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."

", 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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Adventures of Snickers and Lorna: Part Two

Some of you will remember a post from a few months ago, in which I introduced our two newest family members: Litter-mate, Goldendoodle pups named Snickerdoodle and Lorndoone. You might also remember that the post was mostly focused on the fact that when we got them home and I started poking around on the Internet for pointers on raising litter-mate puppies, the advice I unearthed ranged from cautionary to downright horrifying; in short, one was a fool to have gotten litter-mate puppies and the results could span eventualities from chaos to (I kid you not) death.

My conclusion was that since we had committed to this we had no choice but to hang in and do our best. These were two little lives in our hands, and, right or wrong, we had purchased them together. You can read the details here, but the main issues the online writers presented was fear of something called "hyper-bonding." Hyper-bonding is when two pets (usually litter-mates) bond to each other and don't really care about their humans, making them, therefore, hard or even impossible to train.

As I said in the last post, my wife and I have had dogs all our lives. We are good with them. So, despite having been shaken by the shock of my research, we went right into the loving and the training, times two.

Anyone with dogs knows that pups, like children, are not rolls of the dice. One must guide them into proper behavior. The advice we took (from the reasonable online writers, one of whom we know from having read a book she wrote) was this: (if you have made the mistake of adopting litter-mates) feed, walk and have them sleep separately. The goal is to teach the pups that it is okay for them to be separated and to allow them to develop their separate identities. We have done this for two months. Not with stentorian rigidity, by the way. Mostly, we walk them separately, but my philosophy is that they need to learn that all configurations are okay: alone, together, both mom and dad; just mom or dad; one or both of our sons...etc. Still, we lean toward separate walks. They eat at the same time and in the same room, but we watch them and keep them separate.

The results (in progress):

Individual personalities? Check. Lorna (the light-colored one) is a sweet, playful scamp with springs for legs who responds immediately when we call her. Snickers (the darker one) is a sassy little thing, who is also playful and is very much into lovingly cuddling with her humans, but who has to sometimes be carried in out of the yard because she'd rather chew grass than respond. They are very much their own dogs.

Bonding with humans? Check. They simply adore us. (And most other humans.) Each morning, after they go out and before they have breakfast, we spend some floor-time, during which they climb into our laps and collapse under the joyful warmth of belly-rubs. They frolic with glee when my sons are around and they remember and love all of their "grandparents." Both pups will regularly, when out in the yard, look around and check for our presence, often running over to get few ear-scratches before going back out to play. On walks, they each look up at us regularly for approval/reassurance.

Obedience? A work in progress, but good progress made. They are both (knock-on-wood) housebroken already and they both sit, lie down (mostly) and come when called, for the most part. We're working on "wait" with them, but they do okay with it. They both obey when told to leave something alone (the "leave it" command). They walk well on their leads, most of the time with slack on the lines.

Other dogs? They have puppy class once per week now and they love to play with the other dogs; no fighting. When they are out on walks, they love to meet other dogs, and, outside of driving those dogs occasionally crazy with their puppy energy, they do pretty well.

Being alone? They have spent as long as six hours in their crates when we have had to go out and seem to be just fine with it. Each night, as I said, they sleep in their own crates with no complaint (other than not wanting very much to get in at first).

They get along great together, playing a lot, sleeping a lot, and grooming each other from time to time, but they have no qualms about going their own way, either when required to or voluntarily.

Is this a conclusion? No. We have a way to go, of course. But I feel more confident now.

One might ask how this fits into the Hats and Rabbits milieu. Well, I recently wrote about the panic that we can develop when we look through small "windows" like TV and the Internet. Each thing that the doomsayers pointed out makes some sense, but it is all theoretical or anecdotal. Nothing was empirical, yet one "expert" was comfortable calling someone who asked him about litter-mate pups a "jerko--" for having adopted them.

The best of the writers went only so far as to say that she has a feeling that litter-mate pups would see their humans as kill-joys and while they might well like their humans, they probably would not listen to them. Well, here we are: so far, so good.

(Some, by the way, write about "litter-mate syndrome." That is not a documented condition, so, it you are here only for the dog advice, bear that in mind. Some of the people online use it as if it is a clinically evidenced thing. It is not. It's a theory.)

When we made our first visit to the vet, he never batted an eye about Snickers and Lorna being sisters. (I'd read stories of people being lambasted by their vets for bringing in litter-mate pups.) I even asked him his view on the idea. He simply said to train them to the degree we want them trained. That's it. Their being sisters seemed irrelevant to him. They are dogs, he said; they are food and affection-driven. And he said something very well; something I have said for years, but not so succinctly: "Remember, you have dogs. Dogs don't have you." (For the record, by the way, this vet is also an author and TV/radio personality who had appeared on Oprah. Not that appearing on Oprah is a guarantee of credentials -- I mean, Trump did it -- but the point is, this guy has thought deeply about this stuff.)

For me, this all just comes back to the idea that one must trust one's reasoning and instincts. It's tempting, with Google sitting there, to want to reach out for every answer. We need to look in, more. As a dog dad, I have things that make me suited for the job: love, patience, observation, empathy and the strength of will it takes to properly discipline creatures whom I love.

Around the corner the are challenges to come. I'll be back to tell you how we faced them and what the results were. But I can say this: this is clearly not a lost cause or a no-win. This can be done, if one has the qualities listed above. I would not recommend adoption of litter-mate pups to first time pet owners, but to those with experience, it is clearly not as dire as the Interwebs depict.

Will these two be trained as well as out last solo dog? We shall see. If they are not, will that have been the result of their being litter-mates? We shall (maybe) see. But I'd rather take responsibility for the outcome than blame it on that.

Part three of this series, to come.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

On Leaving Children to Die in Hot Cars

A long time ago a friend called me, excited. He'd finally found a reason why he couldn't learn to play guitar. He had schmigglie proclastic stiglination. I made that up. I have no memory of the term he used, but he claimed he had found a "condition" that made him unable to learn the guitar or to sing in tune.

I responded: "Yeah. It used to be called: 'no talent'." He got angry for a moment, but worse insults pass between on a regular basis, so life went on.

I have kind of a love/hate relationship with psychology. First off, I don't like its inherent paradoxes. For instance, things like this hypothetical: if you hyper-discipline your kids, they will be rule-following, well-adjusted adults or they could become violent criminals. (That helps me, how?)

The second thing I dislike, which is the focus of today's ramblings, is a mixture of psychologists and the general public: the confusion of behavior explanation and condoning said behavior.

We had a humdinger of a kerfuffle over on my personal Facebook page last week. Another case occurred, very near my home, of a parent locking his or her child in a hot car all day. The poor baby died and I had the audacity to post this:

A baby died in a hot car — it seems; no autopsy yet — at Lindenwold station. Here come the people to explain how we shouldn’t judge parents who “make a mistake” and how “it could happen to anyone.” Not to me. Ever. And I can be plenty absent-minded. If you do that, it means one thing: there are things in this world that are more important to you than your own child. That is all it means. This makes you the exact opposite of a good parent. If we are going to bring back standards, this is a good place to start.

(I found out today, she was two. Not a baby. That's even harder to do. Updated info on this case says it was not the father -- he is a convicted criminal without parental custody -- who did this. But, many a parent has done this, so the principle remains the same.)

The overwhelming majority of people reacted as I did, with anger, "likes," and agreement. Some people who wrote on my thread were pretty...energetic (more than I was comfortable with) in their condemnation of such a heinous mistake. Some made fun of recommendations about leaving one's cellphone in the backseat so as not to forget one's child; others of cars with warnings about checking the back seat...

This prompted an exceedingly intelligent and deeply valued friend of mine to more or less come in with guns blazing against the idea that some (including myself) were saying it "could never happen" to us. He shared a video in which a newscaster said, "If you think it couldn't happen to you, you're wrong" and in which a neuroscientist talked about the conditions under which it "could happen to anyone." My friend said that making fun of tactics and warnings is foolish and saying that "it could never happen to me" is "hubristic". His arguments were not without merit.

That said, I maintained there and will state here: It could never happen to me. (People all over the globe just cringed... "But...the saying...") I could never, under any circumstances, have left on of my babies or toddlers in a car. Never.

Those who love platitudes will roll their eyes. (I always think of Frost's "He will not go behind his father's saying/And he likes having thought of it so well/He says again, "Good fences make goodneighbors.") But people do love platitudes, even if they become irrelevant or questionable.

While "never say never" applies perfectly to saying "I can smoke...lung cancer will never happen to me," it does not apply as neatly to "I will never eat liver." Or, indeed, to: "I would never forget my kid in a hot car."

My friend argues that a certain set of circumstances could lead anyone to lock his or her child in a hot car all day and forget. (So, too, it seems, does the neuroscientist.) But my question for psychology is this: Why is it that behavior modification therapy exists? Don't some overcome their natural psychological tendencies through therapy? So, doesn't that mean that these mental "glitches" are surmountable? If so, why do we talk as if they are not? Maybe because it is safer that way. I get that.

For me, though, strength of will and priorities are powerful things. I stand by my post.

But just as we have to avoid seeing diagnoses and psychological theories as excuses for failures (and what else but a failure is leaving one's child in a car to die?) we have to avoid condemning people as people because of these failures.

Yes, I think someone who locks his kid a car is the very definition of a bad parent. That does not, however, mean the person is a bad human being. Skewed priorities don't make one evil; stupidity does not make one evil; being easily distracted doesn't make one evil; not having a strong parental connection to one's child doesn't make one evil. But all of these, sure as anything, can make one a bad parent. (Hat tip: Jesus. He said it way before this. This is what He meant by not judging others. He didn't mean we shouldn't have standards.)

The fact my emotions make me want to beat the stuffing out of a parent who does this cannot affect my reasoning.

If I cared enough -- if it were enough of a real priority -- I would keep my weight down to 195 pounds (my fightin' weight). I do okay, but I don't work hard enough for 195. I have a psychological and conditional (I get busy) tendency to eat lots of food. Sure, it adds to the challenge and explains my issue. But guess what: Fate will take me earlier if I stay where I am. He's not going to give me a pass on, say, diabetes because I had a "condition" or because my life was so busy I simply kept forgetting to watch what I ate and to exercise.

My kids? Nothing has ever come before them, not in my head and not in my actions. (Between you and me, it's why I am 51 and just launching a viable career in music composition. Next to my family, music is the most important thing in my life. Next to my family.) So don't tell me never to say never, please.

(And in case you are wondering, my track record -- in terms of my "watch" -- with my kids in terms of serious injury or allowing them into potentially life-threatening situations is exactly zero. They are teenagers now. Now it is becoming their responsibility; but I still remain focused.)

Should we have warning bells and strategies for not forgetting kids? Yes, we should. Most of us parents don't need them -- and I do believe it's an overwhelming majority of us -- but some do, and saving kids needs to come first. It's sad but true.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Active Shooter in Philadelphia and Our Rear Window Minds

Jimmy Stewart from Rear Window, 1954
Recently, there was an incident, in Philadelphia, in which there was an active shooter in a house surrounded by police. You can read about the details readily enough, elsewhere. But what was most disturbing (oddly) was that the civilian crowd in North Philly (a predominantly African American area) was taunting and cursing and posturing at the police (who are mostly white in the video) even as those police were trying to remove the threat. 

This is outrageous to me, too, but as my friends are arguing either about "blue lives" mattering and about what "animals" the crowd are; and, as others are arguing that the police are "getting what they deserve" for being an intrinsically racist institution, something more in the core of our national (international?) problems worries me.

What I thought, as I watched and re-watched a video of the crowd taunting the police, is that we live in a society (and this has always been so) in which we allow the occasional or the rare or the sensational to dictate our advice and evaluations in all common situations.

For example, when I was a kid, there was an urban legend that kids who played Dungeons and Dragons were, in an attempt to imitate the game, were going into sewers ("dungeons") and dying or getting bitten by rats. The conclusion D&D was a source of evil; something one shouldn't allow one's kids to play. Maybe it did happen once...maybe not; but this was enough for some parents to ban the game, completely. 

We let the rare and sensational incident shape our thinking about the bigger picture in this country and we always have. It's driven by fear, which we know we can't eliminate, but we can always reason through it.

Imagine, now, how much worse this fear-driven problem is with lightning-fast communication like the Internet. If a woman gets raped by her Uber driver, Uber is either determined to be unsafe and a thing to be avoided or we get bombarded by a paralyzing list of conditions for those using Uber. But should one awful incident really shape policy and procedure? It all depends whether we lead with our emotions or our reasoning.

Still, we are affected.

Back to the crowd at the standoff: As I watched the video, several times, I realized that this was a similar situation of seeing the bigger picture in the rare; the sensational. Yes, there are a ton of people gathered around the police, but most of them are video-recording it; still more are watching nervously, with the involuntary smiles and shifting feet of children who find themselves in a naughty situation they can't quite evaluate. A key few are really taunting the police and jumping at them and cursing at them. But those few are not "the crowd."

This is not to say that I don't think the whole bunch of them oughtn't to have been chased off or arrested for impeding upon the police who were there to stop a threat; but I do believe that majority of those people were not "animals" or "the problem." (But they sure as heck made the problem look bigger.)

What happens now is that the takeaway is a bonanza for racists and even non-racists who are staunch police supporters. "Look at these animals," they can say. Inevitably, though, what happens in the minds of the weak, is that the bad ones become, for them, the whole reality and they conclude that black people and not just the aggressors, are bad people.

Again, the smaller is seen to represent the larger picture.

We need to get a handle on this, in all areas. It makes us, at least, cowards and, at worst, a nation of prejudiced thinkers. If Internet reports say that four out of a million dogs wind up in the pet ER with wood in their stomachs, that doesn't mean you should keep your dogs inside twenty four hours a day. If a kid in Toledo got tetanus from a sliding board and died, that is not a reason to avoid playgrounds with your kids. The awful reality of sex-traffickers doesn't mean young girls should never travel.

All of the above scenarios give us things to consider; but they shouldn't be off-switches as to how we handle our daily lives. And, similarly, the behavior of one crowd (much less a few individuals in one crowd) should not lead us to conclusions about whole groups.

To be clear about my personal feelings about the incident: I think the particular aggressors were behaving like animals and I would have no problem having seen them tazered or arrested. And I really don't want to hear arguments about "institutional racism;" not as a defense of that behavior at that time.

Protest is a powerful and, to me, nearly sacred right in America, but not during the unfolding of an event in which the public are (or recently were) in grave danger. To do what they did was to show a total disregard for the safety of their neighbors and to display the common theme in our current world: the belief that free speech is the right to say whatever they want, however they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. There was no excuse for it.

At the same time, I am not going to judge the state of humanity or of the Nation or of the City of Philadelphia or of the neighborhood based on the tantrums of a few jerks.

My son, who was very emotional as a young boy, was once depressed on a trip to Cape Cod. He claimed that the source of his mood was they they had started construction across the street from his room. He could see it through the window. I asked him what was on the left of the house. "The woods," he said. Then I asked what was on the right. "The woods and walking paths where we take Krimpet (the dog) for walks." Then I asked what was behind us. "The lake," he said. I pointed out that we were surrounded by beauty but he was letting the only window he had sum up the whole place.

For many of us, the Internet is that window. It's noisy construction sites our only evidence of reality.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

"If I want your help, I'll ask for it!"

Isaac Asimov
I have a 2017 Toyota Highlander. Yesterday, I started it up to run the air conditioner so the interior would cool off. When I walked away, the car beeped at me three times. I'm not sure what it was trying to tell me. But I am sure I don't want it to tell me anything. Cars should not speak unless spoken to.

I despise this car. Here are more reasons why:

After a hot walk in the woods with one of my pups, I started the car again to cool it off while I was giving her a drink. While she was drinking, I thought I'd open the back hatch. But I wasn't allowed. It would not open unless I turned the car off.

Above a certain speed, if I cross a painted line of any type, even on purpose, the car beeps furiously at me. It actually sounds angry.

It's a push-button start. You must have the keys close to the car for the push-button start to work. You must also have your foot on the brake to start the car. (So, no more quickly leaning into a thousand-degree car -- which is in "park," which I assume is not safe enough if your foot is not on the brake -- to turn on the ignition and start the AC without sizzling one's skin on the thigh-griddle that leather seats become in the summer.)

Cruise control? Sure, I like it. Or I used to. Now, my car slows down for me if the cars ahead of me do, which typically results in my thinking I am doing 75 MPH until I look down and realize I am doing 16 because my car thought we should slow down.

Speaking of thoughtfulness, my car's engine shuts off at lights in order to save gas. In the meantime, the sweat beads start to form on the family as the AC gets hotter and hotter because the engine is not running. (Oh, but I can stop this by not pushing quite as hard on the brake pedal... Right.)

I hate this car. I loathe it. But I am not a Luddite. My intimate involvement with all sorts of technology, as a teacher and as a musician, prove this to be so. But my stance on technology is reflective of the old saying, "If I want your help, I'll ask for it." (Which, strange as it may seem, used to be said by one human to another.) I want to determine, for myself, when and how my machines are going to assist me.

Hold it right there, you techie folks. I know exactly what you are going to say. You are going to tell me I can turn all of those things off in my car. (In truth, I assume I can, but haven't checked because I like to spend as little time thinking about that car as possible. If it weren't a lease, I'd go out there right now and start clipping wires.)  But I would argue that I should have to turn them on if I want them on. There is a major difference.

Let's at least make it foundational that we humans must choose the level of our devices' involvement in our lives. Maybe we should add this to Asimov's laws of robotics: "A robot must never determine its actions for itself."

Was I asked if I was okay with sharing the road with driverless cars? Can't recall it. But why would people who are doing their darndest to program machines that can "write music" even think to ask? The goal is, after all, to make ourselves as useless as possible.

Seriously, why did all those sci-fi writers even bother to warn us? We're just rolling out the red carpet for our Robot Overlords.

As far as I'm concerned, Alexa and Siri can cheese off. And I'll do my own parallel parking and if I want slowly to back my Toyota Highlander into a tree, I darn well will. (At least the backup camera will assure me a nice, square impact.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Men in Bras

Lemon and Curtis: "Some Like it Hot."
During a long breakfast conversation at the seashore, we got into what people are wearing on the beach.

Though I'm not much of a beach guy, I'm a big ocean guy. Love to be in the water or on the water, but sitting on the beach, not so much. This week, I did some beach-sitting and I was pretty surprised by some of the beach fashions in the "family town" we occupied.

So, maybe the conversation started with my discovery that, some time since the last visit I  made to a beach (maybe ten years ago? -- actually sitting on the beach, that is...) it became okay for girls from twelve to fifty to pretty much not cover their posteriors. I've never been prudish, but I do kind of wish the starting age for this kind of thing were, say, twenty... Nevertheless, the beach is more cheeky than it once was... (Thank you. I'm here all week. Don't forget to tip your bartenders...)

Then my son said something that immediately presented itself as the basis for my next (this) post:

"It's 2019. A dude could walk onto the beach wearing a bikini bra and no one would even notice or care."

Interesting, isn't it? This is what he's been sold, and it is a lie. The lie he's been force-fed for many years, in school and online and on TV, is that everyone -- or at least mostly all -- are okay with gender-role negation. But it just isn't true.

Most ladies are "straight." Most straight ladies would rather see their men in pants than in dresses. Most men are "straight." Most straight men would rather see their women in dresses than in mechanics' coveralls.

I think the statements above are pretty indisputable. And nothing in there is evaluative, when it come to gender roles. It just happens that it is so. Most people are (to varying degrees) are in favor of traditional gender indicators at least. But I think it is safe to say that very few people on the beach, if any, would see a guy in a bikini bra and either not "even notice" or "care."

When I see those young girls in thong bikini bottoms, I immediately judge their parents. I admit it. I wonder how they could allow their daughter to go to the beach, at such a young age, in such objectifying attire. But here's the thing: I evaluate the parents, but I would never say anything to them. She's their daughter, not mine. I can think what I think, but I can't always say what I want.

And that is similar to what is going on when our fictitious fellow traipses onto the beach with a bikini bra on. People think various things, like (and remember, these are voices given to different kinds of  hypothetical people, not me):

"What the ____ is wrong with that guy?"
"Good for him!"
"What a (slur)."
"Did I see what I think I just saw?"
"Well that makes no practical sense..."
"He's just doing that for attention."
"I hope his dad is not alive to see that."
"I think it is adorable."
"I hope my son doesn't see this..."
"That is a mental condition, right there."
Even thoughts as dark as: "I'll kick his ___."

Etc., etc., etc....

See, just about no one would see that and "not notice" or "not care. One way or the other, everyone who saw him would notice and they would care/be upset or -- least of all, I think -- be supportive (pardon the pun).

If I don't tell the parents how wrong I think it is that their daughter is wearing a thong bikini, it's because it is not my right to say it. So why would the people on the beach appear to my son in the light of modern Internet myths? Why would they seem not to care or notice?

Because they are afraid to say what they think. Or, at the very least, they don't want the hassle that saying what they think will create.  It's the only reason. It's now fashionable and easy to speak out in support of "difference," but it is an invitation to be loudly attacked and eventually shunned if you go the other way.

Take that as you like, but the fact remains that the fear that we have generated as a world society is the reason why everyone seems to not care about the turning away from tradition. It's a kind of false data report: "Look, that guy is wearing a bra and no one even cares! What a great world."

Um, no. That simply is not what is happening. I wish it were just about propriety, like my parent-judgment, but it is not. We are afraid of the consequence of the consequences of speaking up, so we act contented, like Stepford wives...

Of course, some of the thoughts I represented ought not to be said or even thought. But some are not harmful, and not just the ones in support of our bra-donning friend.

Just as Donald Trump is creating an illusion that the whole US is racist and hard-line conservative, so are media and social media creating the illusion that no one cares about tradition. We haven't lost our individual opinions; we just fear expressing the ones that don't fit onto the log-flume of the loudest voices.

I, for one, made it clear to my son that his perception is wrong. They care; they are just bullied into not speaking out loud.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Seascape (with Phones)

The morning is violently crystalline. The sun, sharp -- jabbing like a million silver pins off of the waves, more dramatic for having followed a day of rain and fog. We sit on our vacation porch, watching the bikers, walkers and joggers scramble and squeeze past the narrow stretch of boardwalk in front of us as we take our morning coffee. They talk; they bark "on your left" as they pass each other. They sometimes glance over at us as we watch them go.

Most of them clutch cellphones, no matter what else they are doing. Some hold them for music; some some manage only one side of the handlebars and grasp the phone in the other hand; some fire off texts as they go; some talk as they go. So many with such a visible attachment to this small appliance that is more than an appliance.

It's not enough that they have it. They must feel it; be engaged with it. It might ring or buzz. They are ready, like goalkeepers tip-toed against a breakaway run...

But, wait, a man and his son walk by, talking...just talking...their conversation comes into focus for us, slowly... They are not holding phones! Finally...but, wait. "So," says the dad, "I downloaded the app, and it was pretty cool, but..."

I sigh and sip coffee.

Three young girls, pretty in their summer-bright clothes and shimmering under manes of  shampoo-commercial hair strut by, wonderfully arrogant in their youthful beauty, and they are laughing and energetically gesturing. Can it be? But, no. As they pass, each has her phone carefully set to be visible in each right back pocket, bright in its neon case and worn as a fashion accessory or like a kind of uniform accoutrement, not unlike an epaulet or a badge...

A young man, glistening with sweat as he runs, well-muscled, seemingly focused on his workout, but the landscape of his physical vigor is broken by a strap around his arm to which his phone is clipped. Measuring distance? Counting steps? Either way, it is a part of him as he strives. It is like a black blemish on his arm. It is a presence in the process, not the old timekeeper's stopwatch whose time is revealed only after complete inner focus on being fast and strong, but a presence that says: "You are being monitored; you are being recorded; you are being watched from the sky by a satellite eyeball. Your steps are being counted."

More joggers, these without earphones, and they rush by blaring music from the tinny speakers of the phone itself, half-listening to music that is half alive, chopped, as it is, in two by the handicapped range of the tiny speakers in their devices. Everyone is forced to listen, too.

Families walk together but not together, each member engaged outside of the warmth of where they are, now, by the seaside; they are tapping the screen with thumbs or they are sequestered into different mental rooms with ear bud-generated walls.

A lone woman, exceedingly thin, dressed in a carefully-coordinated exercise outfit, holds the phone to her ear and explains to a friend that she is "doing [her] walk" and I wonder if she is gaining the physical benefit and throwing away the mental benefit of her exercise. (She is not sweating; her pace is casual, so maybe the physical is being missed, as well, the banal conversation slowing her pace...)

I can't find anyone not visibly conscious of his or her phone. I know that to have one is a modern necessity, but the invisible tether is visible if one looks hard enough. And the presence of such a constant skein of connections clutters the seascape with artificiality the way garbage clutters a neglected stretch of beach.

Then, he passes, knobby knees pedaling and old bicycle with jangling metal fenders. He moves more slowly than some of the walkers. His legs are brittle and white and he wears belted shorts that used to be pants and a plaid-patterned shirt. On his head, a deflated white baseball cap. He must be eighty years old. I get a good look at his face as he goes by, eyes out and alive, his ancient skin crinkled at the corner with a slight smile. He nods at us as he passes and picks a path among the joggers and walkers, now and again glancing over at the waves. In his back pocket, a tightly-rolled newspaper, which must have been the object of his morning's quest upon his rusty Rocinante.

I don't know if he doesn't own a cellphone, but I do know that, if he does, it is sitting forgotten somewhere on a nightstand or on the kitchen counter next to the morning mail. And so, he passes, the free man; the only one who smells the salt air un-tinged with plastic and undiluted by the elsewhere-thinking of our brave new world.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Usefulness of Wasting Time

"I loaf and invite my soul.
I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass."
-- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I'm fifty-one years old. At this age, if one has half of a brain, one finally realizes one has lived more life than what remains. It can be a chilling epiphany. But, one moves on with the "third act," as it were, because...what's the alternative?

At this point, with a new aim of creating a second/retirement career as a film and TV composer, I find myself approaching composition and "taking care of business" with a kind of intensity I have never really been known for. (Last year, I wrote sixty-five pieces of music. That's probably as much as I have written since I wrote my first piece when I was ten years old. You can clearly see the inverse proportions...) 

Some guys my age buy souped-up Ford Mustangs and crank up Journey's Greatest Hits, some double-down on their compositional efforts. 

No, I know it's not quite the same, but it is born of the same realization: time is running out. 

It's typical for people my age to look back and be mad about "all the time I wasted." I've felt that way, at times, but, in the end, I have decided I am not angry at Young Chris for "wasting time" because maybe what I was doing was actually useful -- even necessary. Maybe it was kind of an incubation period of the spirit; of the mind; of my creativity. Maybe "the child is the father of the man," after all, and all of that "time-wasting" happened in order to prepare me for the period of creativity and energy I am in now. Children learn from play; maybe young adults learn from loafing. 

I'm not, in any way, advocating peeing away one's time and there are many things I feel are a grand waste. One example is standing in a club with music that is so loud you can't talk to your friends for hours on end. I found that a waste of time when I was twenty, for the record, along with many other things. (And lawn-care. Lawn care is a waste of time, if you ask me.) 

My version of wasting time was sitting in bars with groups of friends, for hours on end, talking about interesting ideas; it was loafing and inviting my soul, Whitman-style, in a hammock in my yard, day after day in the summers; it was watching cartoons; it was watching movies; it was walking and holding hands and talking marathon sessions on the rotary phone with with girlfriends; it was staying up late and then sleeping until two o'clock in the afternoon; I was missing parties in order to read, sometimes three books at once -- especially during grad school.  

It is so easy to look back at all this and lament what I could have gotten done had I just applied myself more. Well, I would have produced more writing and more music; that's for sure. But how good would the work have been? Can a guy who has not "wasted" time with his friends and lovers and with his own thoughts write or compose anything truly moving to others?

Maybe it was all preparation for the real work; work that was, some day, to be based on a matured and experience-based life -- what I'm doing now? Well, you can decide that. But I do think sitting and talking and thinking and loving and dreaming are never a waste of time, so long as they come to action someday. 

These days, though I still like it, I'm not as enamored of sleep as I once was. These days, I compose every day, instead of putting it off for a thousand other things. These days, I schedule my TV watching and only do an hour a day; maybe a movie on the weekends. It's just that it is time to start burning the reserves of action I have in the old tank thanks to my lazy, loafing, fat-backing twenty-year-old self. 

And, you know what I still do? I still "waste" Sunday afternoons sitting on the couch and drinking coffee with my wife and talking. We've been known to sit from ten until three, chewing the proverbial fat. And it's never a waste. (Tons of our conversations have wound up here, in fact.) 

Maybe we humans just know what we need and we instinctually do it. But if we messed up, we messed up. Wiser men than I have pointed out that regret is the true waste of time. So why waste time regretting wasted time when that time wasted is not only not a waste but, just maybe, a necessary part of growing in to someone better? [Yeah, I'd read that again, too. That's some ugly writing, right there.]

Now, go forth and loaf! (And I will go forth and write music, submit music, think of a post for next week, work more on my upcoming literature podcast and on the podcast I have planned for Hats and Rabbits [you heard it here first] and work on the outline for an idea I had for a book [all while raising two boys, training two pups and preparing for a new year of teaching...) 

Or..maybe I'll just loaf today...

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Morlocks and Eloi

Morlocks from the 1960 film.
Maybe it's all an anti-elitism movement. I dislike snobs, too. I go into towns in my area, sometimes, in which it feels like the population sees itself as better than everyone else. It stinks to be in a restaurant and feel like you just are not posh enough to be there. But we can't create a society of mechanical oafs whose closest thing to a dream is to break rocks for a good living. 

I'm a guy (and I have made this point lots of times on this blog) who has respect for the blue-collar workers who can do stuff I can't. To me, higher education does not make you better; it's just a different path. But I do think everyone, from bricklayer to barrister, ought to be cultured. Being cultured should not be a dividing line, it should be a common thread. 

Because of all this, I'm getting sick of high school-bashing. It feels very much the same as my recent "Dirty Jobs?" post. I'm getting tired of posts that say something along the lines of "stop teaching algebra  and start teaching personal finance." Or, one I saw recently, that said:

ME: How do I do my taxes?
PUBLIC SCHOOL: Shut the ____ up and square dance. 

Haha. Funny.  Here we go again. Of course, in the grand scheme, how important is square dancing? I mean, it's pretty irrelevant, and I'm not sure how many schools still really do it. My son had a PE class in dance, last year, and they did more current dances.

But, how horrible would it be to live in a world in which we only teach our kids the practical? I'm all for home economics and personal finance for a quarter or for a semester, but this replacement of literature or algebra, in meme-logic, is an asinine thing to suggest. Just as with the job thing ("college is stupid and the trades are good") the black-and-white zombies have the loudest voices.

My uncle, a lifelong educator, once shook his head and asked, with great sorrow in his voice, when colleges became trade schools. Whenever it happened, he's right: they did. They started out as places meant to, mostly, teach people how to find God; they evolved into places of "higher earning" in which the ivory-tower-dwellers tried hard to turn base metals into gold and then they became places people attended in order to strengthen their understanding of the world. Now they are a place to go so you can "make good money."

Let's not call for our high schools nix anything that one you can't use in everyday life. Maybe if we concentrate on higher-level thinking skills -- things at the top of Bloom's "Learning Pyramid" -- people will be able to actually figure out how to write a check on their own. Don't you think? It seems to me that the skills that these people want taught are things any intelligent human ought to be able to figure out for himself.

A good reader who has read Shakespeare can certainly read a recipe; therefore he can cook. A good mathematician can certainly figure out how to balance a checkbook on her own. It isn't that hard if your brain is in good shape. If you teach a person how a fishing rod works, in physics, he not only will be able to fish, he will be able to make his own rod and eat the rest of his life.

We need contradict the loud and proud dumb-downers. Let's not become Wells's Morlocks and Eloi. Let's produce a society of plumbers who read Shakespeare and professors who can install garbage disposals. (I did it once.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

"You had a great childhood if..."

Seriously? had a great childhood." That's pretty much it.

See, it doesn't come down to whether you owned a pair of Nike sneakers with the "red swoosh" or whether you swam in a lake or had a bike with a banana seat. A good childhood is bigger than that, right?

I know this is obvious, but it doesn't stop people (especially my age -- early fifties) from posting memes about irrelevant conditions and crediting them with the sum-total of our experiences as children. Yeah, I, too, traded baseball cards with my friends, and it is a fond memory, but it wasn't a fulfillment of the Coleridgean ideal, like a child running through the Somerset countryside.

And parents. If I see one more meme about how "great" a dad is because he does something entertaining, I am going to bite my computer. Just as my unenthusiastic licking of colored and tasteless ice crystals labeled as "Sno-Cones" didn't mean my youth was a stateof euphoria, a dad taking cute pictures and letting his daughter paint his toenails doesn't make him a "great dad."

I know what you are thinking: "Duh, Chris. It's just a way to point out the cuteness or the nostalgia. No one really believes these outward shows are indications of quality."

Maybe not. But, as with all things we are repeatedly presented with, these posts tend to nudge us farther and farther into superficiality in our casual thinking.

Staying out and riding my bike "until the streetlights came on" is a fond memory. My independence as a kid, being out and playing pick-up baseball and basketball games with my friends in the summer is something I wish kids today would do more of. But, they are only components of what I remember as a pretty darned good childhood.

What's the harm? Well, it reduces thinking into a real reliance of conditions and possessions. It places importance on material things: toys, clothes, styles. It's just more hum under the music of life. Even our nostalgia is becoming superficial. We're training our kids to someday post a picture of an XBox controller that says, "If you had one of these things in your hands fifteen hours a day, you had a great childhood." We should be nostalgic for that night we talked until the sun came up, not that we had a shore house in which to do it.

It wasn't the house that made that night great. It's not the toenail polish that makes the dad great. It's not the sneakers that make the childhood great. Dig?

Sure, the cute dad is adorable. But we need to stop calling him a "great dad" because he and his daughter are squishy and lovable. Last I checked, people didn't become parents for credit; to be recognized. They did it out of love and dedication to the formation of a healthy child.

To go back, once again, to Hamlet, we need less "seeming" and more "being" and these memes are not helping. (Let's face it, the whole Internet culture is about seeming, isn't it? Maybe it is an un-winable war I'm waging here. I just saw a meme about how "sexy" a good dad is. Yuck.)

We get anaesthetized. Great dads and great childhoods don't come down to appearance. They are about soul.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Our Uncomfortable Young Women

The First Feminist(?)
I have noticed a very meaningful paradox in the young women of America. Many of them (if not most) seem to feel compelled to embrace "sexiness" but they also seem completely uncomfortable doing so. This, I think, is one of the many negative results of the media-driven world.

Young women are taught (by example, in music and the media) that overt sexuality equals power; a kind of Wife of Bath-ish feministic statement. They are almost, I would argue, sent the message that it is their duty to be sexy; to wear certain revealing styles. I'm told by my young female students, in class discussion, that every young girl has, at some point, received at text from a boy that says "send nudes." The shocking thing here is not that boys want to see naked girls but that those boys seem to think they have a right to see these pictures; or, maybe worse, that getting pictures like that is a matter of course in their relationships with girls. The other thing I am told is that may girls comply because "they feel like they have to."

What I see in daily life is a lot of young women wearing clothes that "show" more than I ever, as a young man growing up in the 80s, saw. What I also see is how uncomfortable most of these girls seem to be in those revealing clothes. They seem constantly to be adjusting and trying to cover up.

It kind of breaks my heart to see that; to be witness to the profound and moving struggle between innocence and experience playing itself out in mannerisms.

To be clear -- and I don't mean this to be funny or ironic in any way -- I have respect for a confident woman who is comfortable both in a with her own skin; who is not ashamed to be sexy. She has every right to "strut her stuff" as they say; I (and the rest of us fellows), of course, still have an obligation to be gentlemanly toward her. But there is a great strength in a woman who is comfortable with her body and who is not ashamed.

That's all great, but, what if one is not ready for that? -- or what if one simply is not that person? This is what makes me sad, because it comes down to the usual thing: people being crushed by the weight of a media-connected, group thinking world.

I wasn't blessed with a daughter, but, if I had been, I would have done my best to encourage her to find her own "look" -- to be herself, without shame whether sh had chooses to dress minimally or conservatively. But I also would have tried to teach her that "sexy" isn't just about showing skin. It all has to be her choice to make, how she dresses; but every girl needs the independent spirit and confidence to really make it her own choice.

One thing I do know is that it really shreds a little bit more off of my already thinning soul every time I see a young girl who is obviously uncomfortable with the way society has dressed her. I don't blame her. I feel bad for her. Sadly, her only option is to take up arms against the ocean waves. Hopefully she has family and friends willing to support her in the fight.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Dirty Jobs?

Welsh workmen. 
I really like Mike Rowe. I just about always agree with him. Most importantly, I respect his flawlessly logical perspectives on things. He's one hell of the thinker and he is not a tribe-joiner. He has played and still plays a huge role in promoting jobs that don't require college.

You'd think, as a teacher, that I would have a problem with this, but I never developed a bias against "the working class." And I know, full well, many of my students would be way more suited for job training than for college, after they leave my school.

Fact is: college is not for everyone, but we made it a matter of course. That's a problem. We've made it the natural next-step after high school. So, I agree with Mike Rowe: we should encourage kids to consider skilled and even unskilled jobs. These jobs are available and they are necessary and they are good, old fashioned, dignified work. There is no shame in not having a degree and there is plenty of money to be made without one.

If you are a long-term reader, though, you can probably guess what is coming next: It just seems that every good idea gets ruined by our society because, as a whole, it cannot see shades of gray; only black and white.

Instead of a nice, balanced outcome; instead of a world in which college people and non-college people live in the harmony of mutual respect and value, we have stepped into the trend of college-bashing. I'm already sick of seeing how much crane-operators make per hour and, consequently, how "dumb" it is to spend money on a college education when it will only result in student loans and high cost and not as much pay.

(If we are talking about stupidity when it comes to college, let's talk about the folly of choosing exhorbitantly expensive colleges just because little poopsie fell in love with the campus. A cozy, bricky dorm and a great coffee shop is not worth $50, 000 a year for the same full education you could get elsewhere for $10,000 -- or less, at least in the first few years.)

Here's the thing: Yeah, as a young man, the prospect of earning $35 an hour out of college would have been tempting to me. But if I had trained to become a crane operator, I would have subsequently launched myself from the crane arm after about six months of work. See, I have zero interest in being a crane operator, mechanic or truck driver or, etc... Does this mean these jobs and the people who do them are inferior? No. It just means they are not my thing.

See, I'd rather make less than a plumber and be an English teacher. And I couldn't have become an English teacher without a college education. See how that works? (I played my cards right and went to grad school for free, but even debt would have been worth it.)

God forbid we should promote one thing without denigrating the other. We seem unable, these days. (Work, good? Ugh. Then college, bad.)

Mike Rowe has a communications degree from Towson. Surely, that helped him get where he is; ironically, it helps him to promote the worthiness of non-college jobs. (And, to be clear, I think he has always been balanced in his views -- it's where the general public took the idea that is a problem; no blame falls on him, as far as I am concerned.)

In the much maligned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy is talking to a young man named Mutt, who complains that his mom wants him to go to college but that he (the young man) wants to just work on motorcycles. Indy tells him to hold true to his path; if he loves motorcycles, that's what he should do ("...don't let anybody tell you different..."). Later, when Indy learns that young man is actually his son, with Marian, he chastises her: "Why the hell didn't make him go to school?" A funny moment, and a good indication of the problem with the old college bias.

My sons? One is a freshman in high school and the other will go into his senior year of high school next year. Neither one of them has shown any interest in the trades. They write; they act; they play instruments; they play video games; they love movies; they love animals. But they have never shown any remote interest in anything other than the intellectual or the artistic fields. Is college a "dumb" choice for them? No. It's the only choice for them -- unless they quickly develop a deep passion for carpentry over the next few months.

These pieces are always frustrating to write because I know the people who need to read them won't. Why would they waste their time reading something by a guy who was stupid enough to go to college when he could have made a fortune as an electrician?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Adventure of Snickers and...Lorna(?), Part One: "Predictions of Doom"

Our new pups, Snickers and...Lorna Doone?
Based on the Internet chatter, we (our family) has made a huge mistake. According to some, a grave mistake -- even potentially fatal. No, I am not exaggerating. But I am talking about dogs.

We have acquired two puppies -- two girls from the same litter. They are "Goldendoodles," (golden retriever/standard poodle mixes) just like our recently deceased -- and sorely-missed -- fur-daughter, Krimpet. In keeping with the family traditions of naming our dogs after cakey and candy-ish snack foods even we don't eat, their names are Snickers and...possibly...Lorna Doone. (Still not settled on a for the light colored one.)

At the breeder's, we had it narrowed down to two dogs out of a litter of six. Each of my sons was attached to a different dog. We talked for a while about it, but I had already floated the idea to my wife of having two dogs some months before Krimpet died. On top of this, with an offered discount and my sons' willingness to contribute from their savings, for my wife and me, it was like getting two for the price of one.

If I hadn't already considered it, I'm sure the idea of getting two would have been an hard-line "no." But everything seemed to align. We made the deal and signed the papers. (We'd go back to pick them up in two weeks.)

When I got home, I started reading (as I am wont to do). My wife and I are experienced dog-people; we know how to train pups and we commit ourselves to the inconveniences and deprivations that come along with training, both for the good of the dogs and for the overall happiness of the family. We know how much work pups are, if one does things right. We also know that two dogs are going to be even more work. We know the bills will be doubled. What we didn't know is what I found out after a quick Internet search: apparently, adopting two dogs from the same litter is strongly recommended against by lots of people.

We had no idea. In fact, on the drive home, I basked in the idea that our dogs would be happier having a sister in the house, for life.

The dangers presented by the Internet gurus? First, that the dogs might hyper-bond with each other and not be driven to please their masters, possibly rendering them exceedingly difficult (if not, according to some, "impossible") to train. One even mentioned that there have been cases of squabbling siblings who have fought to the death.

Well, isn't that comforting? Isn't that helpful?

But welcome to the Internet age, where getting everyone's attention (not unlike the prostitute on the corner) and not quality of service (much, I would guess, also like the prostitute on the corner) is the goal. I'm sure it has happened. But often enough to put in an article? Probably not.

As for the hyper-bonding, I have already started to read-up on remedies. They need to eat separately, sleep separately, get individual training (both in classes and at home) and they need to learn that being apart, overall, is okay. (Most of which, by the way, we were already aware we would need to do.)

In fairness, some commenters were more balanced in their evaluation of the problem. Many said, "Well, not the best idea, but you can do this if you commit."(One outlier recommends completely blowing off the concerns. Nothing to worry about at all, says he. So one has them killing each other in mortal combat and one says "littermates, schmittermates..." Again, I give you: the Internet. )

At the time I that am writing this, we still need to wait two weeks for the pups to be ready to leave their mother. At the time you are reading this, the two little devils will be in our house in three days...

For me, now, it's prep time.

We now have two little lives in our hands and it is a responsibility from which we will not back down. If it was a mistake to adopt sibling dogs, so be it. But I happen to believe that with love and consistent training, "Nurture" can control or, at least, dramatically mitigate "Nature."

As with raising children (and the similarities are plentiful) we need to start sacrificing our freedom a bit -- even a lot -- to ensure two happy, well-adjusted dogs. Whether it will be "hard" or not is irrelevant, now that we have committed. Whether we are doubting our decision or not is also irrelevant at this point. Those two little creatures need us to guide them to contentment. (And since there are those who have, I'm sure, already wrinkled their brows at us for not getting a shelter dog [which we have also done in the past] I want also say that a lack of committment is one reason why dogs end up in shelters in the first place. We refuse to give up on our committment.)

I have called this "part one," because I want to document this experience for anyone who finds him or herself bombarded by claims of doom in the future. I'm confident the saga will have a happy ending, but I will be honest in telling the tail...uh, tale.

Stay tuned for part two...

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Galactic Anglo Saxons?

Seahorse -- from the "Stafforshire Hoard"
I decided I am a little tired of the underestimation of the abilities of humankind. (Gosh-darnit.)

I'm not sure when the trend of considering the involvement of aliens in ancient Earth started, but it sure was in full swing when I was a kid, in the seventies and eighties. There were tons of documentaries on TV and in the theaters about aliens helping with, say, the pyramids, whether they were the ones in Egypt of Peru. Each of these shows asked the question: how could humans have done this with their limited technology?

It's a cool idea, and all, that aliens might have visited and hooked us up with knowledge and technology and then left. (Makes for fun movies, like Stargate.) But it really is an insult to our own DNA to always think that our past generations were oafish, dirt-digging grunts with square fingers and closets full of mystical baubles.

I get it: we know a lot of stuff. We have come a long way. But it is not because we are smarter than our forbears; it's because we have stood on the shoulders of our forebears. We added what we can do and what we know to what they could do and what they knew. In some cases, we have forgotten the things that they knew, by the way. Let's not forget that. I think Les Stroud, in his short-lived show, Beyond Survival, proves well that cultures with inferior technology to ours are able to survive in situations that would kill an MIT physicist, a computer programmer or a virtuoso violinist within days.

I started thinking about his a few days ago while listening to The British History Podcast  in my car.  Some of the details about the lives of the Anglo Saxons that I learned really drove this home. For instance, it turns out that Anglo Saxon healers actually had the skill to fix harelip. Yes, you heard me right: Anglo Saxons (you know, those guys who drank mead and chopped each other up with swords so that they could get gold rings from a warlord...) actually did plastic surgery. (Or, you know, it could have been the aliens...)

The Sutton Hoo helmet. 
But it was also from this podcast that I learned (ten years late, by the way) about the Staffordshire Hoard -- an archaeological find of Anglo Saxon treasure that rivals the Sutton Hoo find. The most famous piece in this hoard (their version of the Sutton Hoo helmet) is the "Seahorse."

"The Seahorse" is an incredible example of gold-working and filigree. It's an impressive piece to look at (see the picture at the beginning of this post) on the surface. Beautiful work; wonderfully stylized; impressive detail. Sure, that's all really nifty. But it becomes nigh on impossible when you learn that the piece is only one-and-half inches long by three quarters of an inch wide. On grain of rice is longer than three of those little filigree loops.

Someone did this -- spun gold threads thinner than human hair and scrolled them into minute little loops -- without the use of modern tools; without artificial light sources; without magnifying glasses; without a microscope. he (or she, but, probably "he" back then) did it in a "barbaric" and non-scientific age. None of our insufferably up-to-date, modernly-equipped scholars really know how.

Was it the aliens?

No, it was little-old us. Just us fur-clad, sword-swinging barbarians. How'd we do it? By being inexhaustibly and overwhelmingly cool. That's how.

Just like with the daily news and in every online feed, all of the attention goes to the wars and atrocities and mistakes of the past. But in the real world of the past, there were farmers figuring out unrecorded ways to keep foxes away form the chickens; there were healers picking just the right roots to quell menstrual cramps; there were bards who could remember more poetry than the modern person can even stay awake through.

And there was a craftsman, bent over a bench in the all-too-rare British sunlight, who was so smart (smarter than us, so far) and so deft, that he makes us think about galactic travelers in spaceships.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lock and Key; Fate and Humanity

Oedipus, the Blind. (Photo credit: By Albert Greiner
I lock and unlock my classroom door approximately five times per day.

On my school key chain, I have five keys that are irrelevant to this post, but the two remaining keys appear identical (at least to a non-locksmith).

Often, when I am unlocking my door and my students are waiting behind me, I will joke that that laws of probability say that I have a 50% chance of picking the right key first but that, 100% of the time (and this is, as far as I can remember, completely true), I pick the wrong key first.

Ah, Man and Fate. The eternal struggle. Plague of Oedipus; power higher than Gods and Titans...

Today, however, before I could pick the wrong key, yet again, I dropped the whole bundle. I picked them up and chose one. It was the right key. (The door opened; a beam of light shone down from above...)

Thinking as an ancient Greek, I might surmise that some favorable God, some agent of Fate's dominion (I like to think, perhaps, Athena is on my side, what with me obviously being the idea man of my age as was my predecessor, Odysseus) jangled the keys into the right position before I picked them up...but...that's just it, isn't it?

Is Fate stopping me from picking the right key, or is it a result of the repetition of the position in which they hang and the fact that I am right-handed that causes the "wrong" key to come to my fingers first? Dropping the keys broke the pattern of physical events that leads, daily, to my failure.

See, it's not Fate. It's Physics.

With how many other things to we do this? How often to we blame forces beyond our control for our rough-patches? I know a guy who is always complaining about his poor health. He has actually uttered the phrase, "Why does all this s$%t happen to me?" Well, we could blame God or Fate or we could blame the fact hat he weighs about three-hundred pounds.

But what if it is Fate? What if the forces of the cosmos really do tend to conspire against us? Well, even so, if I took five minutes to put a little rubber key identifier on the proper key to my classroom, I could smite Fate and become the master of my own door-opening destiny. Even old Teiresias would have to admit I was able to pull of what Oedipus could not.

And, so, I become the first character in a long line of victims of fate whose hubris become his salvation. I shall outwit Fate! scrape up the 75 cents for one of those key thingies...

Friday, May 24, 2019

Picnic Shaming: Return of the Memorial Day Preachers

John Adams
Every year, it grinds my gears. I am okay with the people who correctly point out that one is not supposed to thank living soldiers, Marines and sailors on Memorial Day. (The veterans I know find it embarrassing, in fact.) The ones who annoy me are those who shame people for having a good time, either with their words or with their tone. When did blatant condescension become okay?

Oh, sure, you can argue that they are only indicating that we should stop for a minute during our celebrations to remember the fallen. But that's not the way it is presented. It's presented with a self-righteous snottiness that used to be reserved for people in, high, gilded pulpits: "While you are cooking burgers and swimming and enjoying your extra days off, don't forget blah blah blah [I'm more patriotic than you] blah blah blah [note my depth] blah blah..."

I don't use profanity on this blog but I just almost recommended a particular kind of simultaneously giving and receiving intimate act to these people. But I shan't.

I guess their intentions are good, but I'll bet they would be mad at me if I hit them with Tweeted and Instagrammed rhetoric that shamed them for not saying grace before meals. I wonder, too, if the Memorial Day Preachers "keep Christ in Christmas;" or, if they, themselves, are annoyed by those who remind them to. Shouldn't everyone stop to give thought of thanks for the struggling farmers of America before each cob of corn consumed? I think so, but I don't blather about it.

It's all preaching, right?

But here's the crux of it, for me. I think it is all a symptom of our slow (but, now, almost complete) transition into the acceptance of unabashed praise-seeking: teachers posting memes about how wonderful teachers are; nurses doing the same; parents glorifying their life-long sacrifices by linking to articles about the trials of raising kids... Blech.

I wonder how my great uncles, who fought (and, some of whom, died) in WWII, feel when they look down on the toddlers eating hot dogs and freeze pops; at the families splashing, carefree, in their pools; teenagers on the beach throwing Nerf footballs... I wonder if my great uncles are outraged.

Or, I wonder, having come from a culture that emphasized duty, dignity and humility, if they smile down on the freedom they won for us; the freedom that they can see in full bloom. I wonder if they rest in peace knowing they helped secure a world in which people could wind up being so happy that they sometimes forget to credit the source of that happiness.

John Adams once said:

"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.”

In short, we, of the present, suffer trials so that we can bring our descendants closer to lives of joy and art and intellectuality. I don't think the fallen warriors of the past begrudge us our picnics. And maybe their reward is simply seeing that life they earned for their future sons and daughters. Maybe they wouldn't demand praise as much as we do today. (I'd bet my left thumb on it.) 

I once heard a mom say that her job was to be the kind of mother her kids took for granted. Does anyone think like that anymore? Does anyone do the right thing without an aim at recognition or praise?

I know it is a bit of a paradox. I do feel the need to be thankful for the sacrifices of the fallen. And, being a real-live grown-up, I'll be thankful in my own way, thanks very much. (In fact, I have written about that gratitude. Have all of the Picnic-Shamers put real time into their memorial activities, I wonder -- beyond retweets and shared links and memes?)

In the end, I refuse to be judged for laughing and playing on a day dedicated to the dead, because that's exactly what they died for. What happens in my prayers and thoughts is up to me, not to some condescending re-imagination of an Anglican preacher standing outside a theater and denouncing the "sins of the stage" to people who just want to see a good play and forget their troubles for awhile.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Smogging-up the Abortion Argument

I'm "pro-life." I would like to think every human is. How could anyone be anything other than for life? I also think (in fact hope) that every human is anti-abortion. (More on this in a bit.)

I know, I know: I'm being cute. We know that "pro-choice" means what it says and that "pro-life" means anti-abortion, in context of the debates. Personally, I am truly "pro-life." By this, I mean that I believe that we humans do not have a right to take life. For this reason, I do not believe in the death penalty and I would not willingly participate in killing, even in war. To me, if life is sacred (or, in non-religious terms, it is an inalienable right of the one who exists) and there is no carte blanche for the taking of life. (I do believe that taking a life can be necessary, but that it is never moral. For example, I am sure I'd kill to protect my family, but I would still consider it [there simply is no better word] a sin that I would suffer from for the rest of my life.)

Of course, when it comes to abortion, the big debate is whether or when the biological stuff in the womb is a life. But I am not sure that is relevant to my own reasoning about the subject. (Maybe I'll address this in another piece.) But my purpose here is not to argue the particulars of abortion, but more to criticize how we currently argue about abortion.

But, first off, I categorically dismiss those who label men as invalid commentators on the subject of abortion. Abortion is a human question and not just a women's question. It is primarily a women's question, for sure.

Having said this, I watched my wife carry and give birth to two children; I also watched her miscarry three times (the first time, heartbreakingly late in the pregnancy). And while I "watched" this happen, I also, on a very deep level, experienced these things. As deeply as her? Of course not; but, I think these experiences more than justify my having opinions on reproductive rights.

I actually think my being a member of the human race is justification enough, and I am surprised everyone does not feel that way. For instance:

I am ready for you, too, you, O quoters of tribal arguments. I see you checking the script for the right line, you who are ready to question (or lambaste) men who see women's issues "in terms of how they affect the men, themselves." I always see men who comment on abortion being chopped down for saying "if my daughter..." or "if my wife..." But let's put a check on our cynical natures, shall we? Many (though, admittedly, not all) of us men love our wives and daughters deeply and mean this sort of thing in an empathetic way.

When my wife suffers, I suffer. When we need to make decisions, either about her body or mine, we make them together. We're married; we are, in terms of our belief, one. So, I simply won't entertain that argument. I will not see real empathy perverted, through "canned" argument, into selfishness. (Can it be selfishness? Sure, depending on the sincerity or insincerity of the source. but it is not a man thing, it's a good vs. bad man thing.) Argumentation contains pathos, ethos and logos. Always has. How can we argue something as profound as life itself without emotion? -- without discussing how it affects us all?

That said, my real purpose here is this:

I think we do a lot of arguing around the issue of abortion these days. Current trends are to use things like barbaric legislation ("death penalty for women who have abortions" and "99 years in prison for doctors who perform abortions") as either implied or explicit arguments that being anti-abortion is barbaric. If, for instance, a school principal puts a rule on the books that children who cheat on quizzes will be punished by the removal of a finger, that just means the principal is an animal; not that cheating is any more wrong or right than it was before the rule.

It's like some weird version of ad hominum. It's as if people who use this technique would argue that cheating is okay because chopping off fingers is the act of barbarians.

Further, I have seen the pro-life stance, itself, referred to as cruel. Can laws against women who have abortions be cruel? Can a pro-lifer's very perspective on women be cruel? Of course. Can thinking one should not -- on a fundamentally ethical level -- have an abortion be cruel? I certainly don't think so. It's a concept; it's a moral belief. Cruel or not cruel is determined what one does with one's beliefs.

I would argue, further, that no one thinks abortion is a desired outcome. No one is "pro-abortion," because anyone, given the chance, would choose not to be in a position to have to consider having one. "Pro-choice" and "pro-abortion" are not the same.

But if we are arguing whether abortion is moral or not, we should really stick to the act, itself, independent of the urge to make teams out of the sexes. There is just too much fog around the issue now and people are not trying to burn it away; they are trying to take advantage of the poor visibility -- even willingly producing smog -- to make their arguments.

Once again, we see tribalism raising its head. Us against them; liberals vs. conservatives. Foolish. And, in terms of argumentation, distracting at best and crippling at worst. We attack each other and not the issue at hand. We have forgotten that argumentation's highest purpose is to find the truth and adopted the sports (team) mentality: it's all about winning.