The Words We Use — Language is fluid, isn’t it?

Since the time of Cro-Magnon orators, we have continuously and thankfully modified our languages.  Now there are many hundreds spoken, and many hundreds more have slid back into the recesses of time. And all this is a good thing. Had changes not occurred, we never would have had metaphors or s’mores? Yes, language changes with the times and the complexity of the world in general. This linguistic mutability is for some however a heady wine. Wine, and especially a good wine, can enhance a meal while it improves digestion, and it aids in the defeat of free-radicals. Similarly, changes in language can enhance good rhetoric, while aiding in the digestion of new ideas, and it helps clarify vagueness. However, like wine on the lips of some, changes in language can be committed for change-sake, a heady sense of self-empowerment, or a sad but general detachment from the value of standards.

There are agencies that actually inspire seemingly random, screw-cap changes in our language – at least in the English language – creating changes for the sake of catchiness. These catchy words and phrases, along with words born in the vacuum of lexical deficiencies, are picked up and proliferated across our land by the various media. Accepting the validity of anything posted on social media especially, no matter how dubious or pointless, furthers the corruption of our language. We become besotted with these jingly changes, spewing them into our own communities. And they are infectious – or rather—and forgive me for saying it, “They go viral!”

What then is the result? Do we have a better understanding of any thought that might have been subtly embedded? Well, that’s a tricky question. In the first place, so much of what is written or said has no particular meaning. The speaker or writer may simply be trying to evoke a reaction, not a thoughtful assessment, from the listener or reader. Anything like meaning is just an empty carton, wrapped in glib gift wrap, giving the impression of meaning. It is intended to sound ‘a way’: funny, comforting, threatening, etc. But, hey, actual thinking is calorie costly work. No, no! Life is supposed to be fun and feel good. Entertainment over information. Thus, the second reason that better understanding is unlikely is that the reader or listener, more often than not, wants reassurance, not reasoned argument. Bias affirmation not cognitive stimulation. So, two halves of a communication: sender and receiver – half of the model has no meaningful message to deliver, and the other half has no interest in analyzing one. So, ignore everything I’ve written so far and just enjoy the catchy bits. We go on, however.

We know that it happens, but how?

Beowulf Manuscript from https://mymodernmet.com/old-english-manuscripts/, 24 Aug 2020

How ever did we get to this point? To begin with, the English language has indeed been changing since well before it was even Old English – Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic tongue. Beowulf (shown here) represents the state of language around 1,000 years ago. The change since then has occurred over the last 1% or so of the whole course language. So change is natural and it is certainly going on pretty much everywhere today, but perhaps a little more quickly.

By the way, this bit says:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme blæd wide sprang,
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean,

Even when neither invasion nor rising mercantilism is the source, languages cross boundaries in other ways. The more people travel or emigrate, the more they take their language into new places. “Tobacco” came back to Europe from the Americas as both a product and a word. Food and other consumables often enter the language and are easily adopted. Though sometimes the adoption is not so easy. “Hot dog” was brought to France during the Second World War. The word was rejected from the official French language under the dictatorship of the Académie Française, but it might have seemed more acceptable to the French people than the source food name, Frankfurter.Historically, there are three ways that languages change. The first of these is simply conquest and submission. In 1066, the Anglo-Saxons who ruled the south and east of modern England were displaced by Norman conquerors. The latter spoke Old French – Latinized Gallic probably influenced by Norse, since the Norse had established a colony in Normandy as they had in Dublin and Scarborough and many other places. Skipping the complexities of the era, Norman French of the then ruling class merged with the Saxon German of the peasantry and smaller estates, because they needed to be able to communicate with one another. Their pidgin became Middle and then Modern English over 500 years of so. We maintain some of the features of that pidgin, such as the Saxon cow () in the barn becoming the Norman beef (boef) on the plate.

The Académie Française, by the way, has had only some success in stopping changes to French. The conservative linguistic scholars simply came too late to the game. French, like all languages, has suffered or enjoyed gradual vocal drift, for example. Vocal drift is a change that has brewed over hundreds of years. Did the French always drop the final consonant sound of words? The result of vocal drift is easy to see in the current differences in American and British English speakers, and is even apparent in regional differences across America and across England. We learn to form the sounds of our language as babies, and that there would be slight differences in what is formed is not surprising. Children spend much of their speech practice with other children. This allows changes from one family to influence children from another family. Vocal drift is especially common in vowel sounds. We all tend to take several vowels (ă, ĕ, ŭ) toward the schwa sound, eh, for example.

The third change mechanism is word addition often resulting from advances in civilization and technology. Since civilization is about living together, language would have to evolve with it. At some point, farmers tell their hunter neighbors that it’s okay to hunt on their land because otherwise the animals might eat the food plants they had planted there, which seem attract animals, such as deer. “You planted food plants?” “Yes, indeed, and I call it a farm. So, please, hunt the deer on my farm, but don’t crush the crops.” “Crops?” These days, we are swamped with technobabble, of course, and that’s actually a big part of an emerging problem. English isn’t just evolving to meet changing needs; it’s become a form of (self?)-entertainment, and it’s degrading. And while my efforts may be as pointless as those of the Académie Française, I will appeal to the consciences of thoughtful, communicative readers such as yourselves to hold out against the corrosion of English.

As now, language had an explosion around 450 years ago. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the printing press and Protestantism in Europe engendered a fairly large increase in those who read. That in turn supported the amount of writing that was going on. Language needed to standardize. The vocabulary of the times—more properly called a lexicon—in the village of 100 was bumping into the lexicons of other villages, and moreover, the lexicons of places such as the court in London. Shakespeare helped the explosion. He created hundreds of new words, mostly out of old ones, such as “eyeball.” Now, I rush to the defense of Willie here; he had good cause for creating a new word and he didn’t run it into the ground with over use. The thing he was writing about needed a better word than any that existed, and it was needed to complete an iamb. Shakespeare’s inventions didn’t degrade the language. They met a need and they were not, and did not become hollow catchy sounds. Many became words commonly used today. That’s no longer the case.

Today we are dealing with forces changes to our language that do not meet a need and which are becoming overused and often used so far from their origins, if they even have one, that they have become superfluous and utterly meaningless. It is as if we are emptying meaning and poetic charm out of English. Trendy words that have supplanted English existing words have become unclear in their meanings. They are pseudo-words, junk words.

Many such changes are purely gratuitous. For decades cute, slang-veined spelling was the change of frivolous choice. “Quick” became “Kwik.” How very “kwaint.” That slang-creating trend has metamorphosed, or, in the truncated, digital-age cant, “morphed.” Thus we see some of the changes as auditory abbreviations. A few, such as President Coolidge’s conversion of “normality” to “normalcy,” are probably the deposits of lexical ignorance; the speaker didn’t know there was already a word for the desired meaning. More recent are the changes that are truly unnecessary, and cannot be overlooked as cuteness, laziness or ignorance either.

They are changes for change sake, pointless and a little crude. One such change is the generation of new words by converting a noun or less often an adjective into a verb, usually by adding “ing,” an act I call “verbing”. The classic “verbed” word is “priority,” used as “prioritize” to mean “set priorities.” It was probably born of not knowing that “prioritize” was not a word, but could appear to be by adding a Latinate suffix, the classic way to shift parts of speech. It is has become accepted now and so is a real language change, not just kitsch verbing. Such questionable changes are represented by such words as “texting.” A text is a set of words usually in print. The term distinguishes words from images or other visual features. When we send text from one mobile device to another in the form of a words-only message, are we “texting” or worse “messaging”? Surely, we are not so strapped for time that we can’t say, “Send me a message,” rather than, “Text me.” “Cover me in text?” A “text message” is already moreover redundant, since messages are text for delivery.

Handling new technology derived words is challenging. Considering the bright lines that distinguish engineering and mathematics from linguistic cognition, philosophical discourse or other humanities, one hardly wonders that computer hardware and software engineers are recasting language into a digital system that computers can handle. And we even speak of programming languages, which create systems where the exact same input will always return the exact same output. Since computers can’t deal with the emotional ambiguities of organic people, technology-based language must limit our ability to speak our feeling to them. That’s not all together a bad thing. We become a bit more bilingual, and we know that’s good for brain development and concept formation. This bilingualism however can engender pidgin language. Bilingual Spanish/English speakers may use Spanglish. Perhaps OS/English speakers will adopted Compuglish.

Perhaps the most glaring of these language corruptions springs from the screens of the Mac computer. That’s word high jacking. Macs used icons as switches or buttons displayed on the screen meant to activate something, usually to start a program running. The icon was a little picture that may have represented something about the program’s function, such as a typewriter picture to represent a word processor. Maneuver the cursor to the icon and press the button on the mouse and the program would start running. This is exactly what is meant by the word “icon,” an image through which one could access some dynamic. The word is taken from religious worship where icons were images, such as paintings or statues, representing deities or saints. By appealing to such images, the spirit of that entity would inhabit the image and be accessible to the supplicant. An icon was not just a symbol or emblem of something representative of an idea or category. It became, when called upon, the very thing it represented. The icon wasn’t worshiped; it was a connecting mechanism like a telephone that connects us via a direct hotline. So what is meant by an iconic song? “Iconic,” the adjective form of “icon,” suggests that the noun it modifies is in the nature of an icon. The saint or computer program that comes to us hears our prayers or inputs. The answer is that “iconic,” as it is used today, means nothing. Its incredible overuse and consistent misuse have rendered it completely without meaning. It is simply a mot du jour. Not using is the only fault; it leaves one out of step. Using it however means nothing, but it sounds good. While this is a very apparent dilution of meaning through the change of language, its use pales when compared to intentional misdirection. Beyond just emptying words of their meaning to leave a vacuous smiley face, words are being twisted further to elicit emotional arrays beyond the glib into the grim.

Avoiding meaning is not enough it seems. Today changes to our language are often meant to confound understanding while drawing out a reaction – often buying something, voting for someone, targeting something or just filling an empty ego with primal sounds. The dilution of the language paves the way for this. The use of buzz-words is often effectively calculated to fall on ears open to the sound of things, but deaf to any thought behind the sounds, thus bringing forth the desired reaction even when it conflicts with the best interest of the listener. There are many buzz-words in our cultural lexicons that do this. It’s seldom necessary to create new ones. Remember that the word doesn’t necessarily carry any meaning, and when it does, it might be unclear or twisted. These words make us feel some way, but what do they tell us?

Speakers shift their rhetoric from reason to passion by the choice, placement and repetition of words that sound good or scary or promising. Our intellect could be reached by these emotional appeals through reason, but that would require a little background knowledge and some reasoned consideration of ideas—reaction v. evaluation. We can be reached with a few well-chosen, incendiary words. A word such as “lying” needs no explanation. It’s bad and whatever is attached to it is bad too. So a lying newspaper is a bad newspaper. It doesn’t need to make sense and it doesn’t need to be true; it’s bad [full stop]. And as it has no real meaning, can it be true or false? If the words describing people and events have no real meaning, the veracity of those words has no foundation. There simply is no true or false—right or wrong, just linguistic sociopathy. Without some sense of truth or falsehood, some sense of right or wrong, no one can be held accountable for anything, because there is no accounting. Everything is what it is—empty moving sounds, ink on paper, vibrations in the air. This is argument without reason, winning by manipulating emotions through clever management of charged language—language without standards.

English is a rich, even precise language with something close to 50,000 words in use. College educated native speakers probably recognize between 25,000 and 30,000 words, if they are widely and well read, and use about half that number, less in speaking than writing. Overusing words therefore thins out the meaning that may have been intended, leaving only an imprecise impression. Worse, creating new words that don’t add anything more to our understanding of one another seems a bit of a disconnection with the whole point of language. Shouldn’t language attempt to transmit the complex abstraction and imagery of our thoughts as closely as possible with a clear comprehension and recreation in someone else’s thoughts? Other media can carry the abstractions, such as art and music, but these only stimulate dreamlike, abstract thoughts or feelings, by tapping into remembered feelings. Such thoughts and feelings can vary greatly, or may be absent, and are certainly not the same between two individuals. Words are for sharing ideas. Words hold and share power and clarity of thought when used with this intent. Using a word for its cuteness—for its entertainment value—seems like a petty vanity that discourages thoughtful persons from taking such a speaker or listener seriously. Moreover it opens the way for deception and manipulation. Language competence makes us more resistant to deception and manipulation, and empowers us to be thoughtful people in control of our own lives. Is the pen not mightier than the sword?

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”

—George Gordon, Lord Byron

Surviving the Covid-19 Lockdown

I was preparing what I would contribute to our online meeting this evening. It springs from what I have been thinking about and what has pretty much got me down recently. I see how people around me are stepping forward to help out and be united in surviving Covid-19, and I see how politicians are willing to let people die in the advance of their agendas.

Our weekly meetings were supposed to be about “surviving the pandemic and exploiting its opportunities.” I thought it would help people feel more connected and positive by sharing successes and spotlighting hope. Perhaps more control over what people say… Perhaps a tighter seminar format… Yet venting is important too, but it seems to descend into recrimination and emotional stagnation.

Now I wonder if that isn’t just us being who we are. Maybe we are masters of our own doom; we just have no good map for choosing which paths to take. Perhaps all we can do is take it one step at a time and continue to move forward and accept what comes and move on.

My contribution for this evening

Getting through:

Do: Yard work, bike rides and reading…and Prime Video

Avoid: Lakes and parkways, Millennials with little kids on bikes on the sidewalks, the news

Getting on:

We speak of coming out of this better in some way. In that statement are two assumptions that contradict history.

First is the assumption that we will come through the medical and financial crises and be free of any remnant of it. No. We carry our history with us forever; we will be forever affected by it. There is no getting over it. It would be like saying we have passed through the shift to agrarianism or the Industrial Revolution, and are no longer carrying the affects with us. This pandemic is miniscule by comparison, but it will be with us always.

Second is the assumption that humans will be changed by this. The only thing that changes about us is the scale and scope of our actions. We’re using Zoom which has boomed from the situation and increased our capacity to interconnect, and it has made us more easily and more often the victims of invasive and malicious behaviors. The Great Plague of the 14th century did bring an end to the Hundred Years War. 600 hundred years later, the French and Germans were back at it, again. During that plague, a business arose in body disposal. The carriers of the dead were paid per corpse, some of which were only near death. Those carriers would leave articles of clothing along the streets to promote further infection. What changes is how we exploit situations: for good or bad. And Good and Bad are entirely subjective. We only believe they are absolutes.

As humans we have always been vessels of great promise and disgusting wretchedness. That isn’t going to change and there’s plenty of evidence of that out there now. Get set for new ways to do what we have been doing for at least the last 5 millennia. It is the tension between our extremes that defines us. It is the conflict the drives the plot of our story. And where each of us comes down on that conflict defines our character.

To Be of a Place

What does it mean to be of a place?
Is who we are, where we are?
How can we know ourselves otherwise?
What does it mean to be of a place, of a country?
Is the man next to me just me again,
Because we stand in the same place?
Can I not be as a man who is far away,
Because he stands in a distant place?
I have stood at the mouth of the canyon,
And contemplated my place in the world.

If where I am in any way makes me who I am,
Then the more places I go;
The more of me there is.
I am enlarged.
I have stood on the bank of the river
And looked across at another country.
I have stood at the mouth of the canyon,
And contemplated a larger world in me.

February 2020

Lions and Tigers and Memes, Oh, My!

I’ve just been reading about “memes,” in a Times article. I had to laugh.

Here’s part of the letter to the Times:

   I am a Gen X-er who generally speaks proper English and am a “digital native.” (Hey, kids: We built these tools that you claim as your own.) When I respond to a text or email with “O.K.,” I mean just that: O.K. As in: I hear you, I understand, I agree, I will do that. If I reply with “K,” I’m just being more informal.

   However, I have been informed by my Millennial and Gen Z co-workers that the new thing I’m supposed to type is “kk.” To write “O.K.” or “K,” they tell me, is to be passive-aggressive or imply that I would like the recipient to drop dead. To which I am tempted to respond, “Believe me, if I want you to drop dead … you’ll know.”

 Two Letters of Generational Separation, Caity Weaver,
 The New York Times, app.nytimes.com, 24 Nov. 2019

   All right – or should I say, “kk” – the writer encountered an “obstacle,” a challenge to his(?)  – the text sort of sounds like it, but, he is just a guess – to their self-entitlement. “I invented the digital age – so Ha!” quotes they. (Hmmm – “quote they?”) And wasn’t there ARPNET before s/he was even born? Yet, s/he does speak “proper” English.

   Meanwhile the columnist’s response that follows is coherent and somewhat measured. However, it does dive into a discourse on generation and gender, and gender positioning and boundary defining… Well, she “agendizes” her response. (“Agendizes” isn’t a word, but I couldn’t help a little youthful “verbing.”) So, is “Ok” even a meme? I mean really? (ambiguity intended)

   So here’s Wiki’s take on memes:

 Meme

   From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

   A meme (/miːm/ MEEM) is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. [sort of an icon without portfolio (ed)]  A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

   Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

from which I’ve taken out note numbering, etc.

    Perhaps it is a new life form. I suspect this definition was submitted by someone who has thought much about memes and has articulated much of that thought here. When I create an image out of her or his words, it’s something like a children’s cartoon wherein a character speaks words which stream out of its mouth and another character busily gathers those words and bunches them into a ball that itself becomes the thing the words represented – let’s say a running dog. Big dog, little dog, friendly or vicious? The ambiguity of text has always allowed for variation of interpretation. That’s why clear writing has long demanded precision. Memes are all interpretation with no intent intended – anti-precision.

   I’m getting closer to the “obstacle.” The letter writer is chasing her/his tail about the “proper” use of something that does its job poorly and is generally void of intention. Precision is demanding, and it exposes the complexity and inadequacy of language to ever express the vagaries and nuance, and especially the unique nature of a thought. Just like writing a ten volume history of the world leaves out an unimaginable amount, just speaking a sentence leaves volumes unsaid. A similar problem then exists for the receiver – the listener. When we hear or read something, we have to make meaning out of it. Vibrating air molecules and printer’s ink cannot hold meaning. We have to unravel the meaning from the crude symbols of language. In doing that we call on previous experiences with the words – singly and in combination – and with all the other clues, such as intonation, pauses, facial expression and gestures in face to face communications, for which ALL CAPS, italics, underlining and color are poor and capricious substitutes. I’ve tried to be precise here, but you, and god, only know what you’ve just read.

   Well, have you figured out the obstacle yet? OK. Oh, I’m supposed to use the Gen-Z accommodation “kk” here — or I could just be more precise. Here then is the obstacle: The hyper-fluidity of contemporary language has moved speakers and listeners, and writers and readers increasingly away from precise use of a rich and powerful language toward a polymorphic set of trendy phrases. As a mode of language use, memes hang somewhere between colloquial language, which will stay fairly persistent, and slang and jargon, which are more ephemeral in the case of slang and more exclusive in the case of jargon. As much as memes are generational, they fit both of these; they will pass with the next generation and they are tied to the media channels of the day, e.g. social media.

   What does this mean then! Well, it has to do with power for one thing. As I said, language, and I believe English rather exquisitely, is powerful. Its enduring impact alone attests to that. Think of the phrases from Shakespeare embedded in our common surroundings – “To be or not to be,” – specifically a suicidal thought, often extrapolated to any monumental decision. Think of President Reagan’s words 50 years gone – “Tear down this wall,” specially referring to the Berlin Wall in 1997, now applicable to any impediment to unity and harmony. Yet where does the power in these words lie? It isn’t in the words; it’s in how we read them. It’s what happens in the reader’s mind when hearing or reading these words. The power like the meaning is in the impact. Reagan directed his word toward Gorbachev and the East Germans, and they were meant to “feel” the power. At the same time, people in the West were meant to feel that power as theirs, creating the power Reagan was channeling. With memes, there is a very different power dynamic occurring.

   When people feel disempowered they may try to create, rearrange, circumvent or destroy externals they consider to be oppressing them. Sometimes it’s fighting back and sometimes it’s just lashing out, but it’s a complex natural response that allows us to survive and mature. Powerlessness oppresses many “categories” (really hard to find a baggage free word here, sorry) – race, religion, ethnicity…but universally childhood.

   Children are almost universally oppressed, that is, denied power. (An aside: premature empowerment of children has many interesting long term effects, the discussion of which far exceeds this essay. I’ll stick to how this impacts language.) One way to wrest power into one’s own words, or at least into the words used by peers is the creation of new words or word sets for ideas commonly held among peers. This is slang – gen code. Most of it passes out of practice as the young age. It’s cool that some sticks around, but the more far-out bits die ungraceful deaths. Slang is exclusive of older generations, thus it retains power among those who created it. Jargon works similarly, but with expert group rather than age – geek speak, jock talk, theologian esotericisms. Expert groups probably don’t feel disempowered; quite the contrary. They want to wall their power in, however. Both groups wish to be exclusive, and that exclusivity can be used as a lever to shift power.

   Memes have moved generational linguistic strategies along a different route, however. No better example may exist than “OK, Boomer.” this meme says pretty much what that strategy is: a demand that the older speaker affirm the younger listener’s existing, if limited, interpretation of the world. Other, non-affirming statements are noise or attacks. Such demands are simply immature. Who do you know who is immersed in their own reality, and accuses speakers of irrelevance or hostility if they disagree with this individual? What if we take someone else’s pet phrase and assign it a different, contrary meaning? Can we then accuse the speaker of intending the new meaning when using the phrase? Gotcha!

   There is a troubling counter positioning that underlies the generational meme war, and by the way, at least the last three generations have been in this boat. I can’t speak to the Boomers’ involvement, being a member of that generation, but the Anti-war Movement would seem to sit in there as well. In all of these generational power grabs, there have been two disturbing takeaways. First, because they focus on what seems accessible to influence, such as language, they fail to access the underlying levers of power to make actual cultural change that will persist. It is therefore not surprising that – and this is the second thing, not much change happens. “OK” to “kk” will not shift any power, in any form, to Gen-Z people. It will not raise their esteem in the eyes of their elders, who already hold more power. Memetic shifts will not gain them much more respect; rather they may only gain grudging obligation. Worse, as a species, we won’t get much better – but probably not much worse either – at raising our children to understand that, like so much in life, real power is acquired not by wresting memetic minutia from others, but by sharing understanding of what matters. Maturing can be a process of integrating our needs and wants into the general flow of resources and rewards through cooperative effort and universal returns. “Kk” will bring us no closer to bringing our children or us to this understanding. Meanwhile we struggle in contention and seek primacy, and thus squander the power we have on such diminished rewards.

   Empowerment can be weighed not by how others’ action makes us feel, but by how our own actions make us feel. And if we weigh power as one might weigh wealth, as an external to be accumulated, we are doomed to disappointment. We are trying to strip other’s power to increase our own, but their loss will not make us feel better about ourselves, only, in a twisted way, “better” than the person whose power we’ve stripped. We can’t make our lives better by making other people’s lives worse. That’s dominance, and it fits the reasoning of a maladjusted 9 year old. A mature person gets it that doing good feels good; all boats rising – an enduring meme. Another enduring meme: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” (In case you’ve forgotten, the rest of that is, “It’s all small stuff.”) For purely self-empowering reasons, I want you all to feel empowered, to do good work and make this a better world for all living things. If you do, my power will have increased too, and I’ll feel better about myself.

   So thanks to George Lucas, my final meme: “May the Force be with you.”

I Have a Couple of Questions

Is there a global network of Nationalist terrorism? An innately human system tending toward militant Tribalism? Is there a widely held belief that humanity is genetically designed to live in a world of homogeneous cultures*, isolated from and hostile to other cultures, and entitled to dominate, exploit and destroy other cultures by the virtue of might in the guise of need?
What is the basis for such a system? Are there valid scriptures declaring the intentions of superhuman beings or forces for such a system? Is there historical, anthropological or archeological evidence that demonstrates the relative success of species populations who enjoy better survival status when they break into competing groups – tribes? Is there evidence that localized packs or tribal groups are more genetically stable when they do not incorporate genetic material from outside their tribe? Is there any philosophical, psychological or medical evidence that militant conflict improves the quality of life for the greater number of members of the tribe?
Is there any authoritative documentation, historical evidence or demonstrable rational that supports the superiority of the tribalist world? And if not, what drives such a wide spread and apparently sociopathic delusion?
Oh, make no mistake about it: I have answers to these questions. I think more people need to ask themselves these questions, and be prepared with answers to them.

*Culture: a community of people who share language, traditions and beliefs, which may or may not include the belief in a right to a certain geographic space and a qualification of “racial” purity as defined by certain physical characteristics. Such a community could be called a tribe or nation.

The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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The classic example of Modernism lies in the line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” which by extension declares that there is a moral or social “center” from which we have lost hold, spiraling into the darkness of the unknown, ungoverned by any moral core. This is Yeats’ response to the world of the First World War, a war among wealthy, powerful, rather degenerate and often incompetent European monarchies fought by everyone but them.

How appropriate then for our Post-Modernist time when the world is racked by oppression, conflict, discord and violence in a chaos of the Ongoing World War, a war among wealthy, powerful, degenerate and often incompetent world autocracies, many of whom make war on their own subjects.  If there ever was a moral center, it has faded into complete obscurity.

What “rough beast’s” hour is coming around now to save us? How long must we wait for anything to come from without to save us from ourselves?

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The great lesson of history, well recorded in our Humanities: We have learned nothing from history, except how to repeat it, as this phrase has often coined.

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

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