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.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Killing Desire?

Scene from Assassin's Creed, Unity
On Christmas Eve, I was wrapping presents (probably my least favorite activity in a life full of far too many unpleasant activities) and I was watching the classic film It's a Wonderful Life. In one scene, George, as a boy, is talking to Mary (his future wife) across the counter in Mr. Gower's drug store. George is telling Mary about all of the places he is going to see when he gets old enough, and he pulls out a copy of National Geographic Magazine so he can show her some pictures. I know how he felt. Do my kids feel the same?

I remember (I grew up in the 70s and 80s) seeing a picture that fired my imagination. I remember watching nature programs on old, grainy and square TVs and wishing I could visit jungles and deserts. I remember seeing places in movies -- whether shot on-location or whether they were studio recreations -- and feeling a pull of curiosity.

Once, I worked with a principal who told the faculty: "You have to remember. This is no longer the one-room schoolhouse. We, as teachers, are no-longer able to dazzle our students with stories of far-away lands. Teachers are no-longer 'the sages on the stage'."

Her point was that, with modern technology, the kids have seen more in their early years than we could have have dreamt of seeing. They live in a world that offers so much virtual experience that, I fear, it might really be blunting their cravings for reality. We don't impress them by pulling back the curtains on the wonders of the world. (Well...we literature teachers kind of do... We just have to make kids understand that we are.)

Both of my sons have walked through very realistic depictions of medieval villages; both of them have fought in historical wars. They have wandered the streets of Paris and London and New York City while wearing their pajamas. They have sailed pirate ships and flown planes.

Of course, none of this is as good as the real thing. [Or, is it? Consider the idea that the people who created the Notre Dame cathedral for Assassin's Creed might be consulted in the reconstruction of the cathedral.] But, it is pretty darned good. I've seen depictions of water in video games that make me swear I can smell salt. And, now, we have VR gaming with 360 degree headsets...

Still, VR is not as good, let's face it. But is it blunting our kids' desire to get to the places they no longer have to dream about? -- the places they can now see while wide-awake?

A year ago, I discovered that a large system of wooded trails exists in the town I grew up in. (It is quite well-hidden.) All my life, I had no idea it was there. I found it online, believe it or not, listed as the best trail walk in New Jersey. I think that a video of my face as I walked into it the first time might have been embarrassing. I think I was doing what they call "beaming." Every corner turned; every trail found made me a little goofy with the joy of discovery. With every step, I cannot help thinking that it must have been a meeting place for the Lenni Lenape Indians -- it's a huge hill from which one can see Philadelphia in the distance, almost twenty miles away.

I think it may be the result of a young life of wishing I could really experience things I saw in pictures and films. Unlike my boys, I never got to walk through haunted medieval forests until later in life... With our desire to make better and better experiences in education and gaming, are we extinguishing dreams?

Consider this: teen pregnancy is down. One possible cause, according to some, is "sexting." If the next-best-thing can quell that desire, what can it do to the urge to explore our world?