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

Assume Nothing?

We make assumptions. Some of these assumptions are so deeply embedded in our minds that we are unaware of them, but our world view is profoundly shaped by them. These assumptions define our reality and much of our identity. Fundamental fact: we are made of assumptions. Fundamental, unrealistic rule of living: assume nothing. Hypothesis: knowing and accepting those deeply embedded assumptions is knowing and accepting who we are.

As a teacher, I have used a simple exercise with small group of adult and adolescent students that helps them confront some of their assumptions, and with sufficient reflection, may have helped them more or less consistently confront assumptions in general. Each group of three to five is given two or three pennies. They all know what the penny is, of course, even though Visa and Square may be leading to penny obsolescence. The groups are then given these instructions:

You are an extra-terrestrial archeological team. You have arrived at a lifeless planet in a remote corner of space. The only evidence you have found that life existed here in some distant past are the objects you see before you. You may conclude from their material and general evenness of shape that they were fashioned, and not naturally occurring. All the rules of physics as we know then apply. We know they are copper, which is easily smelted from copper ore in a hot fire, for example.

What certain conclusions can you draw about their maker or makers from this archeological evidence? What speculations can you make about the makers of these objects? Conclusions require verifiable fact, what is known; assume nothing. Speculation combines fact and justifiable assumptions; make these very carefully.

The teams generally draw similar conclusions, which are really only speculations, and even then, flawed by supposition. They almost always make mention of Lincoln’s head on one side. This is a great place to start the conversation around the question: How do you know that? The embedded assumption, of course, is that the extra-terrestrials are sufficiently anthropomorphic to recognize a bas-relief figure on a disk as a “head” and all that goes with that. Big assumption?

Huge! We, as any science fiction writer will tell you, are desperately chauvinistic. Notice that the common language of the universe, with or without translators, is English, as in the Star Trek series and films. We accept that vocalization is the universal standard of communications; the use of English, because of the audience, has a better foundation. And sentient beings therefore have heads. It is simply how we can accept the vast possibilities of the universe, defining to the limits of what is known.

Science is at work to undo the two inconceivabilities we have been told about the universe: that there is empty space in it and that there is nothing beyond it—it goes infinitely on. The universe is finite, so must everything within it be finite and comprehensible. Nothingness and infinity are not humanly comprehendible. We can only comprehend through our senses. Try comprehending before and after time, by comparison. Our senses and our experiences are our assumptive limits, and only our imaginations can take us beyond. Yet, even the language of imagination must struggle mightily to get beyond the known, having simply been reordered. Imagination at its fullest power must enter the unknown; it must “go where no man has gone before.” A very courageous journey, but loaded with potential discovery.

Embarking on that journey requires the abandonment of those assumptions that shackle us, while at the same time using those assumptions to define our point of departure. Hence the penny exercise starts us on the process of identifying our embedded assumptions by simply forcing us to recognize their existence, subliminal to how our eyes and ears construct reality from reflected light and vibrating air molecules. The penny exercise can be the starting point of other enlightening pursuits as well.

Not only does the exercise force us to confront our limitations as imaginative beings, it also reveals to us the essence of who we are. Since our embedded assumptions are formed of experience, we can expect a more coherent and functional set of assumptions to arise from a more coherent and well-functioning set of experiences, given psycho-physical predispositions and freedom from traumas. Hence an early, on-going, rich set of experiences will position one better than a delayed, sporadic, diminished set. If the latter situation has occurred, the development of a solid personal identity could be doomed.

In any event, the embedded assumptions are essential to our identity. These are assumptions about how the world is or should be, and define how we are situated in that world. The world, reality, appears as it does because of our vantage point. Our experiences create a set of sensory inputs which have relationship to one another, and to us the observers. Those relationships define where we are in that cosmos, and where we are is who we are. We look out from a platform of assumptions about what the world is to see if things are more or less “like me” or “as I expect them to be” or not. That which is “not” can range from the familiarly different to the totally unknown, the incomprehensible. This perception of what the world is our provinces of reality, our crib, our family, our community, and so on as we develop.

As individuals move beyond their familiar provinces, they discover the world is largely not like them or what they expect. How one deals with that increasing assortment of otherness, is beyond this discussion, but in the absence of a fairly secure sense of self, managing life in a world of others is going to be a little tricky. What should one expect and what accept? When should one ask and when tell? Where should one be and where not? Needing to successfully manage this reality makes my argument for the formation of an clear and even strong individual identity. To manage in a world of others, we need a secure personal identity.

I think it also points us toward an argument for the sharing with and ultimately accepting of others as individual identities who are different but of equal essential value. Grasping the idea of one’s own unique identity and accepting that others also have a unique identity avoids the walls of categorical assumptions that have disabled constructive conversation. Thus we may begin the conversations between people that bind them into communities, sharing commonalities and understanding, often empathizing with their individual differences.

Beyond exercises like the penny archeology one, we should move toward deeper and more directed personal identity and community building activities—activities that are challenging, revealing, safe and rewarding. Such activities will require an environment where there are rewards without penalties for risk-taking, respect without attack in the presence of vulnerability, and where there is shelter without shame in any case. On the part of the teacher, there must be courage and faith, and, if it works, there must be Kleenex.

Petunia Blossoms

Stricken with drought, seared with heat
And abandoned to a brickwork patio,
Petunia blossoms festoon a poverty of rangy arches
As they seek escape from their life sustaining dirt.
Crimson, wine, burgundy velvet,
Elevated isolates of intense and florid wealth,
Suspended above the scorched and tenuous dregs of life.
Violet, purple, plum, the colors we will into midnight
When city lights bleach the skies, empty and lifeless.
Into these dark depth of summer comfort
We slide.
Into these singularities of a life envisioned,
Visions then swept into the darkness,
Passed into alternate realities,
As into momentary, transitory deaths,
We fall,
And find freedom from a harrowing now.

August 2012

Seasonal Quips

Spring Pops Up

Spring pops up one sunny day,
Turns snow to mud and then away.
Nighttime falls and then more snow.
Bloody spring, just show and go.

Summer

Summer slows mentality,
Slides a hand over the heart,
And saddens old sentimentality.

Marshy days ooze toward sodden ends.
Luminous dusks linger,
Resolving into shimmering specks,
While night weeps in the long grass,
And sleeplessness seeps toward dawn.

   Vivum est iudicium sine iudicio.

Falling (revised)

   melancholy drifting, floating,
   sepia, ocher, rust,
   bleakness seeping, dappling,
   watery, listless, drawn,
   on arching and forsaken blades,
   holding their breath,
   awaiting at last the fall.

Winter

   winter wants few words:
   cold and cloudy, wind and snow,
   the caw and clatter of a crow.

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