosely applying 16th century spelling and grammar strategies. Unfortunately as writers, many of us lack the command of all the variants of English as spoken by perhaps a billion people around the world. So modern writers cannot match Shakespeare who had only to negotiate English for the several hundred-thousands of Londoners.

On average, current writers probably have less than half of Shakespeare’s writing vocabulary, and of that, many writers are weak in the nuances among our rich vocabulary amalgamated from so many language sources. Writers tend to avoid many of the most precise words, because they haven’t heard them in contexts enough to feel comfortable using them. Worse however, some writers boldly misuse these words, usually to their detriment. Sometimes the misuses result in misunderstandings, more often they result in readers’ dismissal of an entire text as ill-informed or ill-conceived.

Evidence of our current lexical limitations is the trend toward “verbing”. Shakespeare observed that things in the world existed without names. Many of these as yet unnamed things were brought to light by the sciences and explorations of the times. Many of today’s writers have had to respond similarly. Such responses have been appropriate to the evolution of the language. As it happens however, “verbing” new words has become a trend, and trends can create blind inertia. Such inertia has taken us down to courses.

One course trends can take us is to general meaningless, the other to redundancy. Both courses lead to a diminishment of complete lack of clarity. In the first case, a word is applied to a new thing, but failing any prior knowledge of the use of the word, its inertia pushes it to further applications to other more or less related things. Eventually the word’s clarity of meaning begins to wander away from its original meaning into a cloud of impression. An historical expression of this type is the word “wonderful.” In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus was, as witnessed, wonderful. That is, it was full of wonder, that which is exceptional for which we can have no explanation. We wonder how that could be. So how did it transmogrify into the expression, “I had a wonderful time?” Certainly this does not mean the speaker had a time so exceptional that he or she wonders how it could have happened. Yet It creates the impression that “wonderful,” in this case, is more courteous than the plain word “good.”

“Verbing” exemplifies our penchant for the appearance of creativity with the result of demonstrating a pointless effort. “Verbing” is simply using words, usually nouns, as verbs. There is a long history of it. “Housing” people or things almost certainly took the idea of providing a house or shelter for someone or something into a verb, “to house.” (how-s to how-z) So well established are some of these words that they can take on all the functions of verbs, actions, participles and gerunds, which may then act as verbs, adjectives and nouns respectively. Hence, the gerund “housing” can be a house or shelter provided for someone or something other than the provider, e.g. public housing. “Verbing” is easy; decline a noun. In most cases, “verbed” nouns replace currently used and understood words or phrases, while suggesting that there is some difference from that word or phrase. Is “gifting” then different from “giving” or is it just a stop on a pointless trend? Ironically, the word “give” appears to have evolved from the word “gift” through the dropping of the final “t.” English has a particularly rich vocabulary. It contains roughly 100,000 words depending on how you count various forms of a word. Why would we ever need to invent new verbs from old nouns when there are tens of thousands of old verbs we simply never knew about or used? “Verbing” does not show creativity; it show a poverty of vocabulary.

We misuse and invent words precisely because we have not been taught the use of nearly the numbers of words necessary to cope with the broad, deep and complex topics with which we must deal. We don’t hear enough words in the crib, at the dinner table, on the bus, in the school or office or laboratory. A hundred years ago, few people wrote anything that received a wide reading. Serious writing was academic or legal, and it was read by academics and lawyers. Journalism was “yellow,” sensational and often misleading. Literature was a luxury of a growing, but much smaller, educated middle class. But now writing is free and easy via the Internet, reading is done by the vast majority of the population, many of whom lack the knowledge or the cognitive skill necessary to distinguish the appearance of the language from its deeper conceptual content. The greatest amount of what appears in print, ink or electronic, is vapid, ill-informed and sloppy, roughly emulating the casual register of speech, applying 16th century coarsely phonetic spelling—for which spell-check is both cure and disease—and devoid of any sense of rhetoric that would make a complex idea comprehendible. It is because nearly everyone can write for the masses and neither the mass of writers nor the mass of readers have been adequately taught their language that our expectations have been so reduced that we can accept the use of ”then” for “than” in a respectable national press article. Perhaps knowing that most readers don’t know the difference, the writers and publishers don’t care about being precise.

The quality of writing has not changed over time, but the numbers of writers and the number of readers to whom they are exposed has mushroomed in the past 100 years or so. Education has changed however. The trend in education and in American society in general has been to broaden into the workers language and away from the language of scholarship. An education in which language, rhetoric, structure, semantics and syntax figured has always produced writing that is clear and precise. A lack of attention to the components of clear discourse or a simple lack of education has left thoughtful writing and reading out of the lives of many. We are left to wonder what would have precipitated from an alternative trend that would have broadened the language of the workers into the language of scholarship, if that were even possible. And assuming that such a trend was not a selected natural mutation, what agenda has promoted and supported the dumbing down of our language?

How handy is curbing the language in which citizens think for shaping the structure of a society. In the Middle Ages of Europe, landed gentry and the Church held wealth and power; aristocrats held the land and the Church held the word. Is it in anyone’s interest in the Post-modern Age not to have most, if not everyone, competently educated in the finer points of our language and its uses? And if it is not in their interest, how might they manage educational affairs to limit who has the access to such a powerful tools?

Perhaps we are progressed just as much as we are meant to be.

 

Talking to Myself

In a recent conversation with a doctor friend, a man of considerable intelligence and self-assurance, I found myself repeatedly rambling off topic, following one inciting spark after another. And not just wandering off the initial topic onto another, but cascading from topic to topic. I found myself on several occasions dangling among the twigs and leaves, but had little idea how I had achieved my arboreal dilemma.

Well aware at the time of the communicational problems I was creating for myself, I reflected on what had transpired as I threaded my way home along Lake Street. I seemed to have forgotten how to have an intelligent conversation. I had good ideas, but I had lost my capacity for expressing them at all clearly. No. I had somehow disconnected the ideas, many of which were pithy abstractions, from my skill at discourse, assuming I ever had any of the latter. This was not good. Allegorically—and much of the good thinking has indeed been allegory anyway—it amounted to cognitive constipation. A friendly cup of coffee, had been a harsh brain laxative and had produced an abrupt, barely controlled flow of intellectual crap.

And that wasn’t the only such outpouring of well-founded, poorly produced thought. The week before coffee with my friend, I was in a meeting of which I attend perhaps nine each year of any kind. Concerned with the possibility of our group’s constituents perceiving their privacy violated by an action on the floor, I suggested a strategy for forestalling a negative response. In the face of critical review of my suggestion, I planted my standard and drew sword. Later, realizing that I was neither persuading the opposition of accepting my proposed course of action, nor was I getting them even to grasp my concern, I relented. In that moment of deflating insight, I saw that the constituents would be similarly unlikely, to the committee, to sense any privacy violation. I could see that my fear sprung from a distant possibility, but I had charged ahead.

How had I flown so furiously down that dark path? It wasn’t that my fear was unfounded, but only remote, yet it churned into action a deaf passion, not to be reined in and deal to criticism—a stampede of words. Then days later, I found myself over coffee, again astride a runaway train of thoughts. What was becoming of me? I am of an age where considering early onset dementia is not unreasonable. I don’t seem to have this problem when sitting in my recliner, pontificating to the empty chairs across the room on ideas sparked by what I am reading in Erdrich or Hardy or Raabe. And so there it is. Alone, I am privately coherent. While in conversation, disjointed in context, thought and word, I have been called upon to merge these, unsuccessfully, into public coherence.

When my neighbor asks me what a flower is in my garden, I am occasionally stuck for the name of the thing. I know what it is, when it will bloom and how to treat it. I just never say its name out loud when I do these things. So I have pushed its name-words down, beneath more pressing, and non-lexical, information. I know that I often think in the conceptual without dipping into the symbolic. I see a pattern here, and patterns are big with my understanding of things. In my head, in my reading, in my garden, I am fully functional. I can manage, arrange and cross-connect the material, temporal and abstract realms just fine, but when I apply the word producing rhetorical processes into these, I find my results faltering. I have craft in expressing ideas, observations and understandings into words, given time and an editor’s pen. However, I need to practice this craft so that I can fluidly call upon it. There may be some slowing of the processes, due to aging, that bring these rhetorical skills on line, but the skills are still there. Using them well will require more practice before and more time when I need them.

I must therefore write more, for my brain’s sake. Moreover, I must write about how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively, for everyone else’s sake. I have recently started a list of things I think about. I will add “how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively” to that list. I can use this list to prompt more writing. I hope by this means to refine my rhetorical skills and at the same time, apply them to some of my most abstract thinking. I hope by this to keep my brain working well, longer and to make a conversation with me more coherent and perhaps enjoyable.

To do these things, I must simply get out more. I spend too much time alone.

Morning News

What makes us who we are is not skyscrapers, not smart phones, not war machines, not cars that drive themselves; it is the scope and depth of our intangibles–Son House, Jackson Pollack, Martha Graham, George Gershwin, Robert Altman. When we count these defining achievements as dead history, when we consign our true American history to the trash heap and value only what is new and material, though doomed to ever shortening life spans, we erase our identity; we become creatures of a moment and then are gone. We become stranded in an endless and undefined present, isolated in time, striving to define who we are. Without a recognized course through a coherent past, we cannot project a trajectory into a meaningful future. We don’t see where we’re going or feel any reason why we should be going there. We are resolved to a kind of hopelessness in which we just wait for the next present moment, the next new thing, the next ‘today’ in which we relive the same, as yet, undefined newness. And the worst is that we have become not what we bring with us to each new day, but the ‘pay-to-play’ response to what we are given by the anonymous cosmic powers. We are following a trail of crumbs that was dropped by we know not whom and which leads we know not where.

Indian Winter

Indian winter

A week of warmth

Then cold and snow

Wet and heavy

Bending branches

It’s only March

This can go on for weeks

Then wind and rain

Spring

The season of mud and broken limbs

Summer

The immutable promise

That it will happen

But what will it bring?

Promises

Like what we wish for

Must be accepted with care

Especially when they’re mutable.

March 2015

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