All the World’s a Candle and We are the Match

Yesterday, I decided I would take a break from posting on this blog. Just a few days. Long enough to relax and unwind from the nonstop stress of living in the ugly age of social media and mental meltdowns. Yet here I am, posting again. I can’t even keep a promise to myself; why should I expect others’ promises to me to be kept? And therein resides the problem. We’re all lying to ourselves about what matters. We’re insisting that our problems can be solved through the introduction of mechanical fixes to fundamentally flawed social structures. We say to ourselves, “let’s adopt rules saying no more choke-holds by police,” or “let’s all take a knee to show our support for equality and justice,” or “let’s disregard advice to wear masks and practice social distancing because the rules are being shoved down our throats simply to exercise control over our lives.” We’re lying to ourselves through raw superficiality and nonsensical paranoia. And we’re allowing others to lie to us with impunity. Rather than seeking the truth, we’re almost randomly selecting what falsehoods to believe from a  litany of lies.

Reality is an ugly, pus-laden sore covering the planet. Global pandemic. Systemic racism. Poverty on a scale beyond comprehension. Income inequality. Political animosity. Savagery. Rabid nationalism. The prospect of economic collapse. Religious wars. Mass psychosis. Amorality as a global personal philosophy.

Rules prohibiting choke-holds amount to band-aids made of single-layer toilet tissue, stuff that dissolves at the slightest hint of distant rain. Supporting justice and equality by taking a knee is akin to equipping soldiers launching the Normandy invasion with water pistols and spit-balls. Equating medical advice with propaganda is evidence of severe, incurable, mental illness.  We are in trouble. Deep trouble. We’re mired in explosive, gasoline-drenched quicksand, the nearest firm ground a thousand miles distant, beyond the forest fires that encircle us. Taking a knee doesn’t help in this hellish place. Banning choke-holds cannot quench the fires. Believing the flames are holograms will not save flesh from third-degree burns.

The United States is in large part responsible for the problems that threaten the planet and the people on it, thanks to the current vacuum in leadership (exacerbated by filling the void with toxic immorality and greed) and thanks to several generations shirking their responsibilities and passing them on to future generations. But the United States is no longer in a position to solve the world’s problems, alone. In fact, if the world’s problems are to be solved, that may take place in spite of the United States, especially under current “leadership.”

If I could snap my fingers to make things happen, I would convene an emergency meeting of select world leaders with the explicit objectives of; 1) identifying the most pressing, most dangerous problems confronting societies around the globe; 2) articulating humanity’s responsibilities for confronting and correcting them; and 3) calling on the people of the planet to collectively commit to working together to act accordingly. The world leaders would necessarily include leaders of several industrialized nations but also leaders of the poorest and least developed ones. Every segment of humanity should be represented. And, once the messages have been crafted, the leaders should commit to a single message that would be distributed through all available media at the same time.  And repeated several times. Over and over and over again. The seriousness of the issue would necessarily be stressed; as in, “This is our final chance to do the right thing; if we don’t act with compassion for one another and with deliberate speed, humanity will be lost. All of us must commit to repairing the damage done, whether intentionally or not, by a thousand generations.”

Leadership. That’s what it would take. And charisma. But not just one person. It would take a field of charismatic leaders of all colors, sexes, political perspectives, etc., etc.

It will not happen. It’s too much to hope for. But if I could snap my fingers, we would stop pretending our impotent little shows of “commitment” will do anything of consequence. We would come to the realization that only by retrieving our collective humanity can we hope to emerge from the burning quicksand. Fire-retardant suits are no match for the flames.

 

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Madness as a Cure

Threats to one’s sanity abound. They come in many forms and at any time. Eventually, one or more of those threats will break through the barriers erected to hold them at bay. When that happens, sanity takes on an entirely new appearance, a shape that looks the way madness once did. Sanity becomes the frightening possibility one strives to avoid, building a fortress against it; a mind-set of razor-wire fences and concrete block walls keep out the disappointments that seem to accompany sanity wherever it goes. Yet before sanity lost its hold, the barriers were meant as obstacles to madness. Odd, that.

Earth’s magnetic poles reversed themselves. That is the clearest explanation of the transition from sanity to madness. And vice versa. Attraction and revulsion change places. Creativity becomes dull literalness. Creative juices become fetid pools of stagnant, poisonous sewage. Joy becomes misery and depression shifts into radiant cheerfulness.

The spawn of madness and sanity litter the pages of a thesaurus. Is there any wonder why antonyms live in an edifice built to house synonyms? Language and lunacy are diametrically similar in their common uniqueness, much like silence and sanity. Sanity does call for keeping one’s lips sealed at times, even when the madness hidden deep inside is struggling to issue open-mouthed howls. No, sanity insists, the appropriate reaction is a cacophony of quietude.

These obviously bizarre thoughts are on my mind this morning because I think our default setting—sanity—is sometimes the most obvious outward evidence of madness, whereas the occasional eruption of insanity is evidence of the opposite. Madness is an outlet for sanity; without occasional bouts of madness, sanity cannot survive. Absent periods of mental instability, sanity shrivels into a hard prune, impenetrable except by jackhammers and dynamite. Madness as cure for sanity. Yet I question whether sanity is ever a cure for madness. Sanity, as I ponder it this morning, is evidence of a deeper defect. There’s more to this. And I may write more as my ideas continue to take shape. I have to be careful, though, because madness is not looked upon favorably in this devolving world in which we live. Sanity is valued more than gold and diamonds. Madness is derided, as if it were a carrier of rabies and the plague.

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Counter Intelligence

Seventy degrees. At a different time of year, seventy degrees can feel warm and toasty. This morning, though, seventy degrees felt so delightfully cool that I was confident I could live in seventy degree temperatures all day, every day, for the rest of my life and be deliriously happy doing it.

When I walked out on the deck just after daybreak, carrying the hummingbird feeder, the cool morning air met me like a passionate lover. She embraced me and kissed me and urged me to stay with her. “Linger with me. Hold me close. We will make one another happy for the rest of time.”

Her charms almost were beyond my capacity to resist; I could make no argument against the portrait she painted, that of a life of stunning perfection in one another’s arms. But in spite of my willingness to give myself over to her, I broke away and fled her beguiling, hypnotic, intoxicating spell.

Why, in God’s name, did I do it? For THIS? To sit in front of a tiny little screen and pour out my soul to a machine? Am I out of my mind? Well, of course I am. We all are out of our minds. Instead of exulting in a tryst with an ardent paramour, we pry into our own psyches, attempting to unleash secrets best kept hidden beneath layers of emotional rubbish, sediment left from waves of regret. Had I just stayed outside, I could have ridden the wave of cool, soothing affection. But, no, I slipped beneath the surface, filling my life with the warm, sticky perspiration that drips from my fingers after a pointless keyboard workout.

How’s that for a lesson in mangling metaphors and otherwise throttling language with a cudgel made of scraps of sibilant syllables? When I am otherwise lacking for creative energy, I attempt to make up for the emptiness by using words. Usually, that simply exacerbates the problem, focusing attention on the emptiness of the sentences within which the words are hopelessly lost.

Yet, I can return to my conversation with the cool morning air. I can imagine our conversation deepening. And I feel her embrace tighten, pulling me closer. I feel her, as she strokes my face and my arms and my legs, eliciting from me an urgent desire to envelop her just as she envelops me…but then a damn squirrel scampers across the metal roof of the screen porch, grabbing my attention and shaking it like a roadrunner shakes a snake in its beak. Ach! An out-of-place simile ruins my thrilling entanglement with the sizzling chill of a cool embrace.

I could write about current events and make predictions about the likelihood of an international economic collapse that leads to the use of thermonuclear  weapons in the fight against a global pandemic. But where’s the joy in that? I could write about a sweet group of retired females who, unbeknownst to one another, are embroiled in a torrid extramarital affair with the same guy, a retired professor of linguistics. Or, perhaps, this group of females should be CIA operatives working to thwart the socialist’s (it goes without saying that the linguist is a socialist) plans to recruit candidates for local school boards and such. Maybe the guy is not a linguist; perhaps he is a retired CIA operative who uses linguistics as a cover for his extensive collection of Russian language erotica. None of this sounds especially enticing. I think I would rather just allow the day to play out so that, when five o’clock rolls around, I can make a gin rickey without guilt.

Today’s the day for another Zoom video conference about food. It began as a video conference about fiery/spicy food. It has devolved. I am not sure I have the mental energy to ramrod this failing venture. I will need a gin rickey or its brethren to get me through it. Perhaps I could spice up the conversation by manufacturing a story about cooking up a dish of wilted oleander with summer oysters, which I used in a failed assassination attempt on Vladimir Putin’s bodyguard. I barely got out of the country alive. Speaking of espionage, I wonder whether the life of foreign intelligence operatives is as dangerous or as exciting as books and films suggest? I think I could make a damn fine CIA operative, given my propensity for fabricating elaborate ruses, keeping treacherous secrets, and flirting with danger. Flirting with danger. That gives me an idea for the name and personality of a spy: Danger Sensua, a woman who “retires” from a corporate job in Seattle, Washington to join MI-5, with her assignment being the close surveillance of…no, no, no. This is not working, either.

It is almost nine o’clock, HOURS beyond the time I usually write. This is evidence I should stop early. And so I shall.

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Unwritten

Some mornings, words flow like water from a freshly-charged underground spring. Other mornings, language drips from my fingers onto the keyboard in excruciating slow motion, as if I had dipped my hands in hot tar and then plunged them into a bath of dry ice. This is one of those other mornings. I’ve been at it since around four o’clock; I have almost nothing to show. My creativity peaked while cobbling together a recipe for Ethiopian mitmita, using scraps and pieces from cooks and chefs far better equipped than I. As for true creativity, I believe I left it overnight in a chest-style deep freeze somewhere in rural Nebraska. Inasmuch as I have not been to rural Nebraska since I lived in Chicago in the late 1980s, I think the creativity succumbed to terminal freezer burn. I have been to Nebraska since I lived in Chicago, but the sole visit was to Omaha and not to the desolate stretches of rural Nebraska where I must have encountered the chest freezer.

The problem is not necessarily creativity, or the lack thereof. The problem is that I have nothing of any consequence to say. When the value of one’s words evaporates into an invisible cloud and blows away in a fierce wind, one’s mind becomes a vacant wasteland. An empty, irrelevant vessel unable even to serve as a repository of bad ideas. Even the bad ideas leaked out through massive cracks, wider and longer than the walls and fences they replaced. The mind is porous.

The problem with that is easy to see; leaks can occur in both directions, but the pressure inside is greater than outside, so the contents escape like air from a fractured balloon. A balloon can burst, but can it fracture? Perhaps a frozen balloon can fracture, but the volume of air in a frozen balloon would have shrunk from its original size, so the membrane would have wizened. A wizened balloon is not subject to fracture; it simply falls, limp, to the ground, its purpose gone with the volume of escaped air.

What is the purpose of a balloon? Do balloons have intrinsic purposes? I suspect they do. Their fundamental reason for being is to protect contents within the balloon’s sealed membrane from interacting with the external environment. But maybe their real purpose is not to protect what’s inside the membrane; instead, the purpose may be to protect the external environment from contamination by the matter confined within the balloon’s membrane.

I’ve written about balloons before. On one occasion, I wrote, “Emotions are best sealed in casks filled with lead and dropped into the deepest part of the sea; if not that, then released like white doves and helium balloons.”

I am too tired to finish the remaining half cup of my cold coffee. It’s nearing 6:30 and I’m well past tired; I’m worn. This is an unwritten sign; I should let my body try to rest.

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Missing Energy

Where does one’s energy go when it goes missing? The law of conservation of energy, also known as the first law of thermodynamics, states that the energy of a closed system must remain constant—it can neither increase nor decrease without interference from outside. The universe, we are told, is a closed system. So, all the energy in the universe cannot increase or decrease. That being said, I’ll ask again: Where the hell does my energy go when it goes missing?”

I believe my energy, of late, has been  transformed into unspent fuel. Flab. But what happens to my energy when I spend it? Like when I go into a furious home maintenance frenzy? That energy, I have decided, is simply transformed into another form of energy. Who knew, though, that a clean garage floor and sparkling windows were manifestations of energy? Who knew I have the ability to magically convert raw human energy into clean air conditioning compressor fins? Well, that’s not quite right. The fins were there to start with. It’s the clean that was missing. So, the reality is this: I can convert my human energy into clean. “Clean?” Yes, clean. That must be what’s happening, right? I spend my energy and, in return, I get clean air conditioner compressor fins. I already had the AC compressor fins, so what I really got in the trade is clean. Clean is a product of the first law of thermodynamics.

I’ll add “physicist” to my resumé.

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The Real World

I awoke at 3:51 this morning, earlier than usual, but not by a wide margin. I thought, at that hour, I would have a couple of hours of absolute solitude; not so, in that my wife was up less than nine minutes later. No matter. We secured our individual solitary spaces and dedicated ourselves to our individual routines. She read a book. I read a complimentary email from a friend who had watched/listened to my church insight presentation. His message also included links to a couple of items he thought might be of interest to me; they were. I spent a tad more than one hour and eleven minutes watching and listening to a recommended conversation, a video podcast on Bloggingheads.tv, between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, two Black academics, on matters relating to race. Their discussion was both enlightening and thought-provoking. I realized, while listening to them, that I might be more willing to listen to them because they are extremely articulate and African-American than I might have been had they been less articulate and/or white. Therein, I think, resides vestiges of racism and convoluted bias that I would have hoped was long gone. Their conversation led me to assess the degree to which my views on all manner of issues might be colored by my own default liberal biases or, in some cases, conservative biases I did not realize hid inside my brain.

Sometimes, I realize I have to “open the hood” and look inside my brain to get a clear image of what’s there. It’s not always pretty. As much as I want to think my intellect and an innate compassion controls my beliefs and behaviors, evidence to the contrary suggests prejudice and animus take charge more often than I would like. But those are issues for another day. This morning, I’m more inclined to explore food interests and the extent to which my likes and dislikes might be informed by fernweh.

Quite some time ago, I stumbled upon a blog entitled Afroculinaria, which as one might guess, is based on an interest in African food. The blogger, Michael W. Twitty, has written extensively about African-inspired food, especially the food of Southern African-Americans that grew out of African roots. He describes his blog as “exploring culinary traditions of Africa, African America, and the African Diaspora.” That encompasses a lot of food. And, of course, he intersperses shards of writing on politics, slavery, bigotry, recipes, and plenty more. My primary interest has been on his recipes. I remember one, in particular, that intrigued me because it was for a dish I had eaten many times, but with a different “main” meat ingredient. Instead of beef, his dish called for bison. Not a huge difference, but big enough. I had never used bison (nor have I, yet). But the dish was a favorite I had eaten only in Ethiopian restaurants, zilzil tibs. Zilzil tibs, as I had known it, was a very rare beef awash in an incredibly flavorful spice mixture. When I have eaten zilzil tibs, it has been served alongside one or more Ethiopian vegetable stews, called wot, and eaten with injera bread. At any rate, I was fascinated with Twitty’s recipe, so much so that I vowed to prepare it (but using beef, not bison). I have yet to fulfill that vow. The reason? I have not yet had, at the same time, the discipline and the ingredients to make injera bread. I know I can gather all the appropriate spices (in fact, I have a source for berbere, so I would not have to create my own as Twitty’s recipe calls for). And though his recipe does not call for it, I would want to use a more traditional recipe that includes niter kibbeh, or spiced butter. As I considered the recipe I wanted to make, I realized I like the idea of Twitty’s recipe, but I preferred the ingredients with which I was familiar. Ach! I talk a good game about making Ethiopian food, but I rarely perform. It’s time I make a commitment; either put up or shut up. So, I shall make an Ethiopian meal, complete with injera, before the heat of summer gives way to the chill of fall. Whether I make zilzil tibs or gored-gored or some other meaty concoction, I shall make a full Ethiopian meal! If I do not follow through, I will limit my food intake to 200 calories a day for a month. That should serve as a sufficiently frightening cudgel. Oh, as to fernweh. I long to have experienced Ethiopia and its foods; I’m not sure whether I really want to spend a lot of time there, though.

But I do long to return to Chile, though I have never been there. I imagine wandering to a quiet Lo Barnechea neighborhood, where I would find Hosteria Doña Tinta. I might order lomo vetado a lo pobre, but I would feel guilty for doing so, simply because of the English translation of the dish: loin forbidden to the poor. But I have been assured, though not without some degree of suspicion, that the name does not have any negative connotations for poor people. Still… But Chile. Frankly, much of what I have read about Chilean food leaves me less than overwhelmed, but I cannot divorce my insatiable desire to experience the Chilean Pacific coast from my inexplicable appetite for Chilean cuisine.  My taste for Chile, I think, can be traced in part to a house on a mountain ridge, right on the Pacific coast. I found the house on a Chilean real estate website and fell in love with the place. The design was modern and minimalist, a style I have loved from the moment I saw such architecture. The home was poised high on on a rocky crag overlooking the Pacific. A huge terrace, facing the Pacific, and a pool suggested to me the place was designed for outdoor living. The kitchen was enormous and well-appointed. Its very large island had plenty of room for workspace and for eating. I recall the kitchen was equipped with two refrigerators; at least I think so. And the price! If I remember correctly, it was priced at the equivalent of less than $200,000 U.S. I wanted to buy the place, immediately, upon finding the listing. My wife, though, being the practical sort, suggested it might be best to visit first. But before that, she suggested, we might want to retire with a considerably larger nest egg than we had at the time. Crash! There went my Chilean retirement. I still long to visit. I missed my opportunity, twice, to live in a country with a female socialist president. Michelle Bachelet served as president of the country for eight years, in two separate terms; during both terms, I remember being slightly miffed that I was not living in my dream house in Pacific coastal Chile, regularly eating fresh-caught Chilean seafood.  My fantasy life takes me to some interesting places; unfortunately, my real life rarely tags along. At least, I say to myself, I can eat Chilean dishes and daydream about engaging in philosophical conversations with Michelle Bachelet.

I really should write more about the real world. But, then, I know so much more about fantasy than reality; I would feel like a fraud writing about the real world.

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Better

Looking up into the canopy of the forest, I find it hard to distinguish between individual leaves. There are too many overlapping shades of green between shadows and sunlight for me to clearly differentiate one leaf from another. I look at the shafts of light filtering through the leaves and think of the English translation of that Japanese word that has been on my mind so much lately: komorebi, written in the original language as 木漏れ日.

A black t-shirt imprinted with 木漏れ日, the symbols printed with green ink, might help me be more at ease. Those Japanese symbols—carved into a piece of cherry wood that I could hang on the wall near the place on my desk where I keep my book, The Essence of Zen—might temper my mood. Perhaps those reminders of gentleness and serenity and calm acceptance would settle me.

I need settling. My reactions to utterly inconsequential irritants in my world lately have been enormously over-sized. I don’t know precisely what triggered emotional explosions within the past few days, but something is awry. Volcanic eruptions take place for reasons, but explanations do not excuse them.

If I could distinguish between the leaves, would that clarity lead to greater serenity? If the sunlight filtering through the forest canopy were softer, would I be softer, too?

My public persona is a sham. I am not the person I want others to see. Beneath the soft filtered sunlight settling on me is a fraud, an imposter who hopes his occasional good behavior will eventually change his psyche. It hasn’t worked yet and there are no outward (or inward) signs it will. A dog can wish and wish and wish and wish it could become a human but that will never happen. But we don’t know that, do we? We cannot prove a negative theory. So I could become the gentle, caring, accepting, tolerant, hopeful, decent person I have always admired. With practice. It’s possible. Just as it’s possible a dog might, one day, suddenly become human.

I spent all of 2014, every single day, writing what I labeled a “thought for the day.” Every day I wrote at least one “thought for the day;” some days, I wrote two or, perhaps, three. The idea was that I would focus my attention on little things that, at those moments, mattered. It was not all positive, but most were, I think. I continued the practice for each and every day the following year, but in 2015 I labeled each item with the day of the year, from one to three-hundred-sixty-five; I called them “ruminations.”  Two years, without missing a day. And that writing was in addition to my regular blog posts and my fiction and non-fiction outside the blog. It was a two-year attempt to, for lack of a better way to describe it, become a better person. That objective was meritless; goals must be measurable and specific. “Becoming a better person” is subjective in the extreme. No objectivity there. After December 31, 2015, I withdrew from that daily practice, despite promising myself I would continue.  My last rumination for the year was this:

Three Hundred Sixty-Five
In our rush to the next event, the next activity, the next interaction, we sometimes fail to appreciate those precious moments, the moments time snatches away from us as it marches inexorably along. We fail to recognize that, perhaps, a repeat of those precious moments isn’t guaranteed.

I wonder whether I appreciated enough of those moments during the year ending today. I wonder whether I paid sufficient heed to my admonition to myself with the very first ‘rumination’ I posted this year:

Make peace with the past. Make love with the present. Make plans with the future.

By and large, I believe I did. I worked to uncoil myself, a tightly wound spring; though not entirely successful, I made progress. That qualifies both as making peace with the past and making love with the present. I’ve tried, these past twelve months, to make love with the present by accepting what comes my way. I stumbled along, but never fell. And I have plans for 2016.

To all those I love—and I truly hope they know who they are—I wish them a very happy, healthy, and fulfilling year ahead.

Even then, four and a half years ago, I recognized myself as a tightly wound spring. Yet, still, I too often release the constriction of those coils in a split second, unleashing all the tension that should have been soothed and smoothed. I still see the komorebi and I sense in myself the desire to let it sooth and heal me, but that softness is always temporary. Somehow, recognizing one’s core faults and correcting them are light years apart, perhaps even in different galaxies that never intersect. The only solution, I suppose, is to try harder. To stop being an apologist for my failings and, instead, to actually transform my mind so its automatic default response to the slightest stress is not what it has been. Better. I must quantify and measure “better.”

The first thing, I think, is to have that t-shirt made.                  木漏れ日

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Embraced by Sound and Senses

It should have come as no surprise to me that listening to certain pieces of music early in the morning can have very different effects on my psyche. But I was surprised, nonetheless—when I listened to Ravel’s Bolero and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and a piano solo of Flower Duet’ from Lakmé by Léo Delibes—that my perspective on the day changed with each piece. This was after I repeated something I did last night, which was to listen to and watch a YouTube performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by the Royal Academy Symphony Orchestra.

Listening to this somewhat random assortment of music made me feel receptive to whatever the day offers, though that receptivity varied in its intensity and its shape with each piece to which I listened and watched. The “shape of one’s receptivity;” that’s a difficult concept to wrap my head around, much less put into words. I did it just now, I know, but probably with words wholly unsuited to the task. And how does one measure, precisely, the intensity of one’s receptivity? To anything? These words are beginning to sound like so much linguistic mush, a meaningless word porridge that has no substance. But that could not be further from the truth; there is substance in those terms. Admittedly, the substance may be buried beneath definitions twisted to fit my mind and my mood; regardless, there is substance. It is palpable; I feel it as if it were a physical thing.

Music can open one’s mind to possibilities that, without its effects, seem distant and unlikely; so remote that reality could not possibly catch up to them. But music can anesthetize the sensation of impossibility, clearing away obstacles that we allow to block the way before us. Music can make us receptive to dreams and visions and wishes and desires that seem out of reach. And it can shape how receptive we are to exploring ideas that might otherwise be hidden or dangerous or forbidden.  Music can trigger emotions both sensual and chaste and thoughts both passionate and decidedly detached. Sounds molded around notes and melodies can be either manipulative or freeing; or both.

Is it odd that music can open and close our minds? Sounds, arranged just so, can evoke supreme serenity or delirious excitement; sometimes, in a bizarre state of rapture, both can exist simultaneously. I know so very little about music. I cannot read music. I cannot tell one note from the next (I can differentiate them, one from another, but I cannot say which is which).  Yet even in the absence of understanding, I know deep inside that music is a powerful elixir with almost magical qualities. Music can erase cares and surmount constraints. It can overcome hesitations and taboos. I suspect the idea of armies marching into battle to the sounds of music intended to steel nerves and harden resolve is based on the belief in the power of music to conquer fear.

That last sentence triggered another, related, thought. Is there something about music that makes it pair well with alcohol? Both of them, in proper measure, can enhance experiences. Both can diminish inhibitions. Paired together, they can overcome irrational fears (karaoke, anyone?).  I wonder why music sounds smoother or rougher, softer or harder, and more personal with a glass of wine? It could be because they go so well together. This morning, though, alcohol is not involved in these musings. Maybe, though, we (and least I) tend to listen to music later in the day because it pairs well with alcohol. Just a thought. Along with so many others.

Onward toward the brightening day. I can listen to bird songs. Are they music? Or are they simply conversations and pronouncements I overhear as I eavesdrop on the denizens of the sky? I suppose it doesn’t matter, as long as it sounds right and feels right. Nobody needs to know of my love affair with avian cantatas if I decide to keep it a secret.

 

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Pseudo-Scientific Mystic Musings

A few days ago, I mentioned to my sister-in-law that I remembered, years ago, having thought it would be cool to have an app that could identify birds by listening to their songs, sort of like Shazam does with music. Our conversation surrounded my relatively new-found BirdNET app, which does precisely that. Not satisfied that I thought I remembered articulating the wish for such an app, I went looking for evidence of my prescience. And I found it. In a post on my old blog, Brittle Road, dated August 26, 2012, I wrote these words:

The birds’ chatter gets noticeably louder and more insistent as I get closer to the plants where they are hiding. I wish I could tell from their songs what they were.  That gives me an idea!  It would be great to have a smart phone app, like Shazam for my iPhone, that would identify bird songs.  When I hold my iPhone up in the direction of speakers playing a piece of music, Shazam usually is able to pinpoint the name of the song, the artist, and the album on which it is found.  I wonder if there’s any reason the same mechanisms used in Shazam could not be used to identify bird songs?

I do not know precisely when BirdNET was first made available in beta test mode, but I suspect it has been relatively recent. Regardless of when it launched, it was (and is) a magnificent example of the marriage between curiosity, intellect, and technology. I applaud the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Chemnitz University of Technology for an extraordinary demonstration of exciting technology. A quote from the website linked in the first sentence of this paragraph says, ” Our research is mainly focused on the detection and classification of avian sounds using machine learning – we want to assist experts and citizen scientist in their work of monitoring and protecting our birds.” Such stuff makes me wish I had the wherewithal to absorb enough knowledge of ornithology and technology to participate in the exciting work of the two institutions.

Bird sounds and songs. Most humans, and I include myself, have virtually no knowledge of what those noises mean. We spend our entire lives surrounded by those sounds, but we largely ignore them or appreciate them only to the extent that they are “pleasing to the ear.” But what do those chirps and whistles and calls MEAN? Humans may never truly understand what occurs in the brains of birds as they create their unique notes and spread their voices in the sky and among trees and brush and on wires along lonely stretches of highway. We may never know.

Another mystery we want to unlock. But do we really want to know everything? Aren’t the mysteries of Nature, especially, sacred secrets about which we want to remain in the dark? Do we not long to always have just beyond our reach mystic enigmas, magical puzzles that hold the secrets to life, secrets we are forever prohibited from knowing? I think we want to know, but we don’t. We want to have answers, but we want to be delightfully confused. We thirst for knowledge, but we truly worship its absence. Like birds, we are living conundrums.

Birds, we are told, are modern-day dinosaurs. According to Julia Clarke of the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater), “All of the species of birds we have today are descendants of one lineage of dinosaur: the theropod dinosaurs.” And there you go! That one bit of knowledge, which has been lodged in my brain for a long, long time, could prompt me to return to college to pursue a degree in a field of study that could expose me to every other field of study: a terminal advanced degree in renaissance multi-disciplinary natural science philosophy, or some other such non-existent educational fantasy. I do want to know the answers! Mystery be damned! I want to know the facts!  Ah, but do I really? I think not. I think I am just like the rest of the human race; largely attuned to science and facts, but steeped in superstition and mysticism with a touch of doubt, and anger at my inadequacy.

I could imagine spending my days in intense field work, watching living dinosaurs soar through the air. Except I would need the body of a thirty or four year-old, if I were to be moderately comfortable doing that. I don’t have such a body. Rats. Just as I imagined what would become BirdNET, I now imagine an injection that will restore youthful energy, strength, stamina, and intellectual capacity. Eight years from now, if such an injection is available, I will insist on taking at least a bit of credit for its creation.

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Vaporous and Vapid, He Rambled

I started the day by writing about the Unabomber. I then switched gears, locating and saving images that might complement my presentation on the transformative power of words. From there, I made a breakfast consisting of a flour tortilla, refried beans, shredded cheddar cheese, cilantro, and salsa from a jar. Then, back to the Unabomber. Then, writing about sitting in a large kettle of water, the temperature of said water increasing very gradually by one degree every three hours; would the eight degrees in twenty-four hours be noticeable? How about twenty-four degrees in three days? That exercise in writing was set aside for another time and another mood.

I took out the trash and drank a glass of iced tea without the ice. I pondered how an elderly gentleman in the mountains of Japan might dismiss my value to humankind without ever even knowing of my existence. So many thoughts race through my mind; unconnected, unnecessary, unproductive thoughts. Ideas with no bearing on reality. Curiosity about the experience of taking LSD; I never did, but would I, if given the opportunity? And I considered an article I read yesterday, describing a woman’s preparations for her planned demise; seeking an end to pointless, incomprehensible pain.

A huge creature, a beast I used to call “daddy long-legs,” is crawling up the screen outside the window to my right. I expect it is spying on me. It is part of an advance party, scouting for potential dangers to the millions upon millions of similar creatures waiting just beyond the edge of the forest. I wonder why the creatures would be interested in us? Especially me? Am I a good specimen of the most savage among my species? That creature could probably write a book at its experiences in the universe, if it could write. And who’s to say it cannot? Just because I do not understand its methods does not mean it does not possess perfectly good methods of written communication. It just has an entirely different means of communicating from me.

I may start doing podcasts or video messages each day instead of writing with my fingers. An audience of six, sleepy and disinterested, would cause my ratings to stay beneath the floorboards of an ancient house without wiring. My experiment would fail. Enough of that.

I must leave soon for my videotaping session. Wish me success, please, and don’t forget to write.

Perhaps when I return home, I will plant some dwarf snapdragons. Perhaps I won’t.

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Who Do You Call, If Not the Police?

This era, whatever we call it, could usher in massive changes to global society. The death of George Floyd at the hands, make that the knee, of Derek Chauvin sparked outrage that may look to many like an enormously over-sized reaction to a police officer killing a sole Black man while his colleagues stood silently and watched. But the outrage is not just for George Floyd. The outrage is for the hundreds like him who died at the hands of police officers whose sense of power and authority overcame their sense of humanity. The outrage is an explosion of pent-up rage that spews forth from a heretofore moderately contained vessel that has finally ruptured, letting loose the pressure of hundreds of years of building anger.

So, this era could usher in massive changes. I think it already had. Cities are seriously examining de-funding police departments. While I think that is a bad idea, I am open to arguments that might change my mind. I think, rather than disbanding police departments, we should restructure the criminal justice system from top to bottom. That would include changes in laws; decriminalizing behaviors that do no harm to anyone except the perpetrator (and maybe not even the perpetrator). And it would include diverting money from police departments, spreading it judiciously within the communities police departments are meant to serve. So, I see police departments diminishing in size and scope and I see their “policing” duties shrinking along with them. I expect resources will be directed away from punitive enforcement and toward rehabilitation of communities and the people in them. But this may all be a fantasy. We may simply fall back into the same routine we’ve always followed. Because people must change, in their hearts, for real change to occur in society. Unfortunately, I see evidence all around me that minds are closing, shrinking, becoming awash in hatred and fear and indiscriminate loathing.

This will sound a little too much like Hitler’s philosophies, but so be it: the real answer to human suffering and society turmoil and chaos is to remove the ones causing the suffering; all of them. Today, I would identify those people by their affiliation with the Tea Party, white supremacy movements, left-wing anarchists and their brethren, and people who tolerate or are followers of Trump. There may be more. Eliminate them and the problems are no longer insurmountable. I’m not suggesting they be killed; deporting them to an empty planet would work just fine. Once that’s done, problems become issues of ideology that can be argued, debated, and ultimately addressed through compromise. Until compromise is possible, compromise is impossible.

But back to the call for de-funding police departments. Who do you call for assistance when someone is attempting to break if your house if you have disbanded the police department? Who do you call for help, regardless of the problem, when you’re in trouble in a strange city? You don’t call your friends or neighbors a hundred miles away for immediate rescue. Yet we have given police departments responsibilities for everything from murder investigations to robberies and break-ins to traffic law enforcement to entrapment and enforcement of drug laws. The entire system of criminal justice and public safety should be examined with a clean slate; no pre-conceived ideas (like mine), no unspoken assumptions…no assumptions at all!

Finally, before we do anything, we ought to look very closely at other countries that are far more successful than the U.S.A. in terms of policing, public safety, levels of criminality, etc. and we should determine whether we, the self-proclaimed greatest country in the history of the world, might learn a little from some of the more humble nations.

 

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When We Mourn

Within the last day or two, I read something that stuck with me. The concept stuck with me, anyway. I have been unable to find the source of the words I read, so I cannot accurately quote the words and give appropriate attribution. It’s the concept that matters, though. Here is an approximation, an attempt at remembering what I read:

When we mourn the death of someone close to us, we mourn not so much for that person, but for the death of the part of ourselves that only that person knew. We mourn the connection between us that cannot be repaired nor replaced.

As I consider the people close to me who have died, I ask myself who I was mourning at their deaths. Was it them, or was it the piece of my life that went missing with them? If the latter, it seems to me some might consider mourning an expression of selfishness, albeit necessary selfishness. An elastic bandage wound tightly around my entire body, mourning may be a garment required to keep the shattered pieces of my life from exploding into a cloud of dust and shrapnel. If that bandage were to unravel, so would I. But over time, the bandage takes on the shape of the psyche it was meant to protect, so it can be slowly unwound and discarded. But the shattered pieces never fully coalesce and heal; they need to be tended on occasion and wrapped anew in a temporary bandage. Regardless of how many times a new bandage is applied, though, the shape of my psyche never returns to the form it took before a death shattered it.

I think there’s more to mourning than self-protection, though. We grieve that death took from the person who died the opportunities they might otherwise have had to experience unmet moments in life. A child’s college graduation or marriage or the pleasures of a relaxed retirement. So many experiences suddenly become impossible for the person whose life disappears in an instant. I think we grieve—mourn—for her unrealized potential and for the ungiven gifts she could have given to the world around her.

We mourn as well, I suspect, because we did not take all the opportunities we had to take full advantage of the gifts the person who died could have given us, if only we had been less selfish with our time and more generous with our attention. It’s that aspect of mourning, I think, that may be among the hardest because it equates with our feelings of guilt that can never be erased. “If only…” The impossible cannot be recaptured, because it never was.

Other than the words I read but cannot remember where, I don’t know why this is on my mind this morning; no one close to me has died in the recent past. I suppose the words reminded me of those who have died and caused me to think about my mourning and the fact that it never stops. It disappears into the fabric of life for long periods, but it suddenly resurfaces for no obvious reason, resulting in unexplained sobbing and self-recriminations.

This post represents the sort of topic that people seem to tend to avoid. Perhaps it digs too deeply into a fragile area of the mind that requires extra protection, lest that elastic bandage snap and release a flood of private emotions. I know I can “talk” about extremely emotional topics only with my fingers and only hidden a safe distance away from anyone who might see or hear me. That may be a vestige of what my friend calls “testosterone poisoning,” the affliction whose symptoms include exhibiting male machismo. But perhaps it’s just evidence that I need protection. Maybe it is indicative of the observation made by Gabriel García Marquez: “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” That secret life is the one we cannot reveal to anyone else; sometimes, we cannot even reveal it to ourselves. Yet writing about it is revealing. But it’s not the same—calmly exposing one’s weakest, most vulnerable side on an impersonal electronic monitor, versus risking the wounds that might follow openly unmasking one’s extreme sensitivity. 

As usual, I have drifted away from the topic of mourning and grief. But I think vulnerability and sensitivity play roles in mourning and in grief. The topics have been explored by professionals; there’s really no need for an amateur to offer his  untested and unproven theories and philosophies. But that’s what this blog is for; it allows a rank amateur to pretend to know more than he knows and to ask questions that either have no answer or have long since been addressed. It’s exercise for my arthritic fingers, too. And this blog supplements mourning; I mourn for the intellectual and emotional depth that drown in the shallowness herein. Enough drivel for the day. I have inconsequential tasks calling me.

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Sleeping-In ‘Til Five-Thirty

Darkness leaves early of late. Light pours in over the horizon like a silent nighttime flood, with no warning, until it is too late to wallow in the absence of light. The only symptom of the flood is the too-late-noticed dissolution of darkness, stolen by time slipping away with big, fragments of nighttime and leaving hazy horizontal holes in the sky near the edge of the earth. By the time I arose from my slumbers early on this day, the peaceful darkness has given way to chaotic morning, awash in the noise of wild birds prodding the universe with their songs.

By the time I was upright, dawdling time had long-since passed. It was time to prepare and wolf down breakfast and, then, to put the finishing touches on my celebration of words and language and their conspiracy to thrust emotion into the spotlight.  I am writing in this stilted fashion with a purpose that would be almost impossible to explain if I were to try, which I will not. At least not for now. Not before I understand what is happening in interstellar space and not until the edge of the Milky Way is clipped by invading Star-Spirits, those critters who sprinkle hope and the illusion of possibilities in their wake.

The clocks here on Earth measure almost 10:30 in this time zone, swath of sky that looks more like a shard than a slab. Time to devise plans for what the past will look like hours hence.

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Writing the Day Away

This bright, cool, rapidly-warming morning invites me outdoors. But I am back inside, dedicating myself to writing a presentation I will make to an empty sanctuary in the coming several days. Before I started writing this morning, I spent some time outside, listening to the birds and attempting to identify them by their songs, with the help of the BirdNET app. I did not see Scarlet Tanagers, but BirdNET assured me that I was listening to them.

My first action outdoors, though, was to hang the hummingbird feeder outside the “sky room.” When I took the feeder outside, I noticed that three of six starter pots of tomatoes had been knocked from the railing to the deck, by raccoons no doubt. Had I not taken in the hummingbird feeder, the beasts would have spilled its sugary cargo all over the deck and probably flung the feeder to the ground far below. Bastards! The tomato plants look like they survived the indignity. Now, though, I have to decide how to protect the plants from marauding raccoons.

Back to the presentation. I’m taking a break from working on it. I do not know yet when I am to go to the sanctuary to deliver my talk to a video recorder. I only hope I have finished writing it and have practiced it enough that it will not be hard for viewers to hear and watch when the video is posted to the church website. The presentation is for an Insight Service; they are held on the second and fourth Sundays of the month on various topics by speakers other than our minister. Before the pandemic, they included Q&A after the presentation. Now, though, I can avoid the embarrassment of being unable to answer questions intelligently. But the lack of feedback will make the presentation less fulfilling for me, I suspect. Such is life. I can live with just talking to an empty room. I do a variation on that theme every day with this blog.

I really have to stop procrastinating. I don’t know precisely when, but sometime during the next few days I have to deliver a finished Insight presentation. So, I must finish writing it. Back to the other writing I must do.

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Leaning In

I’ve been awake, off and on, since 1:30. About four hours ago. I almost got up for the day at 1:30, but fortunately I looked carefully at the clock before I made the commitment to get up and get dressed. This is not a rarity. I’ve arisen in the middle of the night on numerous occasions, slipped out of the bedroom, made coffee, and prepared myself for the day, only to discover my mistake. Sometimes, I stay up for the duration. Other times, I slink back to bed, cursing my inattention under my breath. Last night, I did not get so far along. I tried to go back to sleep. I succeeded in spurts, but I woke myself from light slumber with squeeks and snorts and other such noises. Not snoring; simply breathing through corroded pipes, I guess.

But I’m up now and ready to tackle the world, more or less. First things first. I will write until I feel like stopping, sipping my coffee along the way until I finish my one and only cup. Then, after a quick shower and shave, I’ll get dressed for the day. A little more formal than usual because I have an appointment in Little Rock at UAMS with my surgeon’s nurse practitioner, my 20-month follow-up. I have an appointment for a blood draw there, too; I committed before surgery to allowing them to include my blood in a hematological study of lung cancer patients over time. I may go to Colonial Liquors while I’m in town to buy some Arkansas beer to ship to a friend out east, if they sell warm beer. My understanding is that beer degrades considerably if it’s chilled, then warmed, then chilled again. So, I don’t want cold beer. I want warm beer.

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Yesterday afternoon I facilitated a Zoom conversation about race with twenty-seven other members of my church. It was an interesting discussion, I think, though I was very conscious of the time each person, including me, took to express their thoughts. Consequently, I do not think I adequately made the points I wanted to make. I may write an article for the next church newsletter to expound on my ideas; of course, the church newsletter, like many information resources, is largely ignored or skimmed with such superficiality that my words probably will be overlooked or utterly ignored. I’m not complaining, just stating what I believe to be fact. My fundamental point was to be this: white people must take the lead in dismantling systemic racism; that may be quite painful because aside from changing minds, it will probably require dramatically reducing our privileges vis-a-vis replacing heartless capitalism with a system that more closely resembles socialism. One person yesterday (maybe two) mentioned the need to change from a capitalist society to one modeled on socialism. The chances for success are slim in my lifetime, but perhaps in the next generation or two. Youth do not have so many experiences of failure to impede their efforts.

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I extracted some thoughts, on matters presently on my mind, from posts of the past. I incorporate them below. I think I’m doing this because I have a growing urge to rifle through all of what I’ve written over the years, extracting what I consider to be the better or relevant materials into a collection I might publish. This idea, of course, is not new. I’ve thought about it extensively and have written about it here on my blog. I need either to commit to it or to abandon the idea. But, for now, I stick a toe in the water and wonder whether the effort would be worth the outcome.

Communal Society Versus Individualistic Society

There are so many other laws, social and legal, that impose the social preferences of one group of people on every individual. Think of nudity, extramarital relationships, profanity, alcohol, marijuana, Sunday liquor sales…the list could go on.

I find it offensive that society can impose its collective will on so many things that are, to the extent they cause no harm to society at large, personal matters. The trick, of course, is to define that line of demarcation at which personal liberties infringe on the social order. But, often, that line of demarcation is ignored entirely.  Too little attention is paid to the concept of freedom and too much is paid to what a large or influential group of people find disagreeable. The result is the imposition of unreasonable restrictions on personal freedom.

I could easily take an opposing view of the imposition of social mores on individuals, though. I believe individualism is a negative force in society and that a sense of community and communal efforts better serve us. Mixed thoughts; much complexity.

The Suffocation of Communication

I resent Facebook. Facebook extracted depth from communication, replacing meaning with volume. Depth now splashes in shallow Facebook pools, trying in vain to find its way to the life-sustaining oxygen of conversation. Conversation that died at Facebook’s hand. Conversation withered in the absence of air, replaced by meaningless chirps—the sorts of noises made by wind-up birds whose wings keep the attention of infants for a few moments while their parents try to breathe. But the parents don’t breathe; they perish while listening to the shrill noise of artificial love-bots.

On the other hand, Facebook has enabled us to dramatically expand our circle of interaction. And it enabled Russian trolls and bots to steal the 2016 election. I still weigh in heavily against Facebook. And against Twitter, the enabler of the Dissembler-in-Chief and his insane cult of followers.

On the Contents of “Holy” Religious Texts

My sense is that,  from the start, the “supreme being” has been ourselves, our own consciences. The stories helped some people better understand the concepts. And they were contorted and bent and wrenched into shapes that changed them from myth to reality. But the reality isn’t real. At least not from my perspective. But the original motives were probably good.

And so I am spiritually promiscuous.

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