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?

——————————————————————————-

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?

———————————————

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

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.

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