Morning News

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

Indian Winter

Indian winter

A week of warmth

Then cold and snow

Wet and heavy

Bending branches

It’s only March

This can go on for weeks

Then wind and rain

Spring

The season of mud and broken limbs

Summer

The immutable promise

That it will happen

But what will it bring?

Promises

Like what we wish for

Must be accepted with care

Especially when they’re mutable.

March 2015

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.

Wavering

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.

Of Cabbages-and Kings

“As the years have gone along,
Our love it seems has risen and fallen
Like the chorus of a song,
Not sadly or coldly,
Nor badly nor boldly.”
“Not so,” says she.
“There was a time when it was clear,
When love and laughter,
Like sun and rapture,
Wrapped us in warmth and good cheer.”
“Not so much,” she says.
“But this is how it seems to me.”
“The love we have is what we’ve always had.
It’s not the love that’s changed;
It’s the lover.
Not the song but the singer.”
“How can you say that?
My love is part of me,
And thine of thee.
Our sharing is blending of these.”
“No,” says she.
“Love is greater than we.
It binds us to one melody.”
“For me, that cannot be.”
“Let us speak then of truth and other things
Of cabbages—and kings.”

On a Mountain Pass

From the banks and curves of a sunny meadow,
The white road dives
Into a brooding spruce curtain,
Its dark green deepening darker still
Under its emerald arms,
Its tops impaling an infinite sky,
Its deep blue darkening deeper still
Toward a sapphire zenith,
An arc etched on a mountain pass,
Its brilliant white glinting brighter still
Across the diamond crest.

The scene is ever caught, frozen, fixed,
A crystallized, thin-air gasp, instantly silenced,
Beauty motionless, soundless, timeless,
The place between one second
And the next, and now eternal,
Frozen in the ice of time,
Sealed upon the soul’s eye,
A green, blue and white land,
A memory before story,
Met forever one winter day,
A chance unlooked for and profound.

January 2013 – 40 years later

November 2012

When the water in the dogs’ dish
by the coffee shop door
is a broken chunk of ice,
encasing a single yellow maple leaf,

When a misty film grows
on the inside of the windshield
as the defroster blows moist air
that strains to clear the crystal
maple leaves of frost on the outside,

When the last rich aroma
of leaf mold and mums,
the last warm colors
of maple and aspen trees,
the valiant purple and blue asters,
have ended in an ozone of frozen air,

In a morning, in a moment it seems,
that’s when my mortality peeps
through cracks and around edges
and looks me in the eye.

November 2012

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