Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Remembering Epiphanies

It's amazing how impotent philosophical epiphanies can be. Like, they are not enough. They are the moments when we decide to plant the tree. They are the energy behind digging the hole and dropping in the seed and covering it up. Plants, however, need to be watered, or they die.

I'm talking about issues as straight-forward as weight-loss: "Today I am going to begin exercising and eating properly because I don't want to die..." But I am also talking about deeper ideas. Those ideas that we know are a key to our personal happiness; a realization that we need to have in order to make sense out of existence. For instance, in 2011, I wrote a song called "Kaleidoscope." This is the chorus:

Could it be the soul is a kaleidoscope,
Changing shape and shifting colors --
Lit by different kinds of light
From one day to another?

In subsequent verses, "day" turns into "year" and then into " decade to another..." You get the picture.

It's based on the realization that we humans tend to look for that thing that fulfills us in life, as if is (or will be) one constant thing. As if even if it were a few things, that those few things would please us equally at all stages of life. It seemed to me, when this occurred to me, that the soul (human spirit; mid -- however you want to say it) must be too complex to respond to the same thing forever and (especially) at all times. Sure, there must be truths to what pleases us, but, even if we are deeply pleased by, say, swimming, swimming might not always please us -- not forever and not every day.

Seems like a solid idea. But the key is to remember it and to call it to memory at the right times; or before it is too late. (One must water the tree.) If one finds himself doing the same thing that used to give him joy, will he do it for months or a year or for a decade in dissatisfaction before it occurs to him that the kaleidoscope that is his soul might have shifted? That he needs to seek a different light? Will he make adjustments before he concludes that life, itself, is unfulfilling?

The epiphany is one thing, but one must remind himself to act when it proves true. That's harder.

(Here is "Kaleidoscope," if you care for a listen.)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tunnel-vision Writing

I've heard countless old people complain about being "forgotten about" in various ways; sometimes literally and sometimes in terms of "the world." As I transition into my fifties, I begin to understand more what they mean.
A guy you might not have grown up with.

I just read an article online and it referenced Jessica Biel. It said something about "the girl we all grew up watching on 7th Heaven."  I don't know about you, but I was twenty-eight when that show came out. (I was also in a stage of life at which TV almost didn't exist for me...but that is not relevant to my point here.)

So, the the thing is, "we all" did not "grow up" watching 7th Heaven.

Now, I am no Yale student who needs to be made to feel comfortable and cozy and "included" in everything and I am sure not going to call for an end to exclusionary writing and the resignation of the writer because he bwoke my widdle hawt, but I sure as heck am going point out the tunnel vision of many writers, especially when it comes to popular culture.

I could use this as an opportunity to lambast the self-indulgence and self-centeredness of "kids today," but I won't. [Insert sly grin.] But I do wonder if young writers are thinking, at all, of "audience" when they write. Because they are doing one of two things: 1) not thinking and being short-sighted enough to not imagine an audience outside of their peers or 2) deliberately excluding a wider (and older or younger audience). Number two really makes no sense. Why would any online writer deliberately limit his audience unless he or she were writing a very focused blog -- like a blog for ham radio enthusiasts? (Granted, though, that certain sites cultivate a certain demographic...but when a subject could be universal, what's the point of limiting things?)

If I wrote a piece about Happy Days, I sure would not refer to it as a show "we all grew up watching" -- not if my blog wasn't called, Middle-aged Daily.

I'll be okay. Don't worry about me. But writing, unless it is in a personal journal, should not be an intellectual form of intellectual auto-erotica. Either writing teachers are doing a lousy job of teaching "audience" or parents are churning out kids who think only of themselves. You decide.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Value of Ugly Christmas Trees

Here's an idea for the parents of young kids. I blew my chance. I could do it now, but my boys are a little old to get the full impact.

It's not a new idea, exactly. Charles Schulz presented it to the world in his Charlie Brown Christmas episode, but in the episode, it happened sort of by accident: Charlie Brown messed up and got an ugly little tree (though, he did intentionally choose a real tree in a sea of aluminium ones). The Peanuts characters discovered, as a result of this accident, that they could make the ugly beautiful.

How great an idea would it be, though, for parents of young kids to purposefully pick out the ugliest Christmas tree on the lot and to bring it home to make beautiful?

I wish we had done it. I can see us standing on the lot, the boys' little eyes searching around. I can see myself saying, "So, what about this tree? It has a big hole on one's crooked on's kind of a weak green. No one is going to buy it, but I'll bet we can make it beautiful..."

Imagine the educational value; the creative power it would have given the boys; the visible evidence of what a family can do together; the acceptance of the idea that life is never perfect but that is can be made more perfect; the lesson in the value of optimism; the conveyance of the message that there is beauty in difference and that there is even beauty in ugliness. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," after all.

In my mind, I see, nestled in a branch-less gap turned unashamedly toward the front, a little cluster of Nativity figures, gently lit to a buttery yellow by surrounding string lights and I wish that our tree, this year, had such a deformity in it.

Alas. Maybe you can do it with your kids.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Either/Or Stupidity

Maybe it is because I am currently teaching the American transcendentalists,  but it occurs to me that there is a space between faith-based thinking and pure intellectualism, and, that this place is the right place to be. Sadly, few people seem to live there because the idea of not committing to either "realism" or "faith" has been made to seem weak.

The famous skeptic and illusionist, James Randi, once said: "I have absolutely no belief in an afterlife...I am a realist." On the other end of things, there are those who quote the old saying by Stuart Chase: "For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible." I'm not sure of the exact context of Chase's quotation, but I have seen it used by religious folk as a defense of faith. Used in that context, I think both Chase's quotation and Randi's are equally foolish.

I have addressed the idea of fence-sitting before. There is an extreme anger toward those who wait to declare an opinion until they had thoroughly reasoned it through. While eternal fence-sitting is non-productive, the view from the fence is the best one to serve as a prelude to the drawing of a conclusion.

Octave Taessaert
I have spent a lifetime, for instance, considering the subject of abortion. I have never written about it because I'm not sure what to say. I know how I feel, but how I feel is not as important as what I understand, when it comes to arguing. And one must not speak until his words are in perfect order and all possible arguments and counter-arguments have been considered. I feel I am almost ready to write about abortion. Almost. I'm 47.

The assumption that the unexplainable is untrue is not realism; it's stupidity. As I have said before, there are a lot of things in quantum physics that can't be explained, yet they are. Granted, I don't believe people sit on clouds and play the harp in heaven, but for one to write off a belief in the afterlife while living in a world full of scientists who believe in the probability of alternate universes just strikes me as asinine.

The transcendentalists believed that intuition was the path to truth -- that it overcame the limitations of the senses. They did not believe that reason through observation was useless, but that it can only take us so far. Intuition was the way to the deepest of truths. Intuition does for the understanding of the natural world what poetry does for the understanding of the human condition: It does not tell us how the joints of existence are connected, but gives us an emotional understanding of its life-force.

The world should not be an either-or place. James Randi has done some great work, but it's as foolish to say that being a realist precludes the idea of an afterlife (of any kind) as it is to say that heaven is a big cartoon full of people lying around on cumulus chaise-lounges.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Identity and Reality

There is a famous adage made even more famous by Star Trek: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." Many take this to be incontrovertible. Morally, most agree that it is better to, for instance, save the lives of five people rather than to save one, given the choice.

Of course, given circumstances, if I had to choose between saving one of my sons or five other people, I know that I would save my son. Is that right? Maybe not. Maybe many people would say that is a selfish decision. Selfish or not, I know what I would do. All this goes to prove is that sometimes instinct -- especially the paternal instinct -- drives us harder than social morality does.

Regardless, I would argue that the adage above is, at least logically and ethically, pretty true. If I were a fire chief, I would hesitate to send fifteen of my firefighters into an out-of-control inferno in order to save one man who was probably doomed. (Of course, if I were a fireman and the person inside were, say, a small child, my instincts might -- as they have done for many a heroic fireman -- send me headlong into the blaze, regardless of orders...)

So, it is clear that the idea of the many being more important than the one does have its "hinge," so to speak. Nevertheless, because it has become a generally accepted adage, many people who are in the extreme minority have been (sometimes unbeknownst to the rest of society) pushed to the fringes of social existence. We seem to have, in the past, adopted the notion (unconsciously) that those who are different are inconsequential; even (and this is a conscious thing, when it happens) loathsome.

Recently, we started lauding sensitivity toward those who do not fit the mold of what it ordinary --which is an unqualified good thing. No one should have to feel worthless or completely outcast, or, at worst, depressed and/or suicidal... But, have we lost the valuable anchor of the old adage? Have we begun acting as if the needs of the "one" outweigh the needs of the many? Are we overcompensating? Has the pendulum swung too far?

I recently heard a news report, on NPR, of a school situation in Illinois, in which U.S. Department of Education has decided that a district: violating the rights of a student who identifies as female by not allowing her unrestricted use of the girls' locker room. The district now has a month to change its policy or risk losing millions of federal dollars. 

One study indicates that 0.3 percent of the total population are transgender. Other studies seem to fall in a similar range. (These studies are of adults, but, it gives us, at least, a sense of the range.) 

With this in mind -- with this tiny percentage -- how far should we go to make transgender folks feel comfortable? Is it discrimination to tell a person who was born male that he needs to change in a private room rather than among young women? That he can't play on a girls' team?

Is it okay just to say: If you are uncomfortable changing clothes in front of boys/girls, then use the bathroom to change? Is it okay to say that, because you are physically male, you need to play on male teams (for gender-divided sports)? 

I think the number of girls who would be made uncomfortable by a biological male having "unrestricted use of the girls' locker room" is much greater than the number of those who might be comfortable with it. I admit it: this is me guessing. I think it is a reasonable guess, though. (Anecdotally, in discussion with a class of high school seniors, of mine, not one girl said she would be comfortable with a biological male changing in the girls' locker room.)

I also believe that every human deserves respect, friendship, love and dignity: gay, straight, transgender, Muslim, Catholic, Jew, disabled, etc.  I do not, however, think every human always deserves for the circumstances to be changed in order to make him or her feel comfortable; therefore, I think it is okay for a boy who identifies as a girl to have to change in the bathroom. I really do. I don't think, however, that that boy needs to be tortured as a result of his sexual identification. If a reader thinks that making that boy change in a bathroom is torture, we must agree to disagree. 

We all want to fit into society, somewhere, but it is equally important to embrace our own differences. In doing so, one must, it seems to me, accept certain levels of inconvenience (and, perhaps, even, some pain) as a result. Maybe it is okay for a boy who identifies as female to have to deal with changing in the bathroom until he is able to (or decides to) make the physical transition. 

In the end, it amounts to a question: How much do we change for a group that is at an (estimated) 0.3% of our population? I would truly love for every person to be happy, but we all know that can never be. We have come very far and I hope we will go farther, but perfect social harmony is impossible. 

We have proven that society's attitudes can change. Only a few decades ago, interracial marriage was a real issue of contention. Now gay marriage is legal and homosexuality (though still not "mainstream" in its overall acceptance) is no longer a life relegated to the shadows. These things resulted from a change in ideology; from a wider acceptance on both a personal and social level. 

To me, though, simply shoehorning someone into "the norm" is not real acceptance. To that boy who identifies as a girl, I would say: "I don't want you to change in the same room as my daughter. Sorry. I do, however, want you to know that this does not mean I don't value you as a human being. You are welcome to eat at my house and be friends with my kids, but, if you are uncomfortable in the boys' locker room, I'd rather you change in private than undress in front high school girls. Unlimited access to whatever you want can be an infringement on the rights of others. If it comes down to an infringement on the rights of 0.3% of the population, I will err on the side of the majority, as long as the majority treats you with sensitivity and respect."

This is, of course, attack-able. I know it full well. It's easy for someone to say that what I said above contradicts the notion that I value the person in question as a human. Again, I simply disagree. I think, at some point, the comfort of the many needs to outweigh the comfort of the long as the one is safe and is treated with civility. 

Another possible counterpoint to this is that I am downgrading by using words like "comfortable" and "convenient" and "inconvenient" -- that a transgender boy having to change separate from all of the other kids is more than an "inconvenience." If humans treat each other well, though, these words are really all it would come down to if a transgender boy had to change in a bathroom. If the reality is that kids would give him a hard time, then insensitive parenting is to blame...which seems always to be at the base of every problem.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Uses of Humor

It's good to be funny. Funny can help in a lot of ways.

I suppose it can be considered conceited for one to simply say that he is funny, but, after all, I was voted most humorous in my eighth grade class. So, there is some documentation that I am, in fact, a knee-slapping, laugh-riot.

That said (you be the judge) I have found humor to be a wonderful tool in various like situations.

As a kid, for example, I used to dread going out with the family to get the Christmas tree. It always turned into a verbal brawl as to which tree to get. This went on for years, until, around the age of fifteen, I started saying, "Well...time to go fight overt the Christmas tree..." Everyone laughed and, strangely, everyone stopped arguing. We satirized ourselves into harmony and tree-picking became a pleasure again...

When once asked to speak to the students at the school (in which I am the vice principal of academics) about uniform dress codes, I surprised a former principal by doing what amounted to a stand-up routine that satirized kids for thinking they are being rebellious by not tucking in their shirts. The students laughed through the whole presentation; then a documented decrease in uniform infractions occurred.

I have used satire and humor with my sons to make lasting points about life. For instance, a previously mentioned episode in which, after my son -- ready to go into seventh grade -- heard an adult say that "after seventh grade, the real problems start..." I broke into mock sobbing and lamented that fact that he would stop being my friend as soon as the school year started. We both laughed about it then; we still laugh about it; we are still close.

As recently as yesterday, when, in class, one of my high school juniors threw a container of Mott's applesauce across the room, I used humor as a tool. Did I yell? Did I "write him up"? Did I express outrage? No. Using the dramatic silence presented by the thrown fruit treat, I quietly and circuitously lamented the fact that my life -- a life driven only by the desire to teach literature and to help the youth of our country -- had come to this. A monologue followed, concluding with a speculation about how I would tell my wife how my day went: "Well, there was one incident in which a sixteen-year-old threw applesauce, but other than that..."

The class laughed; the missile commander was sufficiently satirized (and affected) and the class went on...with no further problems...

Perhaps we all jumped to the serious too fast. I know a lot of parents and teachers do so. sometimes a good joke is your best lesson, your best illustration; or, even, your best punishment...

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

An Open Letter to God: Part 1

Dear God:

I think that if I said that I understood you I would be committing one of the most heinous acts of egotism possible. So many people seem to do that every day, without even thinking about it. It seems obvious that, if you exist, then I have even less chance of understanding you than an ant has of understanding me.

I can't explain you; I can't see you; I can't logically (without acrobatics) support your existence, but I can feel you. I feel you in the love I have for my children and for my wife. I feel you in the most profound works of art and music. I feel you around me.

The only thing I know for sure, is that when I feel you there the most strongly, it is in the presence of the beautiful and the profound. And when things are ugly or painful, it is as if you are holding up a lamp for me, in the dark distance, ready to show me the way out -- just a glow in the fog. I don't think a prayer equals an immediate solution, but you sure don't feel like you're the source of the darkness and you sure don't feel like you've gone away to leave me on my own, ever.

It seems as if people have felt you forever and that they have tried to understand you in their own ways. Whether they were nomadic ancient tribes or villagers cowering under the might of a thunderstorm, they have done their best to understand you; to name you; to envision and to depict you...even to pidgeonhole you...

...but, they felt you, just as I do. This, at least, I know.

I'm supposed to be smart, so people think it is really foolish of me to keep believing in you. If I am smart, though, I recognize that it is as foolish to be sure you don't exist as it is to profess to know everything about you. Impossible and inexplicable things happen every day. They happen, whether we can reason them out or not. You've been happening in the minds of humans for millennia. You must be, then, in some way -- if in an inexplicable and intangible way -- real.

Just as electricity illuminates rooms, you light things up in the minds of people. And, like electricity, you can't be seen, but you definitely can be felt. I'm not willing to argue about the whys and the particulars. I'll never take part in a "form" argument about whether, for example, you are "male" or "female." To me, the argument is irrelevant -- even silly. To me, you are the same source of life and wonder you have been to everyone from the caveman to the computer programmer.

I can feel you and that is enough to keep me looking up. It's also enought to keep me constantly curious.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Pelted By Info's just that I think that I am getting tired of my information finding me. I liked it better when I had to go find out what I wanted to know.

The worst thing about paradigm shifts is that they are a little like continental drifting: you don't feel the shift happening until you are able to take a giant step from the Jersey Shore right onto the beach in Portugal.

All of a sudden, I don't need go out to do research in a library. If I want information, on say, drums, my Twitter feed throws it at me all day long, every day. No need to go to the music store or to subscribe to Modern Drummer magazine. News creeps up in the margins of my Facebook page. News just...stands there...waving its arms around and trying to get my attention. And succeeding.

It's like standing in the middle of a gymnasium full of people who are throwing ping pong balls at me, every waking hour.

It's just now starting to sting a little. How long before it actually drives me mad?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Why We Ought to Admit We Don't Really Care about Each Other

People have been complaining about apathy for decades; maybe forever: "People just don't care." It would seem the direct result of this has been the creation of absurd expectations. Now, people seem to feel bound to care about everything and everyone and, worse, that everyone ought to care about them.

But that is not natural. Our ability to care about one another has limits and so does the ability of others to care about us. To think otherwise is simply an act in ego-centrism that is bound to lead to profound disappointment.

If the parent of an acquaintance dies, I will pause and say, "Aw, man. That's too bad." I might even offer up a quick prayer for the deceased. Within minutes, however, I will be happily going about my business, the death of the acquaintance's loved one completely forgotten. (Bear in mind, I said "acquaintance," not "friend.")

Is that cold? Or is that a reality most are afraid to admit?

If the deceased is a loved one of a close friend or of a family member, everything is different, however. My day would be ruined. My thoughts would dwell upon my friend for an extended period of time. Why? Because of a real bond -- one that has been developed over years. To expect me to feel -- deeply -- the loss of someone I barely know is to cheapen human friendship and human love.

I hope we are in agreement with this. It seems to me that anyone who would react in the same way to the loss suffered by a friend and that suffered by an acquaintance is either an abnormally empathetic person or a praise-seeking faker. It has to be one or the other and my guess is that is is usually the latter, but I'm no expert.

What if I made list, right here, of the people I don't really, truly, emotionally care about? -- not people upon whom I would wish harm or whose suffering I would witness without some sadness or even anger, but those for whom I really don't deeply care. The list would be long for me, and I would speculate that the list, if you were being honest, would be long for you as well.

How many people can we deeply care about in a lifetime? I'm talking about the kind of caring we can really feel.

The proverbial pendulum will swing, though. and maybe the complaints of apathy have caused us to feel obligated to disproportionately care about every creature on the planet. This is ridiculous and it is, as I said, unnatural.

The call seems to be for everyone to feel strongly about everything. Of course, the Internet is a big cause of this. We are attacked by people's cries of inequity and of injustice on every front from race to animal rights to local politics. We are also inundated with the views of people who speak right from the gut. The vomiting of "positions" is met with hooting and hollaring of approval. A reasoned argument is now seen as cold and uncaring.

The entire flip-side of this, for me, is that we --- especially young people -- seem to think people are obligated to care about them.

I recently watched a video of a confrontation (start at 1:35 to avoid extra comment) based on the Yale email incident (in which students who were offended by an email regarding Halloween costumes berated and called for the dismissal of the ones responsible). The upshot of it all? The students feel Nicholas Christakis, a professor who presides over one of their colleges, ought to do whatever they ask and that he ought to think whatever they want him to. (That's my reading of it, of course, but it is the right reading, if I do say so myself.) This is what they see as his being their "advocate." The main confrontation is with a girl whose emotion runs high because the professor (who is always calm, always reasonable, and, in my opinion, always right) doesn't feel student (who tells him at one point to "shut up" and, at another, curses at him) comfort and happiness is his only responsibility.

This is the generation that comes out of this shift from apathy to unreasonable emotional demand. They somehow feel their needs are paramount. It's not as if their needs are not important; it's just that these kids are not as prominent in the minds of others as they are in their own. To live with the illusion that it is otherwise is to set up expectations that are likely to lead to a life lived in a constant state of offense.

(Regarding more on Yale, read this excellent article.)

Monday, November 23, 2015

A "To Do" List in a Social Media World

Things to do just today, according to my friends, follows and fellow social media users. (Of course, I will have to do this after work and in between child-raising activities):

1. Sign petition to keep out Syrian refugees
2. Sign petition to let in Syrian refugees
3. Share meme about Jesus to prove I am a good Christian
4. Defend Christmas
5. Change my profile pic to the French flag to prove I have a heart
6. Find a missing child
7. Adopt fifteen pets without homes
8. Find a missing old woman
9. Support gay rights
10. Praise Caitlyn Jenner
11. Condemn Caitlyn Jenner
12. Hate the police
13. Love the police
14. Stop shopping at Chick-fil-A because they are evil
15. Go to Chick-fil-a because they are awesome
16. Stop shopping at Bloomingdales
18. Care about 127 youth soccer games and comment on all the pictures
19. Adopt fifteen more pets without homes
20. Sign petition for concealed carry of guns
21. Sign petition against concealed carry of guns
22. Mourn for Paris
23. Don't mourn for Paris; mourn for Beruit
24. Don't mourn for Beruit; mourn for the Russian dead
25. Apologize for mourning about the wrong people
26. Remember to call transexuals "she"
27. Remember to call transvestites "she"
28. Remember that if I judge people, others will condemn me
29. Draw a conclusion on an ongoing court case
30. Share a meme to prove I am a good father
31. Share a meme to show I am a good son
32. Share a meme to show I am a good husband
33. Share a meme to show I am a good treacher
34. Feel guilty that people are starving during the holidays
35. Wonder why people don't want me to feel guilty about this the rest of the year
36. Hate Donald Trump
37. Love Donald Trump
38. Hate Hillary Clinton
39. Love Hillary Clinton
40. Support particular homeless people (gay, transgender, under 20, over 50, women, men...)

Anyway, this was just all today. Please forgive me if I don't get to all of them. I have to pick up my sons after school at chess club and then help them with their homework and then help with dinner and then read some essays for school tomorrow... But I should get to at least 30 of these...

Monday, November 16, 2015

"Thanks, Jasmine"

There is an argument to be made, of course, for our complaints when they can be categorized as "first world problems." Louis CK does a great interview with Conan O'Brien in which he references our lack of appreciation for the incredible technology we have. He speaks of people complaining about small things about their airline flights and he reminds them that they should be constantly amazed in flight. He reminds them: "You're sitting in a chair in the sky." What more do we want, right?

But...what if, thirty years ago, you were on the phone in your office and you needed a pad of paper on which to write an important note and there was none to be found? You'd have flipped out and gotten angry, because the convenience/necessity of a notepad was not available, right?

This morning, I came in to school and had a million things facing me from the first second. The first task was to check and respond to emails. The first email of the day was to a teacher and I needed only to send: "Thanks, Jasmine." It should have taken about six seconds.

This took me more than fifteen minutes to do, because my email kept freezing. Four "force quits," two "restarts," multiple profanities and one floor-crawling switch from wireless to wired connection later, I got the email to work.

I guess one could argue that I am spoiled -- but the whole worth of this technology is for it to make things faster and easier. When it does not work, our flow is destroyed. I think a little anger is justified.

I wonder if, some time in history, there was an old guy and a young guy in a room and the young guy cursed because his quill point broke and the old guy said, "Dude. What more do you want?  You dip a feather into ink and you can write...and you are going to complain when your point breaks? We used to have to chisel words into stone and if you messed up you couldn't just cross it out..."

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Who Do We Think We Are?

Everyone knows, based on the old cliche, that the inmates cannot be allowed to run the asylum, right? I think we are forgetting what a republic is supposed to be and we are losing perspective on what leaders are.

I think when Jefferson, et al, said that "all men are created equal," they meant that all people are created with an equal starting point. But I don't think that they thought that, in the end, all people end up equal, in intellectual or even physical ability.

Could "all men are created equal" possibly mean that everyone is on the intellectual level of Thomas Jefferson or Einstein or Shakespeare? Could it mean that all are at athletic at Michael Jordan or Ted Williams or Jim Thorpe or Rhonda Rowsey? -- as talented as Beethoven or Ravel or Jimmy Hendrix or Segovia?

Of course not. There are people in our (and in every country) who are either unintelligent or uninformed or downright misguided. Those people shouldn't be running the asylum and our forefathers knew that.

To that end, a government was created in America that allows the people to contribute their preferences for elected officials and then stand back and let them work. This is not to say that the general populace should have not input, but that, the way to fix things is speak up, write articles or to elect someone else when those in office not longer fit the bill.

And in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was careful to point out that the idea of revolution is one that should be carefully stepped into:

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes..."

Now, it seems to me, we common people in the everyday world have come to the impression that we make all the decisions; that we can pick up the pitchforks and torches whenever we want and demand anything we want; that the things we don't like are cause for lighting fires and burning them down. 

Everything is not cause for a walkout or a riot or a protest; though many things are. And after the mass protest -- whatever it is -- someone has to be in charge.

I just heard that one of the demands of the protesters at the University of Missouri, after the requested resignations happened, was that the protesters were demanding a say in the hiring of the next university president.

Sure. That's a great idea. We should let people from their teens into their low twenties decide who is the right person to run their university. Great idea. Because we all know how crystal clear our intellectual processes were at that age. And, it is common knowledge that the average college student knows perfectly well what it takes to successfully run an institution of higher learning. (Of course, some will try to argue that the ridiculous tuitions at the average university give students the right to choose their president. Not really, if you ask me.)

Who the heck, exactly, do we think we are? All men are created equal, but they don't all wind up equal and they certainly are not born with the qualifications to decide everything. We can make noise; we can protest; we can vote, but it may be prudent to acknowledge that we might not all be up to the job of being the rulers of the universe. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

In Defense of Phil Collins

We've all had those "that's just not funny" moments. We've all been the only person in the room not laughing at a joke we found distasteful.

I recently had one while zipping around online. To me, this "joke" is a manifestation of how cold we have gotten as a world society. It shows that, even in jest, we have adopted a belief that it is okay to simply shut down that with which we disagree or that which we don't prefer and that we can say what we feel like simply because we have a forum to do so -- no thought or consideration of others necessary. 

Recently, Phil Collins announced that he would come out of retirement. A few days ago, I saw that there is a petition -- that has been signed by thousands -- designed to force Phil Collins back into retirement. 

Yes, I know it is meant to be satirical and funny. To me, though, it is not funny. 

Maybe because I grew up, musically, on Gabriel and Collins era Genesis -- even though I may have faded away from them some time after Invisible Touch (or, in the case of Collins, No Jacket Required). Maybe it is because Collins's Hello I Must Be Going album spent nearly a year on my teenage turntable. Maybe it is because Collins was one of my early drumming idols. But, it could also be because I know what kind of work-ethic Collins has or because I know how sensitive he can be to criticism (based on what I have heard in interviews).

Or, maybe it is because I have come to believe that Collins is just a plain good guy, based on what I know of him. (He's the only artist who played both in London and Philly, on the same day, for Live Aid in the eighties. Why? Because he believed, in light of the kind of money he made, that it was the least he could do.) On top of it all -- why did he retire in the first place? Because of his kids. So he could raise them properly. Sounds like a good chap to me. 

Collins has always been saddened by the critics, who have never really been kind to him. Filling stadiums didn't change that, it seems... 

I know there are legions of people who are excited to see Phil come back, so this petition should not affect him in the least. But I think it will, on a personal level. And even if it doesn't, it is still not funny. 

What I do find funny is that the internet mobs are fine with attacking someone who, say, makes fun of fat people ("It's insensitive to make fat jokes; it's body shaming...") but they are fine with attacks on individuals. Further proof that the individual is getting swallowed up every day. Welcome to the collective...

I know the people who signed it and the guy who created it find themselves insufferably hip. I know that they are above beautiful songs like "Against All Odds" because they have moved on to the new crop of garage band level musicians who fumble along on their instruments (style out of weakness) and who piece together songs rolled out of cool and non-committal insincerity. And I hope this petition helps them to further convince themselves that they have a lens fixed on what is fashionable. I really do. They seem to need it. 

I also hope Phil knows that the cleverest of these clevers will be drowned out forever after a nice, fat, sold out world tour and by the thunder of a Collins/Thompson drum duet. 

I'm behind you, Phil. For what it's worth. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Choosing One's Most Difficult Act

I have mentioned before that I take a half-hour walk each morning at 5:30(ish). The benefits of this are many, but I am certainly not going to become a health blogger. (Before I do that, I should probably stop eating takeout food three nights a week...)

But there is one benefit that occurred to me this morning on my walk. At least, I think it is a benefit:

The most difficult thing I do every day is self-imposed. For me, it's getting out of bed at 5:30 in the morning. The actual action; that 10 second struggle of lifting my big, fat, sleepy head off of the pillow, swinging my seven-hundred-pound legs out of bed and wobbling (and I do wobble) down the hall and out the door is just plain miserable. I hate getting up early more than I hate just about any other mundane activity.

There is good in this; there has to be. There is, of course, the simple satisfaction of knowing that I have done it. Also, it is a kind of life-control implicit in the act. I determine my most difficult moment of the typical day. (I say "typical," of course, in exclusion of unpredictable things that could be much worse and sometimes are.)

Maybe the practice of walking at an ungodly hour is not unlike that of martial artist who punches a tree over and over in order to toughen his hands and his mind. It's not a great act, in and of itself, but the repetition of the act lends itself to slowly accumulating strength, both within and without.

I'm sure this cannot be an original idea -- that choosing one's most difficult act of a day is beneficial -- but I don't think I have heard it articulated before. Somewhere in my head (sometimes subconsciously and sometimes in full awareness) the things I do during the day are easier by comparison. Stop at the store for milk when I would rather go right home after work? -- drive the boys to an activity? -- go shopping for winter clothes? -- bring the car for service?

Meh. It's not a cold, solitary walk in the dark of a morning before a busy day... I already brought that on myself.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Crucible, Indeed

Today, I watched a class of teenagers who, I believe, showed signs of having been bullied. Oh, not by each other or by students outside of the class, but by the society in which they live -- a society that forcibly silences those who speak about things that are controversial or that might transgress "proper" thought.

We are studying Arthur Miller's The Crucible. (As many of my regular readers know, for me, the high water mark in all writing is shared by Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck.) In one of the last scenes, when the "court" of the Salem witch trials has decided to try to get John Proctor to confess to witchcraft in exchange for his freedom, Proctor speaks with is wife, Elizabeth. She, during the conversation, tries to take some of the blame on herself herself for his previous infidelity; she says,

John, I counted myself so plain, so poorly made, no honest love could come to me! Suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love. It were a cold house I kept... Forgive me, forgive me, John - I never knew such goodness in the world!

This is very, very complex. It is no simple shift of blame onto a frigid housewife; it is no chauvinistic pen that Miller wielded. The forgiveness that Elizabeth asks for is the opposite weight on the scale; the one that balances out Proctor's repeated requests for forgiveness from her for his transgression; forgiveness she thought was not hers to give. Knowing that she seeks forgiveness -- a forgiveness he has emphatically denies she should even have to ask, as he takes all of the blame for his infidelity -- means that they have finally reached a level of true "marriage." Knowing this, Proctor turns to the magistrate and says: "I want my life." 

Back to my students. When I asked them to discuss this, I saw reluctance in their eyes, so I pushed a little: "Is Elizabeth right? Does she need forgiveness?" Nothing. "Could it possibly be that a woman who is cheated on might be, in part, at least, responsible for her husband straying?" Now, I saw fear in their eyes. I had purposefully put them onto dangerous ground -- a technique I have used before; for it is a dangerous ground I intend to lead them safely away from. But for things to work, they have to come with me; they have to talk. They would not. 

I could see the invisible hands of the Internet masses clapping down on their mouths. I could see them thinking of all of the people who have spoken unpopular thoughts and gotten drowned by the current of popular philosophy. I could see them thinking of the online petitions made to have TV personalities dismissed for saying the wrong thing. They were afraid to speak. 

All things considered, that's what you call "irony." 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Weight of a Real Book

A little while ago, I found a really nice quality copy of the complete collection of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking" novels. (Most only know Last of the Mohicans from that series.) I recently bought it in a small antiques and second-hand book shop in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a quaint former coal town in none other than Carbon County. The book cost me ten dollars.

Here it is (forgive me for the less-than-mediocre photos): 

I am currently reading The Deerstalker, the first adventure (chronologically, in terms of his fictional experiences, not by publication dates) of Natty Bumppo. It is always good to step back into a literary history into an earlier era of novels (in this case, the 1820s) when men exchanged long monologues at gunpoint or in the middle of frenzied melees; when realism came second to philosophy. It does require some inner reprogramming and patience, though. And one must always keep in mind that the sights that are described at sometimes laborious length by Cooper would have been fresh and astounding to a reader who had never ventured out of his own neighborhood, let alone into the deep American woods. It must have been jaw-dropping for a nineteenth century person to read about these things that you and I have seen in movies (or in person) our whole modern lives, easily traveled...

But what really occurred to me while reading this, is the history of the physical book, itself. It is no secret that I am an e-reader avoider. I don't begrudge anyone the benefit of the e-reader and I judge them not. For me, though, reading a book on an e-reader is completely unattractive. This, of course, comes down to mere preference. Carry on as you will. 

One thing, however, that one will never "feel" with an e-reader is the physical history of the book. This copy of the Leatherstocking novels is sixty-one years old, having been printed in Tennessee in 1954. I have no idea how it ended up on a bookshelf in Jim Thorpe, Pa. in 2015, but I can feel the energy of the book's travels as I turn the pages, in my house in southern New Jersey. Were the chances of this book having made it into my house inevitable or were they improbable? Depends how one feels about fate. (All I know is that if my wife had called me to see a cool antique bottle in the back of the shop at precisely the right time, that book would still be on the shelf and might have remained there for decades.)

Either way, the book is considerably older than I am. It has been in the hands of other people. It has deafly heard the conversations of thousands who didn't know it was listening. It has been ventured into by other minds and other imaginations that have sculpted its characters into their own personal visions. It has been touched, enjoyed, hated, or tossed aside in disinterest by God knows how many people...

And, now, it waits for me, on a table, next to my reading chair, on a rainy day in October. Tonight, I will pick it up, feel its weight and turn the thick pages. For me, that is important. Sure, I am personifying a book. But if you reduce it to the simplest level, a book has weight, texture, scent and presence. An e-book is just a coagulation of light. For me and for many others, a book isn't just its ideas; it's a physical presence in my life; it's a thing with an experience and a journey that doesn't end with me. It will live on after I am gone, but part of me will remain in its pages. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Humpty Scandal, Uncovered

I cannot be silent about this anymore. The cover-up has been allowed to happen for too many years. It's just another example of governments doing whatever the hell they damn well please and ignoring those who really need help in order to attend to glutting their already overflowing coffers. We all know what happened, but since it hasn't been in the news for awhile, let me refresh your memory. The facts are as follows; at least, they have been presented this way:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

So he just died. He lay there, on the cobblestones, in a pool of his own yolk, baking sunny-side up in the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun. (I have it on good authority it was at least 97 degrees Fahrenheit that day. Do you have any idea how hot cobblestones can get in that kind of heat, in direct sunlight?)

And -- who is this girl --
some cutesy little assassin? The plot thickens. 
So what does the government do? Oh, sure. The king sends "help." He  (reportedly) sends "all" of his men. But what men? Did any of them have the expertise with eggs that they needed to have to save that poor, suffering puddle of shell and albumen?

I'm sure the royal breakfast was served that day. And there, I am doubly sure, the king sat, consuming the very folk most in need of his help: the egg community. Poor Humpty's soul was running into the cracks of the street while the stuffed shirt of a king was smiling and wrapping the royal lips around one of the cracked creature's terrified, hard-boiled cousins...

But that is neither here nor there. The real question is: Who does the king send? Okay, his "men." I vigorously question whether it was, indeed, all of them, but I have no proof. It just seems unlikely. And God forbid the royal feet should inconvenience themselves by actually waddling over to he scene of the "accident..." (See picture at right.)

We'll pretend that we think that a single bloke among these "men" knew anything whatsoever about egg anatomy. But who else does he send? THE HORSES!? They don't even have fingers. How in the world are they supposed to contribute, even infinitesimally, to putting Humpty back together again?

It's a farce, and we have been silent long enough. We have been force-fed the image of a benevolent king since our cradle days when this anti-eggist agenda has been flourishing.

Does the king care? Is he the least bit invested in the aid he sends to his poor, suffering citizens? Well, not when it comes to the egg community, I can tell you that. I'm sure the Lord of the Realm had a nice chortle in the sun-lit feasting hall that morning, jesting with his poncy little lords about those pathetic, well-meaning horses frantically trying to piece together the broken body of Humpty without the benefit of opposable thumbs, or, for that matter, without phalanges of any kind.

Rest in pieces, Humpty, because that is all this cold world and its chill-hearted tyrants would allow you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

1983: A Journey Journey

I have never been a nostalgic person; I certainly have never professed to have missed the eighties, the decade in which I grew up. The music, for the most part, was awful, for one thing. With very few exceptions, the electronic music revolution was full of stilted, cold, overblown but childish attempts at songwriting. (The bleeps and blips may have been enough for many, but not for me.) The era itself was colored cold; everything was candy-hued, from the leg-warmers to the Hawaiian shirts to the jewelry to the lip-gloss. None of it could have been farther from my younger (and current) preferences for an atmosphere of trees and woods and warm images and warm instrumental timbres. I was a wood-over-plastic guy in a plastic world.

I retreated from a lot of it. I listened to classical music (mostly impressionistic) and some jazz while my friends listened to The Pet Shop Boys and to Madonna's impossibly annoying hootings and watched her sexually pedestrian rollings-around-on-the-floor.

Still craving, as one must, the music of the young, though, I found the progressive and "art" rock of the era (or some from a decade before) of Rush, Genesis and Yes. In short, I created, as I tend to do, my own world into which to retreat. It's not that I didn't like some popular music -- it's just that the music had to be played by people and not be MIDI programmed and it had to have some level of compositional quality and some level of real musicianship. I liked Journey, for instance. (More about them in a minute.)

Looking back, though, I see some things through a different lens.

In fact, I found a documentary on YouTube, the other day, that I used to watch over and over: Frontiers and Beyond. I purposefully didn't call it a "rockumentary" because this early documentary about a rock band did and could not follow the since-established formula. It was a true documentary about a band on the road but, more precisely, about a road crew and a band on the road. The band was Journey, but, in truth, the film was more focused on the crew.

People mistakenly group Journey in with the other bands of the era that stank of eighties pop-rockishness the same way they mistakenly call every long hairstyle on a guy from the eighties a "mullet." There is only one mullet: short on the top and sides and long in the back; likewise, there is a world of difference between Journey and, say, Loverboy or REO Speedwagon (even if Speedwagon was the closest competitor to Journey -- kind of like the little brother who simply could not get as many hits as his older brother in high school baseball). Journey were a band full of fine musicians, including two on the virtuoso level, in Steve Smith (drums) and Neil Schon (guitars). And Steve Perry, the singer, is a vocal phenomenon whose pipes are nothing short of miraculous. Compositionally, there are moments of brilliance, owing, in great part, to the keyboardist, Jonathan Cain. (The other guy just played bass. Okay, that was mean, but I can live with it.)

But that is all not the point of this. In watching Frontiers and Beyond, I found myself, maybe for the first time, ever, becoming nostalgic for the eighties. It had a lot to do with the girls in the audiences in the video. Maybe they reminded me a little of my first real girlfriend or of my innumerable crushes between fifth and eight grade. Maybe I was struck by a certain innocence in the puffy hair and the candy-colored lipstick. The whole crowd, however, girls and boys alike seemed lovable to me. There they were, young and hopeful -- hopeful for the world; hopeful for their future places in it. There they were, in the city of my birth, Philadelphia, at JFK stadium. Some of my high school friends certainly stood in that crowd, in the summer heat, and they were all in a similar place to the fifteen-year-old me, both developmentally and in the sense that, every day, they had to try to have fun growing up in a world chilled by the spectre of the Cold War and under the fear that someone, whether in America or Russia, would "push the button" and end the world in a nuclear holocaust.

There was also the voice or John Facenda, the familiar narrator of NFL Films, a company based near my New Jersey home; a voice I recognized from (and that was inextricably attached to) their dramatic, orchestra-backed movies about the Philadelphia Eagles and the rest of the NFL...

Of course, it had a lot to do with Journey's music. And though I am not the guy who listens to the "oldies" station in order to recapture my youth, that music that had lived in my head, back then, does conjure memories, both fond and not-so-fond. Journey's music was a sometime soundtrack to my dreams of musical fame, with its sweeping, lyrical, sometimes Romantic accessible rock power.

I suppose all decades had things that were special about them, no matter whether we noticed at the time or not. The eighties had their charm. In watching the movies or the era with my boys, I realize that there was a certain warmth to both the good and the bad films; that their un-hipness was a pretty sweet thing. Back then, we still "dated" and we still held on to some human traditions that have since gone dead.

And, really -- if you don't think "Faithfully" is a beautiful song; if Neil Schon's ending solo doesn't give you chills, I don't wanna know ya. This video's footage is take from the documentary I mentioned. [Neil Schon and Steve Perry at around 3:48 -- soul-wrenching]:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Morals and Transcendence

In discussion with a very intelligent friend last weekend, it occurred to me that all the talk about transcendence is great, but that no one talks about what it will be like when one eventually learns to transcend. To transcend is to be weird. Right? It is an ability to see things in a way that others don't; to remove one's self from the daily concepts to which everyone else is enslaved. Very few people learn to transcend -- to be in and not of the world...

So, not only do the transcendent become "weird," but they also become subject to all kinds of moral judgement. How, for instance, does one transcend and still fulfill his moral obligations to the rest of the people on the planet? If I decide to pick up my marbles and go home because I think the world is insane, am I not turning my back on my fellow humans?

But, in what sense am I doing that? "Global thinking," for the average person (not the average world leader) is an exercise in arrogance, as I see it.

When one says, "What can I do about the world's problems?" he is often met with some kind of saccharine platitude like, "The smallest person can make a difference." I believe that it can be true, but not in all cases, and certainly not in the sense of the problems of the globe... If I were a president, king or prime minister, then, maybe. But as a regular guy? Nah.

Am I a better person for shaking my head in sadness that girls have been abducted in Africa or does it make me better to the "Bring Back Our Girls" slogan? Which is the right move. (A lot of good that did, right? I probably just reminded you about something you had forgotten...)

JMW Turner
I have often questioned what some see as a moral obligation to "stay informed" about world issues. Why? I do believe in an obligation to my fellow humans, but I can only do so much. (And this is not a quitter's attitude. It's the truth.) Here are, as I see it, my personal social jobs, in order of priority:

1) Raise sane and well-adjusted kids so that I don't add to the mixed can of nuts that is the world's population.

2) Do the best I can as a teacher (insert your job here) to help mitigate the number of nuts in the can.

3) Help those that I can help, around me -- whether that be in a financial or in a personal sense.

If any of the things above begin to supersede the obligations directly above them, however, they become counter-productive. One should keep one's house neat and clean before one goes out to straighten up the neighborhood.

I have no right to transcend these obligations, morally, but I have every right not to waste my energies worrying about Syria. I have every right not to "play with the kids" who want to start wars. I have every right to claim my own bubble, so long as that bubble contains moral fortitude and a dedication to those I do have the means to help so long as helping them does not limit my ability to raise good children -- my most immediate and most important priority.

Of course, these priorities need to be adjusted person to person. A president has made his choices and has acquired his powers. He can do things that I cannot. But I must not sign up for the prevailing global arrogance. I simply am not important enough to claim an obligation to do my part in preventing global atrocities. In fact, I would submit that if people focused more on their own and on their children's moral and mental well-being, the global atrocities might be lessened.

So, I choose not to worry about the world bank and I choose not to burn off my mental energies by keeping up with word affairs because someone has guilted me into thinking I have an obligation to do so.

I am simply not that big of a deal and I never will be. I do, however, have an ability to be a big deal to my sons and to my students. On the ladder of social importance, we all should, from the sanitation worker up to the president, focus on those to whom we have the power to make a difference. A shoe salesman who packs his weeknights listening to political radio and who spends his weekend arguing with friends over those political issues is wasting his time. A prime minister who reads all of the world's papers every day is not.

As far as transcendence, I would never attend a party at which the guests are all insane. I would chose to remove myself from that situation; likewise, I choose to remove myself from the insanity of the world; especially from those insanities upon which I can have no effect. I have moral obligation to not transcend everything -- I must still do right by those who I can help. I do not have, however, a moral obligation to to not transcend anything. I will not participate in war and I will not bleed out my soul's blood on refugees half way around the world; not when I have autistic -- for example -- children in my neighborhood who need a coach for their softball team.

None of us normal folk, as individuals, can change the world, but we can introduce a positive influence into it. If we focus too far away and do nothing but read and fret and argue on Facebook, all we do add bluster to a hurricane. That seems like a stupid thing to be obligated to do.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Window of Negativity

I like young people. I work with them every day. My worst moments in school never have anything to do with them -- it's always something or someone else, most usually the adults. The kids, though, are usually the reason I have any hope for the future. They make me laugh; they really want to learn, provided the lesson is sincere and insightful.

So, why, when I look at the Internet, do I feel extreme distaste toward the behavior of young people? 

It's because the Internet is a window of negativity. We all know this. And, if we know this, why do we let it shape our picture of the outside world?

The Power Windows (Rush) album cover, by Hugh Syme. 
I don't let the Internet picture disrupt my view of young people because what I see of the real, live ones every day reminds me that "the kids are alright" -- to steal a phrase. 

But how many other things are tainted for me by the window of negativity? How many other things come to me through the invisible digital wire that are not corrected by daily, flesh and blood reminders?

It is a frightening question. The only answer, I suppose, is optimism in the face of the worst apparent (and non-stop) evidence possible. And that ain't easy. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Yep...I Wrote about Gun Control

While I'm on the subject...

It seems ludicrous for anyone to be completely against "gun control." Some sort of control is a good idea, right? We don't let 14-year-olds buy whisky; we don't allow child molesters to move silently into suburban neighborhoods; we don't hire people who have seizures every three minutes to drive public buses. We need, also -- it would seem to me -- to control who gets to have a gun. No?

Should we argue that "alcohol doesn't get people drunk, people get themselves drunk?" Of course not. We need to control alcohol based on when someone is equipped to make the right decisions, in terms of drinking. Does it always work? Of course not. Does that mean it shouldn't be controlled? -- that there shouldn't be a drinking age? -- that it should be okay for a bartender to let a drunk guy do one last shot of tequila before going out to his car?

So, if it makes little sense to just let anyone buy guns, the question then becomes: How much control is necessary? I won't dive into the argument too deeply, because, admittedly, I am not too up on firearm technology. I'm reluctant to start deciding what types of weapons the general person ought to be allowed to buy, but somewhere between a snub-nosed .38 and an Abrahms tank, there have to be things the average citizen should not be allowed to purchase, right?

I agree that we have a right to defend our own homes with firearms. I understand the argument about defending ourselves against an oppressive government and I take it very seriously -- it does happen; it could happen again; only a fool would think otherwise. But, if we are playing the odds, is the possession of a hyper-powerful weapon more likely to end in some series headline slaughters, or is it more likely to end in victory against a new oppressive American regime? Again, I am not saying this flippantly. I do understand that the Revolutionaries were very conscious of the average citizen and the potential for him to need to defend himself against his own government, the way they had to against theirs...

...but sometimes, the philosophical idea, valid though it may be, is not an absolute open ticket. And, it occurs to me that a united revolution, even if underfunded and under equipped, can still be successful. Revolutions are not simple things, you know. The military contains about 1,500,000 people. The US population is about 320,000,000. If each person had a gun that ranged from a pistol to a shotgun...

I know. I know. Those numbers are filled with kids and the elderly and with people who will neither have a weapon nor participate in the fight. I'm just trying to illustrate the uncertainty of the whole thing; or, at least, the very real potential for revolutionary victory, if needed, in spite of being outgunned.

This is not me being partisan or even presenting a hard-line position. This is me asking questions. This is what it looks like to me afer some contemplation. Put succinctly, I think we should have the right to have guns, certainly, but that we need to be judicious in terms of who gets guns and we need to decide how much firepower "crosses the line" from self-protection into potential mass slaughter. When does the scale tip into daily danger and away from a potential preservation of personal saftey and freedom? A nut can kill ten-times as many people with a machine gun than he can with a hammer. What if the numbers in the next 200 years add up to 10,000 people mass-murdered with machine guns and not one Second American Revolution? (oh, stop it -- I am not saying we should be limited to hammers. See paragraph four.)

I welcome discussion on this. My ways are not set. I write this in part to see what I think on the subject ("How do I know what I think unless I write it down?") and in part to hear from those who disagree -- or, more accurately, to learn about the nuances of the argument that I don't see.

One purpose of argument is to win; the highest purpose is to find the truth. I'm into the latter.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Gimmie Numbers

Here's what I want done.

We are capable of mapping every dirt road and muddy footpath on the planet and of putting the information into a little plastic box that talks to us and tells us when to turn our cars, so I figure it can't be too hard to tally up the exact number of people killed by American police in the last, say, two decades, and to break them into African American and white -- or into any other racial categories.

Let's get the real numbers. Then, let's argue about the issues represented.

I'm not implying anything at all. What I want to know is, does anyone want to see the truth? I do. Then, at least, one side or the other will have to shut up about which way the numbers lean. If the cops kill 70% more African Americans people than white people, we will be faced with a number. (That number, of course, will then be interpreted; bigots will say that it is that way because African Americans are no good; supporters of the dead will say it is because white cops are racist; reasonable people will come up with reasonable theories. But, at the very least, we will have concrete numbers to start with.)

I don't think it can be too hard to do.

One thing I know is that we need to put a stop to vague and emotion-based argumentation on the topic. Everyone is not Michael Brown and Michael Brown is not everyone. I want to know if he is one of 10,000 young black men killed by cops in the last decade or one of five. I want to know if 8,000, 15 or 302 young white men were killed by cops in America in the last decade. We can use that info to help define our problems, which is the step before solving them. Otherwise, we are just flailing in the dark.

I want to know the same thing about guns. I want numbers. How many evildoers were shot by upstanding citizens? Exactly, how many -- and how many crimes were committed with legal and illegal guns, respectively? How many people actually defended themselves with guns in the last decade? I want the stories about the grandma who killed the home invader and the stories about the guy who shot a grandma while she was petting her rescued pit bull puppy that she bought to bring to visit a six-year-old cancer patient to stop.

Again, statistics are not the end of an argument and they can be skewed. (See John Oliver's brilliant piece on Miss America and its scholarship claims as an example.) You will always have the idiots who think that because 90% of the kids who don't do drugs come from families who eat dinner together that eating dinner together is the cause of a drug free life and not that families who eat dinner together have a strong foundation that comes from an overall philosophy and base of love and interaction the leads them to eat dinner together and that contributes to the constitution of a kid who makes good, self-respecting choices...

...but let us at least try to dry things up a bit. Don't put away, but put aside the hankies for a little and look at numbers. Then we can fight over what they mean. But at least our starting point will be statistics and not agenda or sympathy.

I don't know if these figures are available, but they should be. If they are, show me where. I want to see. Do you? If  you do, will you follow the path of logic or take out the machete of wishing?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Jim Thorpe Lives up to its Name

Our hotel on the right during a carriage ride.
(This guy makes $120 per hour, just for the record.)
Last weekend, my wife and I made a two-hour trip into the mountains of Pennsylvania to a little town called Jim Thorpe -- named, of course, after the great Olympic and professional athlete of the early twentieth century. (The history of this is sketchy. Thorpe was from Oklahoma and had never been to the town of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania [as it was first called]; his third wife essentially made a financial deal to help boost the town's tourism by moving his remains there. Not exactly a cozy tale -- the fight for his remains still goes on...)

At any rate, Jim Thorpe is a fairly popular retreat from people in the Jersey/Delaware/Pennsylvania area and my wife and I had never been there. It made for a very nice and relaxing weekend. The real history of the town is a little more interesting than the artificial Jim Thorpe connection.

The hotel balcony at night. 
It was a coal and railroad town on the Lehigh River and Asa Packer, a kind of classic self-made millionaire we Americans all admire, made his fortune there. His fortune became, by all accounts, other people's fortunes, as he was quite the humanitarian, having done great things for charity. He even founded Lehigh University. The guy seems to have been a good egg -- unlike his contemporary, Frank Gowan, the central figure in the controversial Molly Maguires story, who bled his workers dry through a vicious scrip and housing system that left them destitute and that often ended with a knock on a door answered by a wife who would discover her dead husband's remains (perhaps in a bucket) and who would know that meant she had three days to get our of the house or come up with a new husband (or son) to supply to the mines for a worker. One does wonder if Gowan and Packer had dealings and, if so, what was said... (Packer would even go on to be a member of the Pennsylvania house of Representatives; he made a bid for President, as well, in 1869.)

My first impression, on a walk down Broadway, was a bit of disappointment. I pictured something more like a snow-globe town, but Jim Thorpe is a little more of an active place, in which real people live, than a museum piece with snooty rules about sign heights and paint-color limitations. In the end, this became what I liked. Jim Thorpe was real and the more one explored, the more interesting things one uncovered about it, from excellent used book and antique stores (I found a lovely 1950s edition of Cooper's Leatherstocking novels for ten dollars) to good restaurants and interesting activities. It's a great place for launching hikes and bike rides, as well. (Isn't it always true that the best things in life tend to reveal their positive aspects slowly?)

Night view from the balcony.
I suppose any town that is willing to purchase the remains of a great athlete in order to boost its tourism is not shy about attracting business in any form possible... One still hears waitresses asking each other, "Is there a train today?" And when the train comes in, as it did on Saturday and Sunday, the place is all a-bustle with shoppers and seekers of horse-drawn carriage rides.  (We watched Sunday morning go from ghost-town quiet to marketplace buzz within minutes...)

In Jim Thorpe, the bells over the court house call the time and on Sunday morning they wake the residents and visitors (especially those, like us, who are staying in the inn only a few feet away -- both charming and jarring) with hymns... It is a delightfully quirky mixture of history and unabashed marketing; a place whose history is a commodity that is a bit elusive in its shadowy issues but that doesn't seem frozen in amber. The trains -- old-fashioned ones -- run on the old rails they once did back in the coal days, only now, they take people like us on tours through the scenic river valley; at the same time, they bring in visitors from outlying towns for a day of shopping  and these visitors are greeted by a massive blob of anthracite rock that appears to have been left there, quite literally, by a long-gone giant of the Carbon County coal days. (I'd provide a picture, but it is a tad unsavory looking -- a truly Mauch Chunk...)

Brodaway, outbound view.

It was a cool weekend. A good weekend for regular people to spend in a regular town with as imperfect a history as any. It was a little like visiting a friend whose living room is always a little messy but whose welcome is always warm.

Loaded as this statement is with shades of meaning, Jim Thorpe lives up to its name, indeed.

Some more pics follow...

Hotel room view. 
Mauch Chunk station. 
Love this building -- a wine tasting room now. 
"Stone Row"-- built by Packer for his workers. Shops now. 
Statue outside the Packer mansion. 
A moment that had to be shared. A bookshop
cat that I gave perhaps too good of a scratch decided
to perch on my shoulders as I searched through the pickings...
She followed me everywhere.

The train, obviously.