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


The season of mud and broken limbs


The immutable promise

That it will happen

But what will it bring?


Like what we wish for

Must be accepted with care

Especially when they’re mutable.

March 2015

A Lamp Is Lit

Chilling ghosts drift across the heavens.

Fragile fingers spread into a stream,

A suffocating, wan December sky,

Blankets coldly, easing downward,

And, humbly, we succumb.

Thus nullified, we rest,

And try to recover and rebuild.

We breathe slowly, and invest in solemnity.

We design aimlessly and conspire with phantoms.

We plan and plot and prepare. And for what?

We wait. For waiting is the last resort,

The final function, the night watch

When all the leaves have been stripped away,

When the brown ground lies fallow

And the lifeless sky presses down.

We are left on our own, alone at last.

Our winter’s wood has all been cut and stacked.

A kettle’s on the stove. Bread is in the oven.

The door is shut and barred. A lamp is lit.

It’s quiet now, and in the evening,

Dreams, unfulfilled, drift blindly to the ground.

They calm our solitude and sanctify our peace.

And in the spring, there won’t be any tracks.

December 2013

November 2012 (revised)

When the water in the dogs’ dish
by the coffee shop door
is a broken chunk of ice,
encasing a single yellow leaf,
When the windshield grows
an inner film of mist as
the defroster tries to thaw
the rime of brittle crystals
that map an early winter vista,
When the last rich aroma of leaf mold,
the warm colors of maples and oaks,
the royal purples and peasant blues
of the asters succumb
to the first hard frost,
That’s when my mortality
stares me in the eye.
January 2014

Complexity Theory

I’ve heard about Complexity Theory. It sounds like reductionism to me, though I’m told I’m wrong there. Dwelling somewhere between chaos and determinism, complexity theory seems, perhaps nobly, to be trying to understand the structure or natural laws governing the existential balance between chance and order. It seems a bit like divining the principles of an engineered universe. And certainly there are things that seem very highly engineered, in physics for example, positively deterministic systems, until we encounter quantum mechanics. Then our understanding is pushed perilously close to chaos. The weakness in seeking an understanding to predictable outcomes for highly complex events is the somewhat quantum nature of the causal agents, you and me. We defy reductive reasoning.

If reductive reasoning presumes that the complexity of a thing can be defined or reduced to a single cause or formula, its logic hangs on causal networks that are patterned or replicable in some way. If the exact same state exists in all aspects, then the exact same effects will descend from a single causal event. Expanding the cause to a set of causal states, changes little. There are two possible shortcomings in this theory, which do not falsify it, but may certainly dilute if not neutralize it.

The first is an easy shortcoming to predict: the exact same state existing in all aspects. This is an extremely improbable, if even vaguely possible occurrence. If the universe began with a big bang or has always exist, with our understanding of it deriving from passing through time and space, then, whether or not it is progressing, it is always changing as we see it. Therefore, we have already passed through the time and place where things were as they were, and can never pass through that time and place again, we assume. Even if we were there again—and there’s no reason to doubt that that ‘there and then’ with us in it hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t always exist—it would still be the only time and place where “the exact same state [is] existing in all aspects.” So much for exactness; what about similarity?

There is promise of usefulness in this notion of reductionism at a less exacting level. The weather forecast is based on gathering aspects of climatology patterns, on which meteorologists’ computers, applying algorithms based on past results of similar states, can predict the probability of a range of outcomes. The forces of the irrational deterministic world seem pretty well subject to the reductionist theory. But what about the rational world?

The second shortcoming is degree of predictability on non-deterministic events. First of all, in human interactions, past data of the specificity needed to formulate reasonably reliable algorithms may not very well exist. Take for example the cases of Iraq, Libya and Syria. How much critical data can be collected from the first two situations from which to predict a reliable pattern for events as outcomes of the third? In the first place, there was only the slightest number of aspects in Iraq and Libya to call them so much as similar, and Syria shares an even smaller number with both. And it hardly matters how many conflicts we examine, in comparison with the more than 30,000 days of weather data from which to draw positive probabilities. We get what amounts to a weak guess of the final outcome. What’s more, weather is highly regular in its patterns due to our solar cycles compared with human events that have a slight daily and annual pattern and a life cycle. None of these cycles are very regular, especially in a world of global, continuous communications.

The second shortcoming is also subject to rational disruption. Reductive reasoning can easily be applied to poker; there are a known number of cards of each value in the deck and in play. The game is pure chance, except that players fold and bluff, rationally disrupting the course of chance. Even if we come up with reasonably reliable predictors of probability for massively complex human events, or even for our own life events, we will always have to deal with the folding and bluffing of other players in the guessing games of life.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. Maybe people are changing. I have always found one pattern of complex human behavior to be consistent: the more we learn of history, the more we know how little we’ve learned from history—the  more we see that history simply repeats itself. The meteorologists don’t change the weather either. Makes ya’ wonder, doesn’t it

What is it to be old?

What is it really to be older? What is it to be old? When we look back fondly and say such things as “when we used to care about things,” are we not really trying to return to the past, to recapture it? Or are we trying not to face now? Why wouldn’t we want to face now? Is now so much harder than then? I wonder if then was really so much easier then than it seems to be now? Is now really so much harder than then?

Remembering is selective, of course. Remembering what made us feel good then generally makes us feel good now. Remembering what made us feel bad then would probably make us feel bad now. But either way we tend to regret (a really bad feeling) that it’s not then any more: bad things were losses then and good things are lost now. We’d probably be better off not remembering.

But to reminisce, to indulge in sweet nostalgia—are we not compounding a folly by filling the gaps in fragmented memories with syrupy creations akin to dreams in reverse? When we get old, really old and stop telling people we’re not old, just older—when we reach that stage, we could well have abandoned not only dreams for the future but even an awareness of now and exist live afloat in this sea of dreamed history dotted with islets of factual memories.

Is memory, no matter how sweet and soothing, enough to be a life? At best, memory is an inaccurate recreation of past sensations, a programmatically flawed raster rendition of past inputs. Yet this is the past we are drawn to, eventually becoming a reality generated from a dementia-jumbled conglomeration of memories swimming in a jelly of backward directed hope. Over statement perhaps, but not ill-conceived. What is it to be old and to try to live our not-old lives over?

What about the everyday old, when there simply isn’t much coming in? when memories begin to rub against the ankles of our thoughts, purring their need for attention? Do we slip into the warm waters of sweet memory and quit the dry world of the living? Are we zombyized—not quite dead, yet not part of the living, sweating, noisy world?

When we dream in our sleep, we are who we are. I am 25 or so, active and passionate—outside of age, but inside of life. But these are dreams. Perhaps dreams, like memories, are pulling us back to when we believe life was good, denying the goodness of our lives now, offering us a chance to start over, do that last bit again so we can get it right.


I have been wavering back and forth on this a bit. I feel a certain obligation to the organizations and institutions I have allied with in an effort to advance social justice and advocate for human rights, on one hand. On the other hand, I have felt an increasing value in the individual relationships I build when I do something to help one person at a time, pick up one piece of litter, respond to one confused traveler’s lost look. Perhaps what encourages me is the immediacy of effect these tiny effort achieve over the delayed incremental change in the worldly field of assaults and setbacks. I know that the effort must be made in that broad arena to forestall the opposing interests. I am increasingly unsure that it must be done by me. I am not sure I have the energy or the will frankly to take on the world. Perhaps if I were a little obsessed…but I am not. I am retired and feel retiring. I want to contract my life into a much smaller orb. I want to diminish my domain, and want to feel good about my days. At the same time, I do not wish to abandon those I have given to trusting me to be there, even though I feel rather ineffectual in that trust.
Is this disinclination to the broad playing field just a form of depression? Does the scant feedback I get fail adequately to feed my ego? Is this distraction a product of aging, similar to a reduced sex drive? Is it boredom or frustration? Certainly I have been irritated by the constant reordering of events that keeps me from ordering my own life. I am irritated by the failure of others to follow through or communicate. I am irritated by bouts of reluctance, intransigence and timorousness from colleagues and compatriots. I am mostly, and most ironically, irritated by the smallness of vision held by even those considered our most global thinkers, and suspect that much of that smallness is really calculated to distract those who believe themselves to have a global perspective.
Is my attraction to one-on-one interactions just a form of control over my existence, reduced in scope and scale by the shadow of mortality? Is it an immediate need to feed my ego? Is this attraction an illusion in aging, bending my amaranthine youth to vane voyeurism? Is it manageability of my life? Certainly I am rewarded with setting my own agenda and my own schedule. I am rewarded with regular appearance of compliant individuals who tell me ahead of time when they cannot meet. I am rewarded with willing and engaged faces who offer thanks at every encounter. I am mostly rewarded by watching the smallness of individuals’ vision grow steadily if not grandly to enlarge their worlds and improve their lot in life.
Perhaps this is just my Eriksonian reflective age. Perhaps I need to consolidate my ego around an assurance that my life was meaningful. As a teacher, perhaps I am inclined to coalesce this integrity around the act of sharing my findings with future generations, attaching this end of life with the other in a sociological reincarnation. Perhaps I am simply following the natural course of the event called Jay. I can, I know, no longer set major course corrections as I sail toward the inevitable horizon. It is now only the journey itself that counts. It is a journey that will end, but without destination. Under these conditions, my journey can only be right or wrong, good or bad as it proceeds, at the moment it inhabits, without reference to whither it goeth but to what it is at each moment. I feel I must live every moment of my life now, not as if it were my last, but as my only chance to have this moment. Each moment must be complete unto itself, not as a point on a route to some destiny.