Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Incredible Tale of Phineas Schmidt (a Parable)

The world was simmering in a new plague called COVID-19 and people shambled about with masks covering their mouths. Neighbors fell ill and the news buzzed with gloom, contradictions, and fear. 

Phineas decided it was time to run, so he sold everything he owned, gave the money to charities for children, and spent the rest on a plane ticket and a backpack so that he could access the most remote wilderness on Earth. Better to die in the age-old struggle for survival than to perish a the hands of some unseen spectre conjured and sustained by the irresponsibility, ignorance and mishandlings of others. And, perhaps, he might even find happiness some in thre embrace of primeval, shadowy glade, immersed in silence...

The forest was thick and deep, and Phineas took only ways that were unmarked by the boots of men or the hooves of beasts. Some days, he moved mere yards forward, but what did it matter? He'd never have to be on time for anything again. The goal of each day was to simpy to live -- to survive, then to sit by a fire and ponder this most human of accomplishments: another day enscribed in the journal of Time. 

For many days he moved through the bush, knowing, per the map of his mind, that he must be approaching the belly of this forest -- a stretch of uninhabited land that spanned millions of square miles...

One day, he reached a little pond that was shaped very much like a grizzly bear. (In fact, in centuries past, the natives had called it "Bear Cub Lake," but Phineas did not know this.) He took off his pack and paused to drink. He smiled at the shape of this placid tarn. 

Before he put on his pack again, he bent to find a small, white rock, which he picked up and tossed into the cobalt blue. 

As he turned to walk away, a mosquito landed oh his nose, so Phineas squashed it with his hand. He then rubbed his face to be sure there were no more bits of bug gore upon it. Then, he walked away. 

A few weeks later, Phineas lay dead in a field of flowers. At first he'd felt hot; then, he had started coughing and, in his last few moments, gasping for air, he'd fallen in this field of flowers, amazed, as he was fading away, that he could smell none of them, though they surrounded his head in radiant abundance...

How could Phineas have known that, only a few hours before him, a young man who had also fled civilization, had passed that same "Bear Cub" pond, moving through this brief intersection of paths -- the Cartesian X to Phineas's Y; or that said young man had stood there, also admiring the water, and that a bug had flown into his mouth, causing the young man to spit; or that some of the young man's spittle would land on the very rock that Phineas would later pick up, with his bare hand, and throw into the pond before rubbing his face to clear way the body of the smashed mosquito?

Anyway, the last thing Phineas saw was the sky in which he saw a cloud in the shape of a bear. 

The other man hiked on to build a snug cabin in a primeval, shadowy glade next to a chuckling brook and he grew fat on salmon and venison and died in happy isolation -- instantaneously, of a heart attack -- at a very old age, completely unaware that the civilized world had destroyed itself, with weapons and political discord, decades defore... 

Friday, June 5, 2020

A Benevolent Letter From Warren Schmegiggie: CEO of Widgets-4-U, Inc.

W. Schmegiggie
Hi. I’m Warren Schmegiggie.

Here at Widgets-4-U, we are saddened by what we see going on in America today. Well, not really by what is going on, so much, but by what it is doing to our bottom line and by the fact that all the other companies are writing letters like this. So now we have to. I suppose we also should suspend sales for a day or something; maybe shift production to #blacklivesmatter T-shirts. We’ll see what the other companies do.

Anyway, we want you to know that silence makes you a racist, so we are speaking up. I know a white guy who dedicates his life to helping troubled black kids, but...NOT ONE POST. I guess we all see the truth now, eh? Dissembler. 

In short, we hire black people sometimes. And we love them. One is even a shift supervisor. 

Sure, we’ll be glad when this stuff isn’t in the news anymore and we can go back to just making money, but, for now, we are all united in the cause.

So, for God’s sake, do something. I mean, don’t, like, go anywhere if you don't feel like it... But say you are heartbroken a lot. If you can, get a stick hit and yourself on the back with it while chanting about your sins of white privlege. People like that, and it really, really helps things.

And, take my advice: Whatever is done in the protests, don’t complain; you'll dull the edge. If we learned one thing from this, it’s that the only way to defeat hate is with hate. The only way to get back at police is to burn down a Chinese restaurant. It's simple logic. If I may quote Dr. King: “Eff the police...and egg rolls, too, while I’m at it!”

And the police? Well, I'm no Roger Murtaugh ["I'm too old for this s$#t;" I love that guy!] but I have seen a few movies in my day. The best way to avoid a riot is to show up dressed for war. It's worked all this time, so why stop? Bottom line is police have been avoiding riots for years by showing up in full war gear. If it ain't broke...

What I am trying to say is we can get through this as long as the media doesn’t focus on snowflake nonsense like the peaceful teamwork of police and protesters in Camden, NJ and in Flint, Michigan. A bunch of morons walking together and being civilized to each other. Yeah, that's going to get a lot done. That's going to change things. Sure.

Anyway, one thing I know is that the only way for us to heal is to intimidate one another. So, let the tear gas fly and let the stores be looted! In the end we all will have learned who's the toughest and the toughest is always the happiest, if you ask me.

And, please, when this is all over, buy our widgets. (If I left anything out or said anything that is racist without knowing it, please don't be mad. It's hard to keep up with what is okay anymore.)

Warm Regards,
Warren Schmegiggie,
CEO of Widgets-4-U: Widgets for the Future!

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

On the George Floyd Riots, Morality, and Misrepresenting Dr. King

The only answer, from the great Fred Rogers. 
I happen to be one of those cats who believes that some some things are wrong and some things are right; that there are moral absolutes. But this would not stop me from doing some immoral things in particular circumstances. 

For instance, I believe killing another human is objectively wrong; however, if I needed to resort to deadly force to protect my family, I would. My conclusion would be that I did a wrong thing, but with justification. It doesn't make the act less wrong, but it might mitigate what consequences I should suffer for the act, both externally and internally. Regardless, I would regret that immoral act for the rest of my life, because, for me, killing is never an act of goodness, however necessary it may be.

This discussion about the riots is interesting to me; if, "interesting" is a metaphor for "heartbreaking."

The first thing we need to do is to take the Martin Luther King Jr. memes off the table. Why? Because he is universally accepted in American culture as a positive force in racial healing. What people are trying to do is to show, in the chopped memes, that even he supported rioting. Here's the meme:

In fairness, it is clear in the quotation that he is not condoning rioting, but I think that what visually illustrates the purpose of most people who post this is the bold-faced red line: "A riot is the language of the unheard." It's meant to skew the reader's focus. And some are posting that line on its own with similar intentions. It's important to understand that Dr. King is explaining riots, not condoning them. In the fuller context:
King...argues that worsening economic and social conditions that black Americans experience must be condemned as equally as riots. It is here he invokes the line: "A riot is the language of the unheard." (USA Today)
Right? King's pointing out hypocrisy. We need to see that we can't only start condemning things when they affect us. We need to condemn injustice toward our fellow humans even when it doesn't intrude upon us directly.

But Dr. King also said:
"...if every Negro in the United States stands up against non-violence, I'm going to stand up as a lone voice and say this is the wrong way!"
This is unequivocal. His words, HERE further explain that he is not in favor of rioting, but that he understands where it comes from, as we all should.

Many are saying, with more argumentative nuance, that we should not draw attention away from the injustices that African Americans suffer by condemning -- at this moment -- rioting and looting. This doesn't work for me. I mean, it works -- I get the reasoning -- but, like Dr. King, I would argue that we need to condemn both racial in justics and violence; after all, part of the protest is against violence, which is a dark irony. (I didn't hit my kids when raising them because I couldn't get past telling them hitting was wrong and then hitting them; what are they, not worth what other humans are? -- they can't hit others but they are lower than others and, so, can be hit?)

When we see immorality of any kind, we should condemn it. Hypotheticals: If a woman in raped during the riots, is it not okay to talk about it because it will make the rioters look bad? Likewise, with an old man's bodega being destroyed? A young couple's first new car being set afire?

But are we fair? Should we not also speak of police arresting journalists in alarming numbers? Of police and National Guardsmen marching down neighborhood streets, yelling "light 'em up" and shooting paint cans at people who are simply standing on their porches after curfew?

I'll grant you one thing: the dystopian horror of acts like this and then of a president moving through protest crowds under cover of rubber bullets and tear gas so that he can pose infront of a church holding a Bible he's never read is WAY more horrifying than counrty-wide, directly violent anger. So fear not: I'm not ignoring anything while taking a stance against violence.

In the end, though, where are we if we start either cheering-on or turning a blind eye from destruction and opportunistic theft? Are we really better off in a world in which anger is directed at innocent shop owners? In which whole neighborhoods are beaten into submission? I see, on local news, each morning, Philadelphia neghborhoods full of sad African American people collecting trash and pushing brooms; today, citizens in West Philadephia (for non-locals, the "Fresh Prince's" pre Bel Air neighborhood) begged for help from the mayor. I actually wept for them.

We humans need to improve. All of us. People talk about unity. We are all one human race. Yes. We are. And we are all flawed. Even when we are the parents of good kids, we tend to correct more than we praise, don't we? This is out of love, but it needs to be balanced. We should tell our kids when they are doing good things, but we often forget, because being bad is scarier than simply not being good. 

So, I get to say that I think it is wrong to smash stores up and to steal things from those smashed stores without being accused of equating that wrong to the wrong of kneeling on a man's neck until he dies. Of course, they are not equally wrong. Smacking a six-year-old in the head and taking his bike is evil, and I condemn it. I also condemn burning down a building because of injustice. The latter is way worse, but evil is evil; wrong is wrong, even if there are levels.

We keep talking about empathy: we white people need to better understand the challenges of living as an African American -- as much as it is possible, which can never be 100%. But does this dissolve the reponsibility of protesters and rioters to empathize with their neighbors whose homes they are ruining? And in the case big businesses, not so much the corporate "suits," but the thousands they employ in neighborhoods across the country?

Let's face one fact: many people in riots are acting not in protest but in the window of opportunity. They are getting a free pass to break things and to aquire things. That's not okay and that is not accomplishing what protest is for: contributing to change; it only deepens social misery.

So, you want this to stop, white people? If you really care, keep at it, in a peaceful way, after the fires stop burning. I disagree with implications of the opportunistic prancers-about, especially among my fellow whites, who will energetically defend violence and theft during the riots and who will say that we who oppose such behavior are downplaying the plight of African Americans. Once again, I understand the point. But what really downplays that plight is forgetting all about it and beccoming silent when horrific things are not in the news. I emplore the prancers: KEEP PRANCING afer this is all over and stop pulling out your hashtags and your sloganed profile pictures only when the stuff hits the fan.

A satirical "joke" I posted on Facebook the other day. Spoiler: It's not funny):
I have a joke for you. A white guy walks into a bar. He sees a report about George Floyd on the TV. He starts telling everyone in the bar that racism is bad and that they are all to blame and then he goes home drunk on his own woke-ness. He wakes up the next day and doesn’t remember where he was the night before. Thank you!
This must conclude with important emphasis: Dr. King was against all violent protest; but he conceded that the cause rioting was when the establishment ignores the injustices and turns a deaf ear to peaceful protest:
"Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots."
He, himself, condemned riots, but what separates the good person from the racist (or, at least, the racially insensitive) is that balance: If you are more disgusted by the rioters than you are by the injustices that occur every day, you are truly contributing to the boiling over that causes the unheard to speak out with fists and fire and chaos.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

My Version of Hunger Art

I just heard a report on the radio about Edward Snowden. I don't know enough about the details of his situation to evaluate whether he was wrong or right to leak the information he did, but I do know he thinks he did the right thing. This means, of course, he sacrificed the comforts of his own country to do what he felt he had to.

It makes me feel guilty, a little. 

When I think about America's Founding Fathers and what they sacrificed to establish our country, I am reminded of this quotation from John Adams: 

"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

It sounds so selfless. Adams is enduring the toils of government and politics for our future; so we can chill and create and be cultured; so we can have the "finer things."

It makes me feel guilty, indeed, for having pursued a life of music and literature; for not having become at least a town councilman or a mayor or something...

But, the other day, I was teaching Kafka. We were discussing "A Hunger Artist." If you have never read it, the man makes a living by putting on shows in which he sits in a cage and fasts and the public comes by and they watch him slowly turn into a bag of bones. The story goes through many aspects of his thinking, including his pride in his art and the disappointment he feels when the public stops caring; stop appreciating the purity of his art.

Spoiler alert: In the end, the hunger artist is about to die and he makes a confession: he never found a food he liked, so starving himself is easy. It renders the feat way less impressive, right? Even the hunger artist feels guilty for having fooled people.

So, it got me thinking: You are not going to tell me that, in some way, the people who made these sacrifices for future generations or to expose evil or to free their people didn't do these things partly or mostly because of some characteristic within themselves that made them enjoy or even need to do what they did. 

Someone who leads a country, like Washington, wants to be a leader on some level. He may not actively seek it as a preference, but he does have to thrive on it.  Like, I am not saying Snowden wanted to be a refugee hiding in Russia, but something about him drew him to this kind of dissent...

So, maybe I don't feel so guilty. Because what I guess I am getting at is that there is no true altruism. Right? People are drawn to acts that stem from their inner composition. The hunger artist hated food, so he stopped eating; Adams was a man with a perfect political and legal mind who, given free reign, would not have become a sculptor anyway...

I'm a teacher, right? I teach literature and writing. Am I doing it because I just have a burning desire to improve young minds? Partly. But mostly I do it because I love words. I'm proud of being a teacher but I'm not, however, ready to receive accolades for having picked a low-paying job so that I could help my fellow man.

I feel better now.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Frightened Boy, His Dad, and the Night Sky; Summer, 1982

I just traveled back to a night from about thirty-seven years ago. At least, I can see it projected like a movie onto the dense trees behind my house. The air smells exactly the same as it did that night; it's the kind of wonderfully cool evening air that carries a spectre of fall and floats through the door like an unnoticed arrival to a formal Victorian party; the kind of cool that can only feel the way it does after weeks of intense heat.

As I said, the night was the mirror image of this one. I was about a week away from heading to high school for the first time and I was nervous and very reluctant. I never said anything, because I was that kind of a kid; somehow I always reacted to fears by turning inward, concentrating like someone trying to untangle  twine. And though I had two approachable, caring parents, it never occurred to me to go to them. Maybe it was pride. Maybe it was just my teenage thinking locked onto the rails of some rusty, individualistic instinct.

And while I wouldn't have openly talked about my fears, I would routinely seek out the comfort of company, especially the company of my dad, when I felt troubled. He had a way of making me feel I was standing on solid ground when I felt a quake coming.

This night -- decades ago but still tonight -- found my dad and me lying on the deck of our swimming pool in our suburban neighborhood, hands behind our heads, looking up at the stars. We'd do this from time to time, talking or not talking...just being there. Just feeling the moment. ("Don't think about the next thing you want to do; think of now and take care of business," he would always say to me when I, for instance, rushed through cutting the lawn.)

When we talked, it was usually because he'd throw philosophical puzzles at me (some of them repeats). He was well-aware they were repeats, by the way; he just liked them enough to run them at me again.

One of his favorites: He'd have me look at the moon and he'd say, "You see the moon? It's Truth."

He'd never explain. He'd just let the idea hang there like the great white orb itself: bright against the black of Everything Else. I could almost feel the synapses connecting and creeping like ivy across my brain.

This night, with the lovely chill on me, and the fear of a new experience creeping up my spine, I was hoping for one of the old ones; one of his comfortable, familiar repeats, but he asked me a new question. Just as he asked it, I remember smelling someone's fire -- a marshmallow-toasting pit or a bonfire in the neighborhood.

"What do you think about U.F.Os?" he asked. "You think they are up there?"

"You mean space ships? Flying saucers?" I giggled a little.

"What's U.F.O. stand for?" he asked.

"Unidentified flying objects?" I ventured.

"So, what's not to believe in? Don't you think they see things up there they can't identify? The government has tons of cases of pilots seeing things up there they can't identify."

"So...like, starships?" (If you are a long time reader, you know I grew up on Star Trek.)

"Or...anything unidentified that flies. Bottom line, if you go by the definition, U.F.Os are real. Period. There are things that have been seen flying around up there that are unidentified. Keep looking long enough and you will see something."

Impending, scary newness was obscured for me at that moment. School didn't exist; or, at least, it just didn't matter much in the vast stretches of a lifetime. As we looked at the sky, I was somehow aware of the span from that day to this one, thirty-seven years later. I was aware that some day -- today -- he'd be gone, but that he would always be with me, because of the seeds he planted in the fields of my mind.

But my dad didn't plant trees; he planted beanstalks.

His U.F.O question still resonates with my like a over-wordy koan. Of course he was right, but what it means that he was right is still more of a setting off point for other explorations than an answer to be captured.

They say one forgets the face of his lost loved ones. Sometimes I think it might be true, but, from one musician to another, a voice is never lost. I can still hear my dad's voice; I can hear his tone harmonized by the cars hissing by on the street in front of our house and the leaves moving above the pool. It's a chord of memory. Tonight, I hear my dad again, in my heart, in my ears and in my head, and I look at the stars and I swear I see things moving around up there.

I just can't identify them...I hope I never will.

Goodnight, Dad.