Inconsequential, Inane, Trivial, Preposterous, and Irrational

I have been in Japan twice; once when I changed planes at the Tokyo Narita Airport on the way to a conference in Beijing and once when I spent a night at the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport on the way back home from China. That is to say, I’ve never really been “in” Japan. Fifteen hours, I think, is a good estimate of the time I spent there. But that was enough to spark an increase in my interest in Japanese culture.

Food being one of the chief motivators in my life, it was not unexpected that I would have invested some of my brief time there in trying a Japanese meal. Due to timing, dinner and breakfast were the only meals I ate at the Hilton. Strangely, I recall only that I chose a “typical” Japanese meal for dinner, though I recall nothing more about it. The next morning, I opted for a Japanese breakfast (which I’ve since attempted to replicate in my own kitchen) consisting of rice, a slice of broiled salmon, miso soup, and cucumber. I don’t recall precisely what was used to add color to the meal, but I have a vague recollection of splashes of bright green and red and yellow on the plates. The other interest in which I became modestly invested was the terminology used to describe political subdivisions. In particular, I was struck by the use of the term “prefecture” to describe what I equate with states or counties.

It saddens me to think speakers of the English language chose to use the word “county” to describe geographical administrative or political subdivisions. Examine the etymology of “county” and there’s an unmistakable linkage with the privilege and power of nobility over the common folk. Today’s county judge is a vestige of the lineage of nobility, similar to a viscount of days of old. The roots of privilege run deep through rotting soil. Most U.S. states use the term “county” to describe the inferior geographic subdivisions covering multiple municipalities and rural territories. Louisiana is an exception, opting to call those entities “parishes.” The Christian religious linkage in the use of that term is obvious; it, too, has roots in a power structure, though the power structure in “parish” relates to the church, rather than nobility. The roots of both terms are far more complex than I suggest here; I’m abbreviating hundreds, if not thousands, of years of history for the sake of sparing my fingers from arthritic paralysis.

“Prefect,” though also rooted in terminology referring to hierarchical structures, seems to me to be more representative of commoners. It has links to civilian or military administrative rankings of authority. Interestingly, in England the term is used to refer to senior pupils recruited to help maintain order in the school. I like “prefect.” And I like “prefecture.” If I could wield unchecked authority for a single day, I would decree that the use of “county” and “county judge” would be replaced by “prefecture” and “prefect,” respectively. (I recognize the irony in that decree; just move on.)

I recognize, of course, that large swaths of the U.S. population (less than 50%, but extremely loud and absolutely certain of their rectitude) would be up in arms about such a decree, claiming the language would lead us on the road to Asian authoritarianism, mask mandates, and tea houses replacing Starbucks. They would insist that the decree was a precursor to orders replacing the traditional American dishes of meatballs, tacos, and pizza with sushi, tempura, and yakitori. Eventually, they would get over it. I hope.

Were I in the business of serving as county judge, I would welcome a change in language; being called “prefect” would elevate my status, changing my image from local lackey to important manager. Referring to the territory under my control as prefect as a “prefecture” would spur the population to take greater care of the land. People would voluntarily clean up litter, tidy up cluttered yards, paint tired old buildings, trim trees, plant seedlings, embrace gardening with a passion, and otherwise take enormous pride in the people’s collective responsibilities. Littering and tagging with graffiti would stop. Crime would decline precipitously, requiring police chiefs to redeploy officers in community service as opposed to law enforcement roles. Members of gangs would reexamine their lives and would decide to redirect their energies toward worthwhile causes such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. Top levels of the U.S. government would respond to the changes at the prefecture level with a sharp reduction in belligerence domestically and internationally. In short, the world would become a more peaceful, more pleasant, and more compassionate place. We all would be happier, healthier and more comfortable in our own skins. Decency would reign supreme.

All this, with a seemingly pointless linguistic adjustment. Words matter. Punctuation matters. As I noted yesterday, the switch in a single letter in a word can mean the difference between paying your bills and being dissected (autopsy versus autopay). You’ve probably seen the admonition, reminding us that punctuation matters:

“Let’s eat Gramma,” versus “Let’s eat, Gramma.”

 

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Psychic Anesthesia

Psychologists may have a word or a phrase to describe the state of mind—perhaps ‘longing’ is more apt—but I do not know what that word or phrase might be. The longing, if that’s what it is, is a desire to leave oneself and move on to become an anonymous stranger. The “old” me would continue to exist, unaware of the “new” me and its departure. And the “new” me would be unaware it had emerged from someone unknown to it. But this set of circumstances does not translate into a dissociative disorder, in which multiple personalities exist in the same brain; instead, it more closely resembles cloning. The “new” me would have no memory of its past, though, because it would have no past earlier than its emergence; and even that moment would not imprint on my brain.

I suppose what I am describing is a wish to become two people, unknown to one another. The “new” one, though, would become the one I want to be, not the one I have been. An anonymous stranger who can’t remember his past because he doesn’t have one. But he would have to manufacture an artificial history in short order so he could answer questions about his evolution. And that obligatory life-building would shape his future; that blank slate would test his creative ability to craft a person whose behaviors and beliefs attract genuine interest and, eventually, admiration by his new network of acquaintances.

There’s so much to be done in life-building, especially on the limited timeline remaining so late in life. So many details to create and weave together into a credible mix. Place of birth. Parents and their careers. Siblings. Extended family. Schools. Education. Interests. Volunteer and work history. Marital status and history. And on and on.

But I wonder whether all that would be necessary if one chose to live a life of geographic and social seclusion? If the “new” me opted to live in the rural back country near Skinners Pond, Prince Edward Island, might I find it unnecessary to have a history? Might I be able to claim permanent amnesia after being found floating, unconscious, in an unregistered boat near the shore of the village of Portapique on Cobequid Bay? That might be all I would need to tell. I would claim to be a lost American who somehow managed to find himself without a history in a tiny village; an American who then made his way north to a remote outpost where fishing and farming are among the few ways of making a living. Somehow, though, I would need a reliable income. These details need to be worked out. There’s always some intractable restraint that gets in the way of impossible fantasies, isn’t there? I can’t claim, even surreptitiously, my Social Security benefits; I left those with the “old” me. It would unconscionable to try to take them with me, leaving the “old” me penniless and destitute; I could never do that to anyone, so income remains an obstinate roadblock to achieving the impossible.

As I was roaming the map, seeking places to live out my fantasies, I came across Burnt Church Indian Nation, New Brunswick. I suspect many of the Indian Nation lands may be hostile outposts to American interlopers; that’s pure conjecture, though, and probably illuminates an unintentional bias. Ach! How does one become a citizen of the world with no innate prejudices, no superficial biases, no preconceived judgments? Perhaps a fresh “new” me would be capable of leaving those ugly flaws to wear away as the “old” me ages and allows his blemishes to dissolve into love near the end of his life.

I am fully aware that the visions I have of remote Canadian villages and uninhabited rural lands are distorted by a deep rose tint embedded in my glasses. That’s where fantasies live; in rose-colored glasses that blur the images of trash left along the roadside. They block out the view of dilapidated old houses situated on lots strewn with old cars and unkempt weeds. They hide from sight drunken unemployed husbands beating their innocent children and desperate wives. This is not to say those bleak portraits resemble remote Canadian villages any more than they represent the norm in the U.S. or anywhere else; but those ugly images exist everywhere people exist. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to desolate areas of uninhabited wilderness that stretch in all directions.

I am aware, too, that as attractive as I find desolation and isolation, I need at least some close, intimate human contact with someone with whom I share some core commonalities. The “new” me would have no real commonalities to share, having unknowingly emerged from the “old” me as a blank slate. Everywhere I turn I find impossibilities, suggesting the only viable option is to live with myself, my past, and my future. As unappealing as that sometimes is, I suppose the choice is either to live with reality or die from it; the latter would be unacceptably cruel, so that’s out of the question. These thoughts trigger the words of a song I’ve heard only recently. Coincidentally (or, perhaps, not), the singer is a Canadian, Ken Yates. The song, Surviving is Easy. Here are the words to one stanza of the song:

Who gives a damn about a broken heart?
Who gives a damn about a couple new scars?
But getting by will only get you so far
Surviving is easy
But living is hard.

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This morning, work will begin (or continue, depending on perspective) on repainting my deck. I’ve hired someone to do the work, having given up on doing it myself. I might just as well have left out “doing it” from that last sentence. I hope this will be the last attempt to make the deck attractive and livable. If the contractor gets here early enough and does not need me around, I will go to the Thursday morning parking lot gathering at church. Then, I will meet my wife at her cardiologist’s office to get some direct feedback from the doctor on her condition. And, this evening, I probably will attempt to dull the edges with some wine or gin or whiskey or even beer; something modestly anesthetic.

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I just got an email that, on first glance, seemed to read “Your Autopsy is scheduled for 10/26/2020.” On closer reading, it was a notice from Entergy about my electricity bill: “Your Autopay is scheduled for 10/26/2020.” It worried me for a moment.

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How Will We Change?

Predictions about a new face of human society—if this pandemic ever ends—include hopeful prophecies that humankind will have learned a lesson about the significance of community. We will have learned, according to those wishful forecasts, to value time with one another more deeply and to place greater worth on relationships than on things. Would that it were so. I am not so optimistic. I have no doubt that many among us will fully embrace those lessons, but I fear many, if not most, will not. Already, I see evidence all around that suggests greed is in full bloom, even in the wake of monstrous human catastrophe. This is not new evidence; it’s just ongoing confirmation of a characteristic trait of an enormous wave of ego-driven people, a wave that continues to threaten to founder the ship of humanity, drowning civilization under the crushing weight of greed and insistent egocentricity.

While a significant minority of human beings are fundamentally good, caring, decent people whose empathy and compassion and selfless caring are beyond reproach, their numbers are insufficient to assure their attributes survive.  Many others, who are not innately moral creatures, have been molded and shaped by the finer elements of society, repressing their natural tendency toward greed and self-serving behavior at the expense of others. There have been times, I think, when religion successfully thwarted selfishness in those large, innately selfish, segments of society.

Those times are gone, though. Most religion today acts as an accomplice in camouflage, pretending to celebrate the ethic of reciprocity while surreptitiously enabling and encouraging exclusionary greed and selective judgment. Prosperity theology, an increasingly embraced apology and justification for economic inequality, is among the latest religious arguments that attempt to legitimize greed.

Few things would please me more than for my bleak assessment of the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic to be proven absolutely wrong.  I would love to see evidence of a resurgence of generosity, compassion, empathy, and kindness at the same time I witnessed a decline in selfishness and greed. For that to happen, though, a large-scale commitment to change hearts and minds would be necessary. Skepticism, like mine, would have to relax into hope. Wishes would have to transform into productive actions. A deep appreciation of community would have to replace the artificial happiness triggered by rampant consumption and selfish greed.  We collectively would need to recognize money for what it is, a transactional mechanism for assigning value to “things,” not life.

I do wish my mornings would begin in bursts of happiness, rather than muffled explosions of dread and disgust.

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Context Makes Us Who We Are

I was up before 4 again, thanks to a gut tied in knots and performing back flips. An hour later, I thought it all had been resolved, but as I sat at my desk, attempting to think coherent thoughts that might make sense on the computer screen, the knots tightened again and offered an encore of flips. I opted to avoid coffee this morning, choosing a big glass of cold water instead. That choice does not seem to have helped much. Cold water had no impact on the beads of sweat on my forehead. I climbed back in bed around 6:30 and stayed there, between off and on trips to the room next door, until about 9:40. I don’t think I’ve been in bed as late as 9:40 since my run-in with lung cancer. Shortly after rising, a friend who hosted a gathering a few nights ago delivered two cans of H.E.B. Boracho Beans, following up on a conversation we had that night about how much I like boracho beans. I may delay opening those cans until my gut’s back flip performance comes to an end. With that as an introduction, I will write whatever flows from my fingers; I suspect it will be short.

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Our brains fracture reality, subsequently piecing it back together in ways that blur the distinctions between experience and memory. Our recall is dependably erroneous, as if our minds consistently lie to us about who and where and why we are. But our minds are not telling us lies, not really. They are simply expressing our reality refracted through contextual prisms. I know, that sounds like distraction through verbal pretension; but it’s not. I think it’s the best way to describe how we often misinterpret our experiences, based on the filters and biases through which we see and experience events. If my filters interpret certain words or attitudes or responses as “conservative,” I classify an experience that includes those words or attitudes or responses as conservatively biased. Dispassionately “watching” ourselves go through an experience is, in my view, basically impossible. We frame the experience according to contextual cues. Before we even receive enough information to make an informed assessment, our minds have begun shaping our interpretation of the experience. We think we can be unbiased, nonjudgmental, and receptive to untainted reality; I doubt that. We may want to be able to be that android, but flesh and blood and tissue and cerebral interference refuse to allow it.

That is not to say we’re incapable of experiencing reality as it really is, it’s just a rarity. We learn so much and absorb such a vast amount of information that all the knowledge and processing of facts colors our view through that prism. When I realized Mrs Stephenson, my third grade teacher, had a glass eye, the experience taught me to always peer intently into the eyes of people I meet, checking to see whether one of the eyes is artificial. Once I satisfy myself that an eye either is or is not artificial, I continue about the business of deciding what this person is all about. That simple realization, as a kid, has altered my way of looking at, and interpreting, the world ever since. In the end, it makes no difference to me whether an eye is glass or vitreous jelly. But it does matter, doesn’t it? Somewhere, deep in the recesses of my brain, it makes a difference I cannot identify. If it did not, I would not notice it.

Ultimately, context makes us who we are. That answers a question I’ve asked myself for my entire life. Now that I have the answer, I wonder whether I’ll keep asking the question, thinking there must be some other, more appealing, answer.

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Dark Observations

There are no miracles. Sometimes, harsh realities scrape away the soft cosmetic maquillage of one’s life, revealing irreparable damage to sinews, feeble muscles, and brittle bones. Beneath artificial calm at the surface, turbid undercurrents claw at what’s left of an emotionally-drained skeleton, leaving a weakening, fragile structure incapable of withstanding the weight of heartache. The pressure of facing a dispassionate, unyielding universe bent on reducing everything to atoms is too much. The universe never loses the inevitable battle. Miracles do not emerge from the carnage.

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Time spent alone, essentially in solitary confinement, shackled to an imaginary master, can steal confidence, hope, and love. That time of abandonment replaces value and meaning and desire and joy with emptiness and rancor. Rage and distrust grows like mushrooms fueled by heat and moisture. Emptiness, once it takes hold, does not yield. Nothing can fill that hermetically sealed void, protected against intrusion by hardened steel walls.

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Darkness can fill a brightly-lit room. It can drench a desert without a single drop of rain. It can make the sun as dim as a new moon behind a shroud of thick black smoke. Darkness is suffocation and drowning and strangulation combined into a murderous cloud; it consumes air, converting oxygen to sarin gas.

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Hopelessness can feel like bullets piercing tenderness. Maybe they are not bullets. Instead, they could be pieces of shrapnel erupting from a suddenly shattered heart; the universe, turned into a transport vehicle for an explosive emotion designed to do maximum damage.

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The tether that binds us to each other and to life itself is gossamer thin. It sometimes seems to be made of steel; other times, it is as fragile as a single cotton fiber, severed just as easily by force as by fire.

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Smiles Amongst the Snarls

I prefer to think of smiles between human strangers as natural expressions of friendliness; automatic, nonthreatening responses to the presence of another human being. Wedged in there between amiable welcoming and symbolism of upturned corners of the mouth  suggesting the absence of threats, the smile is a visual sign of at least a touch of joy. That’s what I like to think.

A twenty-one-year-old article from Scientific American, though, offers a slightly less gushing assessment, based on both observation and research. Frank T. McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., who was quoted in that article (How Did the “Smile” Become a Friendly Gesture in Humans?), has done extensive research on facial expressions. He observed that:

In a lot of human smiling, it is something you do in public, but it does not reflect true ‘friendly’ feelings–think of politicians smiling for photographers…What is especially interesting is that you do not have to learn to do any of this–it is preprogrammed behavior. Kids who are born blind never see anybody smile, but they show the same kinds of smiles under the same situations as sighted people.

I liked what McAndrews had to say, so I checked his credentials. He is still a professor at Knox College. He is known for his work in evolutionary psychology and has been cited in the literature 2995 times (the most recent count I could find; with this blog post, perhaps the number jumps to 2996).

My interest in smiles this morning arose unexpectedly and without any trigger that I can discern. Perhaps I wondered to myself how, in the ugly face of a poisonous president and a deadly pandemic, we find it within ourselves to continue to smile every day. The reason for my interest notwithstanding, I found myself intrigued by the very idea of smiles. So, I did what I always do when a question about which I have opinions but few facts arises: I did some superficial research that only barely touches the surface of what’s “out there” for me to learn. I won’t go into the gritty details of what I found, but suffice it to say the research into both smiles and their surly cousins, snarls, is extensive; almost overwhelming. Some of what I read suggested to me (that is, my mind interpreted what I read to mean) that smiles could be in a close race with snarls for the most common human expression. Nothing said so, explicitly, but some of the articles I skimmed (very superficially, I stress) made me wonder whether stressful news and even more stressful experiences may be erasing the emotions that prompt us to smile? That’s an enormously depressing thought, one that all by itself can wipe the smile from my face. Again, though, it’s my interpretation of language that may well have been intended to be read in a completely different way. Superficial research often yields superficial (and utterly unreliable) answers.

I admit I got a bit bogged down by McAndrews’ work. He remains active, it seems, and has published extensively in his field. Interestingly (and suspiciously, in my book), much of his published work can be found in popular magazines, newspapers, television, and radio like Psychology Today, The New Yorker, Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, BBC, NPR, PBS, the Today Show, etc., etc. It’s probably an indefensible bias, but my trust of the depth of knowledge and quality of research of academicians tends to slide when I learn their academic exposure include extensive mass media outlets. So, McAndrews may be as reliable as my superficial research; but, at least, he’s a professional with credentials far beyond mine, so I’ll stick with him for the moment. To do otherwise would suggest I think my superficial interest has greater core value than does his substantially more expansive knowledge.

But I’ve drifted away from smiles and snarls, haven’t I? Let me close this trivial diversion by saying I hope I find occasion to smile a lot today and I hope I encounter others who smile a great deal. Smiles, whether our own or those of others, tend to elevate our moods and make us happier beings. Smiling tends to bring joy, however brief and however modest, to those around us. Therefore, I advocate that, at least for today and preferably for a lifetime, we endeavor to smile as genuinely and as much as we possibly can. And leave the snarls in sealed cardboard boxes.

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Is Utopian Rubbish More Satisfying than Regular Rubbish?

Economists (and most of the rest of us) have long since dismissed as utopian rubbish the concept that societies could eliminate money, thereby eliminating the “evil” that grows from the roots of the awful stuff. Yet ideas continue to bubble up; why not eliminate money? I’ll admit to occasionally engaging in such delusional fancies. “Why don’t people just become utterly altruistic? If we would simply become morally better, we would not need money.” I used the word rubbish in the first sentence. Let me use it again. Rubbish!

Money is simply an abstract symbol (that can be in the form of paper currency, coins, beads, pieces of bamboo, or what have you) that represents stored value. That value can be used as a means of exchange (I will give you three pieces of bamboo if you will give me a slice of cantaloupe…and you can then exchange that bamboo for two glasses of orange juice). The “money” also can be used to represent a unit of account in exchange relationships (I will give you ninety pieces of bamboo; in return, I will expect to be able to get thirty slices of cantaloupe or sixty glasses of orange juice or forty-five purple onions).  Without money, I think we would have an incredibly hard time agreeing on and reconciling value. Value, not values. Values belong primarily in a different discussion, though they have a place in the discussion of money, as well.

Another argument in favor of money as an agreed abstract symbol representing value involves funding government. How would government function without the ability to levy taxes, in the form of money, to fund its services to the governed? I doubt the tax collector would be able to accept, in payment for services rendered, cows, sheep, bales of hay, boxes of turnips, tubs of milk, or promises that the recipient will paint government offices or keep the plumbing in government offices in working order.

Money is a convenient means by which we collectively agree to assign value to items of exchange. Without it, the barter economy (a perfectly legitimate means of exchange, in my view) would grow into an unworkable, chaotic mess. So, let me be clear: I understand and subscribe to the concept that money is a necessary abstraction. Every human society, to my knowledge, has some form of money; some more sophisticated than others, perhaps, but, still, they use money.

My appreciation for the need for money, though, does not necessarily translate into my endorsement of the way money has morphed into a symbol beyond economic value; I loathe the fact (and it is a fact) that money has been allowed to take on an almost magical aura within which it defines human value, human rights, and the power structures of human relationships. I think we humans need to consider whether we can harness the runaway beast and return it to its comfortable cage, where it can continue to live a long, abstractly satisfying eternity. The question is, how do we do that? I do not have an answer, but I suspect a workable answer could be found if: 1) we acknowledge that we have allowed money to take on far more value than the vast majority of us ever intended; 2) we commit to investing intellectual capital, worldwide, to discovering ways of putting the genie back in the bottle; and 3) we refuse to accept assertions that money has any business being involved in defining or marketing human value, human rights, or the power structures of human relationships.

In my opinion, money should be a simple abstraction, not a maddeningly convoluted multi-dimensional hologram bathed in layer upon layer of logarithmic complexity.  Entire industries have been created to extract monetary value from emptiness and invisible phantoms, thereby corrupting the concepts upon which money is based: derivatives, mortgage schemes (in which interest is presented in different ways, as if the mortgage holder sees the world through a special prism visible only to him), risk (as if risk, as a concept grounded on nothing but fear, has intrinsic value), etc., etc. To get back to the core functions of money (which are not to enrich manipulative bastards whose lifetime goals are to leave destitute as many people as humanly possible), the extremely complex financial schemes which have a history of crashing economies and ruining lives should be permanently dismantled and banned. Any efforts to resurrect them should be deemed criminal (I would go so far as to call such actions attempted capital murder) and the perpetrators, upon findings of guilt, should be swept into dungeons and forgotten. But I’m getting the cart before the horse. First, we must define legitimacy in the monetary sphere. Then, we must establish mechanisms to ensure that only legitimate monetary transactions (and processes) can take place. Only then should we track down and punish the culprits who wreck lives, replace freedoms with economic slavery, and consume, consume, consume!

So, that’s what is on my mind this morning. My mind may change. It often does.

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Themes and Dreams of a Lifetime

Pouring my thoughts onto a receptive white screen almost every morning for fifteen years or so tends to capture themes I may have missed in the hubbub of daily existence. Reading what I have written, though, reveals those themes. Sometimes they are clear, like flawless glass. Sometimes, they are concealed beneath a smoky translucent film, a camouflage unwittingly designed to hide the frame of mind that led me to write the words. Either way, though, the themes emerge from the flood of words, over and over again, as if—drowning in murky language—they were trying to save themselves and the writer from sinking into impenetrable silence.

That may be overdramatizing, but not by much. Truly, often without even realizing it, my writing, both fiction and nonfiction, translates my state of mind into words and sentences and paragraphs. And those assemblies, collectively, capture distinct themes. And those themes describe the way I think, the way I see the world, and the way I see myself interacting with the world. I attempt to exercise some degree of control over it, but my writing suggests I feel like I am walking into a heavy headwind with occasional brutal crosscurrents. That does not mean “poor, pitiful me.” It simply means I recognize my attempts at control are essentially futile. The world I face is too complex and powerful and its inertia too immense to be shaped and molded by me. And I am not alone. Most of us recognize how insignificant and feeble we are in this immeasurably enormous universe. Yet we keep on trying, half expecting a magical transformation to take place in us, imbuing us with the ability to cause spectacular, positive change. That is to say, we’re all delusional. I know I am.

My themes are riddled with disillusionment and hope; grey dreariness and sparkling optimism. Fear and loneliness. A thirst for love in spite of an unlovable core. Goodness buried within a shell permeated with foulness. Perhaps no theme is as obvious in my writing as the theme of not knowing whether there is a “me” in there or whether I am an apparition created entirely by my context. A writer friend claims I attempt to create characters who are “good people who do bad things.” She says people who are good at their core simply do not do bad things, so my attempts to create such characters are doomed to fail because I attempt to create that which does not exist. I disagree, of course. But, then, I wonder whether our definitions of goodness and badness operate on two different levels; the superficial and the intrinsic. That gets at another theme common in my writing. And the idea of superficiality is important, too. My themes, even after all the years of writing (since I was a kid), are touched on briefly, but never sufficiently explored to yield any significant insights. Which gets to another theme: my interests and thoughts are wide and varied, but shallow and short-lived.

I do not need to re-read what I’ve written to know that many of the themes that find their way into my writing argue against themselves. Ideas about people, for example, that offer either inspiration or depression; bubbling enthusiasm versus crushing pessimism. My emotional themes almost always incorporate those opposites, as if I feel compelled to tell both sides of every story, whether the focus is positive or negative. In that sense, I tend to write as if I were a battery; one positive and one negative terminal.

I am going through this exercise of self-examination—again—with the idea that I might be better equipped to compile some of my writing into theme-based collections that could stand alone or as part of an aggregation of related writing. But I probably won’t finish the exercise. I never do. That’s a theme, too, both in my writing and my life.

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Another bizarre dream. I dreamed I was in a car that an older woman friend was driving. She somehow fell forward onto the very long floorboard as the car headed down a hill. I was able to slip past her and put my foot on the brake pedal, bringing the car to a stop. From there, three of us (the driver, someone in the back seat, and I) got out of the car and walked into an elaborate web of tunnels that stretched for miles. The tunnels were packed on both sides with businesses, most festooned with colorful banners, streamers, and cloth. The driver was trying to find a bank called the Tulsa Bank and Trust, which she said had a window where tickets to a Las Vegas show could be purchased. After a long walk through the tunnels, she stopped at a hotel registration desk to inquire as to whether this bank was located. The desk clerk told her it was unlikely the bank would have Las Vegas show tickets. Suddenly, I noticed the woman was gone; the clerk did not know which direction she took. So the other passenger (a man I do not know) and I attempted to make our way back to the tunnel entrance but we took a wrong turn someplace and found ourselves walking along a raised concrete walkway next to a body of water. When the walkway ended, the other guy jumped into the water at a point where a group of teenagers (but looking surly and closer to drinking age than youthful) were playing. I followed him. As we rounded a bend and found a place to climb out of the water, he said he was afraid of the teenagers; he had called the police, he said, and alerted the property owners. I was afraid and confused and felt like we had no hope of ever finding our way out. The dream ended about that point. Crappy way to end a dream, in my opinion.

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Escapism

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about fantasy. As I sit here this morning, drinking my rapidly-cooling coffee, the topic remains on my mind, if in a slightly different context. I think, perhaps, I should have pursued a career in psychology, given my attraction to the mysteries of the human mind. But such an assessment inevitably leads to regrets. I do not need any more of those at this moment. So I’ll try to avoid thinking of myself in terms of “what might have been.” That frame of mind is too bleak. I’ll try to think, instead, that my vivid fantasy life is an indicator of my brain’s youthful flexibility and still-active potential.

But let’s be realistic. Some fantasies are impossible. For example, my fantasy about being a middle-aged Scandinavian. No matter how badly I want to be a 43-year-old Dane or a 51-year-old Norwegian, it’s not going to happen. It’s simply impossible. So why even entertain such unattainable fantasies? Why bother dreaming of attaining the unreachable? I suppose it’s a means of escape from life that sometimes feels like it’s taking place inside a cage with hardened steel bars sealed behind platinum locks. Escapism, pure and simple. Maybe that’s what I need from time to time. Or always.

But some fantasies are not outlandish and impossible. Recently, I read an article that suggested realistic fantasies sometimes serve as motivational triggers and actionable propellants. They establish goals with clearly definable interim checkpoints. People who indulge fantasies as cues or realistic aspirations worthy of expending efforts to achieve them have a much better chance of reaching those goals than do people who simply daydream about them. That is, people whose fantasies spur them to incremental actions tend to reach those goals, whereas people who fail to use the fantasies as motivators tend not to. The theory sounds reasonable. I don’t recall, though, whether it was based on research or simply on “common sense.”

My writing tends to incorporate, whether explicitly or through tangential reference, my fantasies. As my sixty-seventh birthday looms just over a month and a half away, I wonder whether old men (and women) who dream of different variations of their futures (that is, people who indulge in fantasy) are deluding themselves.  Achievement of fantasies one embraces in youth and middle age, I would think, tends to have a better chance of occurring than the wishes and dreams that emerge later in life. No matter how youthful I think my brain might be, the body surrounding it is in an accelerating state of decay; that’s true for most of us after we reach our youthful prime.

Somewhere along the line, though, I’m sure I’ve heard and/or read an adage that says something to the effect that “you’re never too old to dream.” I suppose that’s true, though at some point dreaming or fantasies become magical thinking, completely untethered to reality. Would it be good to know precisely when that severance takes place? Or would that knowledge have an ugly impact on one’s sense of well-being…one’s sense of purpose?

I’m afraid many, if not most, people in my sphere would think fantasies/dreams/wishes/ aspirations/etc. at my stage of life are wastes of mental energy—exercises in futility that serve no useful purpose. “Responsible adults do not engage in nonsensical fantasy,” I imagine hearing some of them say. “Who says I’m a responsible adult?” I might reply. My response would vary, depending on context: my mood, the state of affairs in my immediate realm, etc., etc., etc. Whether attainable or not, though, fantasies can provide relief from the burdens of day-to-day life. Escape. Temporary freedom from the realities of a planet whose occupants, more often than not, appear to have gone mad and intent on suicide or, if I might coin a term, humanicide. [As an aside, sometimes I think neologisms emerge from need. With a hat tip to Woody Allen, I am not entirely opposed to humanicide, but I do not think I want to be present when it takes place.]

Seriously, I frequently wonder about fantasy and whether my active fantasy life is evidence of my insanity or simply an outgrowth of writing fiction. I might turn that around, though, and say my fiction is simply a symptom of my insanity. Writing about the questions, I suppose, is as much escapism as is the creation in my mind of communities of like-minded people who love one another, live to serve, and treat the natural world with the respect and dignity it deserves. I’ll have to write more about those communities; my ideas about urban and rural pockets that represent the “salvation” of humanity.

The thunder and lightning outside suggest I should turn off and unplug my computer, lest it be fried like the recent experience with my phone system, television, and DVD player!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Majesty of the Commons: If Only

I remember reading about the “tragedy of the commons” many years ago, probably originally in a sociology class. The “tragedy” was offered as a common grazing area that, if used collectively to its best limits, would provide adequate grazing for a sufficient number of animals to allow each owner’s animals to be adequately fed. But when individuals realized they could benefit financially by putting their interests above those of the collective (by grazing more than their fair share of animals), the result was overgrazing which ultimately led to insufficient nutrition for all the animals and a barren, useless commons. At least that’s the way I remember it; it may have been slightly more sophisticated than that. The tragedy of the commons was presented as an economic problem that led to the creation of governmental restrictions and a host of other societal restrictions to control over-consumption. These strictures were technical solutions to what amounts essentially to a social behavioral problem.

But I wonder whether the problem would have been more permanently resolved through mythology, as opposed to regulations and restrictions. My proposed solution is, in essence, the technique used by religions to establish baseline “moral” behaviors. Many behaviors we consider “moral” today have no compelling basis other than as elements of a moral code. We adhere to the code not because we have evidence behaving outside the code is harmful but because of the fear of censure by a “force” beyond ourselves. Communism is an as-yet-unsuccessful attempt to replicate the success of religion by regulating behavior through belief and mythology (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” or, in the original German, “Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen”). [Author’s note: No, I did not know the German version; I looked it up.]

Really, though, if we could inculcate in people from a very early age a fervent belief that great good would arise from equality, sharing, and careful stewardship of all our resources (versus a belief that incalculable harm and societal collapse would follow behaviors associated with greed), perhaps decency would be pervasive.

Unfortunately, I think the evidence today suggests there’s a flaw in that thinking. People claim to believe in and to follow the admonitions of religious prophets, but their behaviors suggest otherwise. I’m not convinced Marxism failed because it was based on flawed thinking; it has not worked because it depends on people living according to a philosophy that can too easily be abused through corruption and greed. Capitalism, on the other hand, rewards corruption and greed in the same way it rewards hard work and creativity.

The problem is people. In order for a collective system to work effectively and efficiently, greed and the superiority of self-interest over group-interest would have to be eliminated from the system.  But people are people. Some people are greedy and self-interested by nature; you can’t change them. So, for a system to work, you would have to remove those people from it. You’d have to change…I should say exchange…them. Didn’t I just write something like that a short while ago?

Wouldn’t our lives be more satisfying without unvarnished greed? Wouldn’t the collective commons be more majestic and fruitful if we all simply agreed to share and be satisfied that our share was sufficient? If only. If only.

Posted in Economics, Greed | 4 Comments

Meandering Through the Morning

Shortly after I became enamored with Scandinavian films and television series, my wife suggested I would enjoy watching Dicte. By that time, though, the Danish television series was no longer readily available; I looked, to no avail. Recently, though, I stumbled upon it again; I discovered it is available on some obscure add-on pay-TV service connected in some fashion to Amazon Prime.  And that obscure add-on pay TV service was available for free for seven days. So I took the bait. Very, very bad decision. I cannot possibly watch the entire three (or is it more?) seasons of Dicte within the seven-day trial period. Yet, after watching three or four episodes, I cannot envision abandoning the series. The bastards who market the obscure add-on pay TV service willfully get people hooked; it’s like offering samples of addictive drugs in the hope of creating a “user” who unwillingly becomes a customer, only this form of criminality is legal.

Dicte Svendsen is a recently-divorced crime reporter who returns to Aarhus and gets involved in what will no-doubt become a never-ending series of adventures involving, what else, crime. Immediately after the series begins, a host of subplots emerge. For example, on her return to her hometown, her parents (both Jehovah’s Witnesses) reject her.  And a cloud of suspicion about the relationship between a very pregnant friend and her soon-to-be-husband arises. And Dicte’s ex-husband shows up, presenting issues that will almost certainly invade the rest of the series (or, at least, the first few episodes), creating tension between Dicte and her daughter and her other friends. In other words, this series is a Danish crime-drama soap opera. And I love it!

This morning, I read a bit about the series. Apparently, certain aspects of the series were panned by critics and the Danish viewing audience. One aspect has to do with characters’ accents; though set in Aarhus, some characters apparently have Copenhagen accents. And some people think the accents of almost all the players are hideous parodies of real Danish accents. Frankly, I’ve never even thought about geographically-specific Danish accents; but it makes sense, doesn’t it? If we can have Brooklyn accents and southern drawls, Danes certainly have every right to have their own linguistic tattoos!

At any rate, I think I’m going to have to subscribe to the obscure add-on pay TV service whose name I cannot remember (and which is damn near impossible to find on Amazon Prime). At least until I watch the entire three-season series.

For the record, some of the Scandinavian television/films I have enjoyed are: Occupied; In Order of Disappearance; Department Q Trilogy; The Wave; and, now, Dicte. Among others.

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I got the unpleasant news by mail yesterday that my car insurance premiums are increasing, due to the fact that the discount for having taken a driver safety course for geezers has expired. So, I signed up online for a four-hour AARP course to reacquaint me with driver safety tips for the elderly. I spent about an  hour and a half watching and listening to the program yesterday. I expect to force myself to continue watching and listening today; I may be able to finish it today or tomorrow. Whenever I finish it, I should be able to print a certificate, which I will then take to my insurance agent and ask that my discount be reinstated.  Despite my annoyance at being forced to take the course, I have to admit that some of the information included in the course is quite useful and very probably helpful in avoiding accidents, etc. That having been said, and despite noticing that parts of the course have been updated since the last time I took it, much of the course content is old and outdated, both in appearance and in presentation style. I think it needs more than a refresher; it needs to be replaced. Unfortunately, I suspect the cost of producing a brand new course would be considerable. And, at only $16+ per person for registration fees, it might take AARP and the insurance companies quite some time to recoup their costs. Oh, well. That’s not my concern; I just have to finish the course, print my certificate, and watch my insurance premiums (obscenely high even with discounts) return to tolerable levels.

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I bought avocados recently. Two of them. They were not ripe, of course, so I stuck them in a kitchen drawer to ripen. And I promptly forgot about them.  Fortunately, I remembered them this morning. They are just now ripe. So, in a while, I will remove the nice, ripe meat from one of them, smash it into a paste with a fork, add some lime juice, salt, and jalapeño paste, and spread it onto a piece of toasted black & white swirled rye bread. And that will be my magnificent breakfast. I don’t mind eating foods that others classify as long-outdated hipster snobbery.

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And, now, here are the first three stanzas of a poem I wrote about five years ago. I read it again this morning and these stanzas stood out to me:

Armature

You and I have lived this life for an eternity,
detritus of our dashed dreams serving as bricks
and the two of us as mortar, cobbling together
this fragile, monumental tower where we reside.

We have scuffed our emotions against sharp
sentimental objects so many times they have
shredded into strings like worn cotton,
as soft and ephemeral as clouds.

The scowls and snarls of daily battles
between us have become so comfortable
I know I could not live without them and
the easy fit between us they concede.

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Sentimentality is both joy and heartache. The tender emotions make one more susceptible to injury than the ones fashioned from leather and stone.

Posted in Film, Poetry, Scandinavian, Television, Television series | 2 Comments

Ego sub nullius officium agere

I may risk electrocution later this morning. I’ve had a ceiling fan speed control switch sitting on my desk for months, its installation waiting for my rage to subside from the last time I installed one just like it for another fan. When I installed the last one, a project that should have taken 15 minutes, I took about two hours, thanks to the fact that the junction box into which the body of the control had to fit was filled with inflexible wires. In spite of the many obstacles to its installation, I got the last one in. But I had help; I was able to rely on my wife to tell me whether the power was off when I flipped breakers in the garage. This time, I have no one to assist. It will just take longer to ensure that I’ve cut the power. But the longer it takes, the less patient I become. The last installation, for example, was completed two hours in, but only after I managed to put the switch in upside down. Yet it works. It remains upside down. Perhaps I should correct that mistake before making another one.

Whatever. I may not work on either of them today. Perhaps, instead, I’ll spend my morning making and consuming a Bloody Mary or six, thus deadening my rage t fan speed control switches. Not likely; I think I need to conserve celery to make tuna salad. A Bloody Mary is not a Bloody Mary in the absence of a celery stalk poking out of the glass. And drinking alone, in the morning, is a bad sign. “A bad sign.” If I recall correctly, “Born Under a Bad Sign” was a track off an album called Strange Brew by Cream/Eric Clapton. After a pause to explore whether my memory was working, I’m back to report that I was right about the tune, but it was written by Booker T. Jones and was also recorded by blues artist Albert King. I don’t know who recorded it first.

I just noticed I switched from ceiling fan speed control to early morning alcohol consumption to celery to competing tracks of what has become a blues classic. And it’s not even 7:00 a.m. yet.

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My interest in the companionship of a dog has surfaced again, as it does from time to time. Except I recognize it, now, as a temporary state of mental exhaustion that will subside when I realize the extent of the obligation and the costs of veterinary care, food, and such. Maybe fostering a little homeless beast for a period would be appropriate? Probably not; my wife, when she returns home, would find evidence that I gave in to my yearning for a pet. Best to let the pet-ache pass.

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As I gaze out the window, I see evidence that I might drown if I went outdoors and took a deep breath. The fog is not as thick as it sometimes is, but for some reason it seems more dangerous, as if could replace the oxygen in my lungs with water in a single breath. I think it’s the fact that the fog embraces leaves on trees so tightly that the leaves cannot move. The wet air is holding them captive, motionless, waiting for the leaves to succumb to humid suffocation before dripping away from them, leaving them limp and lifeless.

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What am I thinking? This is the weekend! I am therefore under no obligation to do anything other than enjoy my free time. I need not replace fan switches, wash windows, organize household paperwork, shower, shave, or otherwise engage in productive tasks. That does not mean I will not do those things; only that I am absolved of responsibility for them until after 11:59 p.m. Sunday evening.  That takes a modest load off my shoulders. Not enough to eliminate my desire for a thorough neck massage; desire is a wish with no expectation of attainment.

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Regardless of obligations, I’ve decided to do something other than write. My fingers need a rest and my expanding belly is screaming to be fed. So I shall feed it. Because I am nothing if not a benevolent servant of my gustatory wishes. Ego sub nullius officium agere. If Google Translate is correct, those words are Latin for “I am under no obligation to act.”

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Multi-Distractional Procrastination

Bloody raccoons! I woke much later than usual this morning, around 6, and wandered out of the bedroom without even putting on my “morning clothes.” As I exited the bedroom into the living area, and before even reaching for the light switch, I noticed movement outside on the deck.  My eyes adjusted quickly to the very dim light outside. A large raccoon slithered across the deck (slithered is the only way to describe that furtive, undulating movement). Another smaller one scurried along the deck railing near the hummingbird feeder that I left out for the night, thanks to the lingering rain and my disinterest in tracking water into the house as I retrieved it. A third one on the railing scampered in another direction. As soon as I saw the beasts, I stomped my feet and growled. Their movement ceased. I rushed to open the back door and screamed a few obscenities at the animals. Though they retreated, their departure was unhurried, as if the screams of an angry fat man wearing only underwear and flip-flops were not particularly frightening. Fortunately, the feeder remained, dangling from the hook I once hoped would keep it out of reach of raccoons thirsty for sugar-based nectar. I’ve long since abandoned that hope, replacing it with resigned acceptance that I would need to take the feeders in every night during hummingbird season. Except when weather and sloth conspire to bring out the lethargy in me.

That experience was more than an hour ago. Since then, I’ve donned my morning clothes, made coffee, eaten a ginger snap (dipped in said coffee) and read more than I care to know about the Republican National Convention. I also absorbed information that a polar bear attacked a camp site in Norway’s Svalbard Islands on Friday, killing a foreign national before the bear was killed. The man was taken to a hospital in Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Norway’s Arctic Svalbard archipelago, which is more than 500 miles north of the Norwegian mainland. It was too late; he died.

In terms of raw drama and tragic run-ins with Mother Nature, raccoon invasions and distant hurricanes and the fierce remnants of local tropical storms do not compare to polar bear attacks. Except for the pain I imagine would accompany a polar bear attack leading to one’s death, I think that way of departing this life might have some appeal, if for no other reason than to imprint the memory of one’s mode of death on the minds of survivors. I started to say “on the minds of descendants,” but one without children has no descendants. Oh, well. It’s not a matter that merits much thought, inasmuch as the likelihood I will die at the claws of a polar bear is less than minuscule.

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My mood of late has grown increasingly somber, despite multiple inquiries from people who want to boost my morale or provide a sympathetic ear, etc. I am afraid to engage more than superficially because I know, if I were to open up, I would melt into a puddle, an  undeserved pity sponge. It would be especially embarrassing and frustrating, knowing that I am not the one deserving sympathy and support; my wife, stuck in hospitals or rehab facilities for going on six weeks, is the one who needs it much, much more. She is in a place now where she cannot even have visitors, save the occasional visit by her sister and me through a glass window, speaking over a two-way intercom. I am angry at myself that I allow my self-pity to put me at risk of a tearful meltdown. Yet I don’t know how to switch off the emotions that trigger it. Attempts at replacing the fear and anger and so forth with false bravado have failed miserably. A stronger person would be better able to conceal those uncomfortable emotions, presenting a stoic exterior in public and reserving tearful breakdowns for private time. Perhaps the best solution is to avoid opportunities for public humiliation. Stay at home, keep conversations by phone or computer short and focused on other matters, and keep people at arm’s length.

Crap. I can’t even keep my whip-saw emotions in check on the page. My fingers let loose with minds of their own. I think my fingers are deviant; they do not adhere to instructions sent to them by my brain. They reject instructions they find offensive or inane, opting instead to jab the keyboard as they see fit.

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I can see a story forming out of that idea. A would-be writer who is too lazy and too unsure of his abilities to attempt to get published discovers over a period of weeks that his fingers are receiving their instructions from somewhere else; they type not what the writer instructs them to type but, instead, what another writer tells them to type. The other writer, a well-known published author, has lost control of his fingers to crippling arthritis and he can no longer speak into a microphone, due to the deterioration of his vocal chords as a result of a lifetime of two-pack-a-day smoking. But the published author discovers his psychic ability to control the fingers of others. The published author has tried several others, but until he finds this one guy, he has been dissatisfied with the speed and certainty of their keystrokes. Now, though, he has found the right one!  Okay, there’s the seed of the story. Now, the question is whether it will ever be written. Silly question! Of course not. The seeds never sprout into full-grown trees; even the bushes usually wither and die before reaching maturity.

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The Garage Door Guy came out day before yesterday and adjusted my garage door. At my request, he said he would return the next day (yesterday) and replace the bottom seal; he did. I was extremely pleased with his work. He, on the other hand, was extremely frustrated with what he had to go through to get the seal installed. Nonetheless, he did it and, as far as I can tell, did a good job. He arrived at around 3:00 p.m., during the peak of high winds and heavy rains caused by the remnants of Hurricane Laura. He worked right through it. I was impressed. The other company I had called, Garage Door Doctor, said it would be two weeks before they could get to me, but said it was too early to schedule a visit. Needless to say, I am no longer a fan of Garage Door Doctor; I will, though, recommend Garage Door Guy.

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For the last hour or so, I have switched between writing, making more coffee, putting a load of clothes in the washer, and otherwise occupying my time by devoting my attention to radically different endeavors. It’s time I stopped ignoring my “chores” through writing and get to the business at hand. So, enough of the distraction, John; get on with the day!

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Where’s the Intent in Nature’s Accidental Wrath?

The scream of the NOAA Weather Radio, alerting me to a tropical storm warning for Hot Springs Village, awakened me completely at 3:31 a.m. Only moments earlier, vague noises emanating from my Echo Dot in the next room prodded me out of a deep sleep. Those vague noises, I discovered a few minutes later, were Alexa’s prelude to the screech from the weather radio; her “notification” that NOAA has something to say.

I suppose I could have turned over and tried to go back to sleep, or tried going back to bed, but the bone-jarring howl of the radio was enough to shock my system into full-on alert. The noise turned on the spigot of my adrenaline valve; I found it impossible to turn it off even fifteen minutes later.

Once out of bed, I further fueled my adrenaline rush with coffee and online news, the latter which told me that Hurricane Laura had made landfall as a strong category four storm two hours earlier at Cameron, Louisiana. Forecasters had predicted the storm surge could reach twenty feet or more and could reach inland many, many miles. We won’t have a clear idea of just how powerful and destructive the storm’s impact was on the coastline until at least the early hours of daylight a couple of hours away; probably much later.

I saw a comment attributed to a NOAA scientist, suggesting Little Rock could experience significant power outages due to high winds later this morning and into the afternoon and evening hours. After yesterday morning’s loss of power (due to a lightning strike on Entergy’s equipment), I hoped we’d seen the last of storm-related power loss for a while. I guess that depends on how one defines “a while.” During the last day, and even during the last ten minutes, I have lost internet connectivity several times; if the power goes, so does my internet and my phones. Like so many others, I have become addicted to the communication lifeline provided by internet connections; it has become like electricity and oxygen and public roadways: socialism’s grip tightening around our necks. {For anyone who does not know me, that last little comment was sarcasm speaking.}

If I were a believer in the idea of a vengeful god or vengeful nature, I might say COVID-19 and Hurricane Laura and the California wildfires and the dozens and dozens of other catastrophes and calamities inflicted upon humankind (and Mother Earth) in the recent past have been retribution. Or punishment. Or something else visited upon us in exchange for our misdeeds and impropriety. But I am not a believer; so, in my view, it’s simply richly coincidental.

Yet, I wonder: am I truly as certain as I think I am that everything is, essentially, an accident of nature? When I listen to old Cat Stevens music, I feel an old— almost buried—sense of childish wonder and awe at the world around me. Morning Has Broken and The Wind are an overtly religious songs, but I think they capture childish awe and wonder more than they affirm a religious world-view.  But I often wonder whether the distance between awe and acceptance of religious interpretations of the universe is as great as I think it should be. There is, for me, an uncomfortable bridge between my sense of awe at the magic of the universe and others’ sense that the universe is somehow the brainchild of an all-knowing, all-powerful deity. I say it’s an uncomfortable bridge because I think my interpretation that “it’s just an expression of physical laws” is as faith-based as their “it’s the work of a celestial magician.”

I do wander, don’t I? And I wonder. There are no answers. Only questions that leave us empty and aching. I think I’d rather be empty and aching that full of something I find offensive and odious or blindly silly.

I hope the people in the path of Hurricane Laura escape with both their lives and their livelihoods.

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Dimming of the Day

This song has been playing and replaying in my mind for days, though I do not know why. It is among my most favorite pieces of music. Because it has been so prominent in my recent thought processes, I thought I’d memorialize that fact on my blog.

Posted in Emotion, Music | 3 Comments