Category Archives: Background Perspective

Ride That Photon

At the speed of light, propagation of TIME stops. So, a photon does not travel forever because our concept of time does not hold true for it. Photons do not experience passage of time. Victor Mazmanian, retired Associate Professor of Physics, U.S. Air Force Academy quoted from an answer to a Quora question, “How can light travel forever?” 

I confess that I am a Quora stalker, mostly science, history and philosophy. Never have I posed or answered a question. Perhaps I will work up my courage to do so. When I read the for the most part well informed questions and answers, for now, I am content to learn and to wonder. I follow a few of the contributors like my friend Bob Cormack[i] from Colorado. Mostly though I am eclectic and follow my curiosity. That probably qualifies me as a geek in its current definition.[ii]

The Quora article I linked above is clear and simple without being simplistic about complex subjects like the quantum packets of energy called photons that are always either in motion at the speed of light or non-existent when they stop moving. For photons, time does not exist because at their velocity, time does not pass, a “trip” of twenty light years is a flash without so much as a nanosecond transpiring from their perspective.  The math of the quantum physics and relativity will remain well beyond this humble blogger’s aptitude, but the concepts and inspiration to the imagination are mine to play with.[iii]

If we were able to transform and hitch a ride on a photon, a form of time travel would be possible. Astronomers recently discovered a rocky planet circling Proxima Centauri, a mere twelve light years away. With current technology, this would be a journey of about 544 centuries at fifty two thousand miles an hour, which was what the New Horizon Pluto probe attained. It took New Horizon about nine and half years to get to Pluto. Even at the speed of light, should we be able to travel that fast, a round trip to Proxima Centauri would take a couple of dozen years. Upon our return, we would have not aged a day or perceived any passage of time, but our friends and families would be decades older. Or not here at all.

Please dont make fun when I tell you something true.  Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway

John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist and doctoral advisor to many, including Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, proposed that as we learn more and more about the universe, we will see that it is informational, more like a computer than a machine. Or more like a mind. Wheeler revived the study of general relativity after World War II, invented the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” and was involved with Feynman and others in the development of quantum mechanics. Many current physicists now subscribe to this “informational” understanding of the universe and believe it is the path to eventually uncovering a unified theory of physics, resolving the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory. Wheeler said this during a eulogy of mathematician Hermann Weyl in 1986, “Time, among all concepts in the world of physics, puts up the greatest resistance to being dethroned from ideal continuum to the world of the discrete, of information, of bits… Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than ‘time.’ Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time. To uncover the deep and hidden connection between time and existence….is a task for the future.” [iv]

The essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of difficulty, so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation: it comes effortlessly and without trouble.  Dr. Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture English translation, Random House, 1963

For God, time is not linear, rather more like a photon perceives it than like we perceive it. All of time is seen at once, as now, beyond humans to even conceive of His gaze. How this is understood in terms of free will and pre-destination, I’ll leave to the theologians. For this post, I’d like to consider where humans may find some common ground with this view of the cosmos.

The ancients and medieval philosophers taught that human knowledge is gained in two ways, which they named ratio and intellectus. Ratio was what we would now call a left brain activity, rational, discursive, leading to conclusions and requiring lots of work or study. Intellectus is more right brain, wholeness, intuitive, contemplative and receptive. The difference might be perceived in coming upon a vista like the Grand Canyon. Our left brain is curious and studies the mile-deep cliffs of the Grand Canyon dropping to the Colorado River: geological eras with their names and characteristics, rising and receding seas, the crushing together and uplift of tectonic plates and layer upon layer of aggregated stones and fossils. This is learning with ratio.

Intellectus is content to take it all in, to be silent, to think long thoughts or no thoughts at all, to grasp the canyon as beautiful in and of itself: objectively valuable, not just subjectively satisfying[v]. Ratio has to do with the temporal, with the investment of our precious time and work. Intellectus has to do with the eternal, outside of time.  Like for the photon, time stops, or rather there is no time that matters.

Gazing in wonder and gratitude at beauty changes the beholder. Contemplation, absorbed in the beauty with mind emptying peace, but filled with instantaneous knowledge and understanding, is of the soul, as well as the will and mind. I believe it is in this that we can imperfectly understand the concept of human uniqueness. We are made in Imago Dei, in the Image of God. When we perceive, however minutely, as God perceives, outside of time, we participate in our limited fashion in the Divine.  Captivated by the beauty when we visited the Grand Canyon a few winters ago, my inner voice echoed an ancient voice, “I am Beauty itself, gratuitous and without limit. Rest in Me. Trust in Me. Do not be afraid.”

Can we ever expect to understand existence? Clues we have, and work to do, to make headway on this issue. Surely someday, we can believe, we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we have been so blind so long? John Archibald Wheeler in his famous it for bit talk.

[i] I introduced readers of this blog to Bob Cormack six years ago. Acrophobia: Tale of Two Bobs.

[ii] Originally “geek” denoted a carnival freak who entertained by biting the heads off live chickens. To date, I have not indulged in that fowl slaughter.

[iii] , Before any physics geniuses complain that I am not qualified to remark on the details of the science, I agree completely. But the minutiae are not the point of the post.

[iv] Wheeler, John Archibald, 1986 “Hermann Weyl and the Unity of Knowledge.” American Scientist, 74:366-375

[v] See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s view of truth and beauty with the distinction of the “subjectively satisfying” from the “objectively valuable” as explained briefly by Bishop Robert Barron. Von Hildebrand, a Catholic moral theologian, was once called by Adolph Hitler his number one enemy and had to flee for his life when the Third Reich annexed Austria. Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age, Robert Barron, Word on Fire website.

2 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Nice!

“We are apt to judge things by mere appearances, and those deceive. This isn’t always because people want to deceive. It is a feature of our frailty, sinful or not. We are imitative creatures. In our dress, our walk, the lilt of our speech, our choice of words, our posture, and even in things we think are solid results of our dispassionate thought, such as our politics, we are in part play-actors.” Anthony Esolen[i]

We have managed to place as the pinnacle of human morality something ill-defined we call “nice.” As in “She’s a nice person.” or the universal anodyne conversation concluding, “Have a nice day.” What does that mean? Why not, “Have a day full of wonder and joy and meaning.” Or “Have a day without stress or turmoil or pain or panic.” Or if you have truly caused me pain or disillusionment or great inconvenience, “Have a terrifying day when someone drops a piano on you from a great height.” Wouldn’t a little honesty at least be an improvement?

Nice has ousted virtue, and it’s a whitewashed, formless, artificial sweetener substitute like Coffee Mate or pickleball or synthesized Bob Dylan tunes on hold. Now before you are outraged and respond with, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with nice?”, let me clarify. Nice is fine, so are crisp, hot, salted McDonald’s French fries when we are achingly hungry, but is it the best we can do? Nice is an improvement over nasty just as civility would be an improvement in our public discourse, especially political speech and social media posts. Nice is better than irritable, rude, mean, bullying or drivers in Boston[ii]. But it is not heroic, is not very challenging, is not more than a superficial communal construct or even much better than not spitting in the soup. “Nice” is a lukewarm, whimpering standard with “standard” as either a measure by which to gauge our conduct or a flag under which we can march into battle.

To be nice is to expect nice: a social contract quid pro quo. Please don’t hurt me, and I’ll try very hard not to hurt or embarrass or challenge you. I’ll leave you alone to whatever vices you want to pursue so long as I don’t have to see them, or they don’t directly affect me in my living room or bedroom, and you leave me to follow my predilections. To seek to live virtuously is different than aspiring to be nice. Virtue has no immediate expectation of reward; it is lived for its own sake. The classical Greek philosophers like Aristotle or medieval geniuses like Thomas Aquinas would tell us that to be virtuous, to know, seek and live the objective right is the beginning of the path to human happiness. Nice doesn’t make you happy, nice merely allows you to be less memorable when gossip circulates at the coffee shop. Virtue is sometimes visible and memorable, but not always. Sometimes it is most vital when no one sees it at all or ever will.

Too often our civility, our niceness, is merely imitative so that we will be liked. Nothing wrong with being liked, and strangers will speak well of us, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough. Serial killers can be nice, until they are not.[iii]

“The doctrine of virtue… has things to say about this person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to– by being prudent, just, temperate, and brave.  The doctrine of virtue is one form of the doctrine of obligation, but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction” Dr. Josef Pieper, “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1954

Dr. Pieper wrote brilliantly of the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Prudence in judgement and behavior, temperance in demeanor and our daily interactions, just and fair in our assessments and courageous, not fearless, but in the face of our fears.  Many other virtues can lend understanding to the cardinals [iv], standards by which we can not only pattern our actions and our speech, but our thoughts and our will, our habits and our consciences. Over our lifetimes habits become our character and our destiny, so developing those habits of virtue forms us, either accidentally as circumstances channel us or deliberately, as we choose and battle to attain.

None of us, especially your faithful blogger, is faultless in this pursuit, but we can aspire to an ideal instead of a deadening, tepid nonentity like niceness. As the marksmen will tell us, “Aim small, miss small.”  To be most fully human in the image of our Creator is a heroic challenge and worthy of a precious lifetime: a quest without equal and uniquely ours with our individual quirks, weaknesses and flaws. Nice is irrelevant when one is on a great journey and mission. Our journey, our mission, our one life is an arduous and imperfect quest that, if achieved, will leave us spent, scarred, battered and fulfilled.

When Bilbo and Frodo confronted evil in the epic quests of their lives in Tolkien’s “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, they were imperfect and sometimes irresolute heroes, but in the end heroes nonetheless. As we can be. Our victory is not in fearlessly charging into the fray heedless of the risks, but in persisting through the hundred decisions we make daily to do or not do, to say or not say, yes, even to think or not think – or at least to linger in those thoughts. Nice is not an idea large enough to forge our armor and our weapons for the epic, unique quest that is our one life. Virtue is.

“Tolkien’s work illuminates how moral weakness is the real problem of the human condition, not moral dilemmas and uncertainty. The latter are rare, the former is ubiquitous. I rarely do wrong because I do not know what is right; I often do wrong because it is fun, easy, or otherwise attractive.”  Nathanael Blake[v]

 

[i] Genuine Faith Requires More Than Niceness, Anthony Esolen, Crisis Magazine, September 11, 2018

[ii] Last fall I was confused at a rotary in the Back Bay of Boston. The layout had changed since the last time I had circumnavigated this roundabout; I slowed for a few seconds and had to make a decision. And we had Rhode Island plates. A couple of guys in a black BMW careened around us; fists with one finger prominently extended instantly shot out of both the driver’s and passenger’s window, and the driver screamed angrily that I was a “f’ing moron.” Not just a garden variety moron, so I took some consolation in that. Rita and I both burst out laughing, which probably confirmed their assessment.

[iii] Adolf Hitler was reputedly very nice to dogs especially, but animals in general, and they liked him.  See linked picture.

[iv] The Virtues Project

[v] Living With Morals: A Review of The Fall of Gondolin, Nathanael Blake, Public Discourse, November 1, 2018

8 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Scarborough Marsh

“The total size is approximately 3,000 acres making it Maine’s largest contiguous saltmarsh. It is fed by three major tributaries: the Scarborough, Nonesuch, and Libby Rivers.” Audubon Society website[i]

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Background Perspective, Maine Tales

Brush Hooks and Plumb Bobs

“The world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander. It’s a network of events affecting each other.” “The Order of Time”, Carlos Rovelli, 2018

In 1972 we lived with our toddler Amy and our infant Gabriel in a winter rental on Mashnee Island at the north end of the Cape Cod Canal across from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. We had very little money and an old flat head six-cylinder Chevy pickup truck painted with house paint that we bought in Boulder, Colorado when we lived there. Our next-door neighbor was Fred Cheever, who was in his sixties. John’s brother and Susan’s uncle, Fred befriended this young couple, told us of local must sees and gave us his copy of the New York Times Sunday paper after he finished with it. Fred ran the advertising department of a local radio station.

 That year I worked for Newell B. Snow, a third-generation land surveyor in Buzzards Bay. Newell was in his early eighties and had original surveyor’s notebooks from his grandfather in the Civil War era. Old school and meticulous, he required a cane to get from place to place, but cognitively had lost nothing off the two-seam fastball. He remembered half-buried marble markers to help in laying out old boundary lines. Finding these markers and proving boundaries by cutting a line and researching the old books could mean the difference between a land locked piece of property and one that was accessible and much more valuable to the owners. Detective work was the fun part; sometimes I would be allowed on a rainy day to help do the math to close the traverses, which had to be proofed within a narrow percentage. If one didn’t tie out, it meant going back into the woods to remeasure until the trigonometry of angles and measurements closed back to the starting point of the lot.

Newell’s son-in-law, Charlie was the crew chief, and Bob, a retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer in his late forties was second man on the crew. I was the third man, held the dumb end of the hundred-foot metal tape and cut brush and trees out of the line. Newell eschewed the use of noisy and expensive chainsaws, which regrettably for me, was one of the few things I was good at when I first started my year as a land surveyor. The century old design brush hooks cut the lines so that we could shoot and measure them with the manual transits. I soon learned how to keep brush hooks sharp and use their keen ability against tough, stringy vines and scrub shrubs. When working exposed to the onshore winds in January, maintaining core body heat was an ongoing struggle. Bob gave me a woolen Navy watch cap, a kind gift that helped. Twenty below in the Maine woods was not as numbing as North Atlantic wind that cored through and was impossible to ignore. The hard work of a brush hook helped to keep me warm.

Eventually I convinced Newell to buy a small Stihl chainsaw, and while it was less effective against vines and thick underbrush, it significantly improved the crew’s efficiency on the numerous scrub white oaks and red pines that blocked the sight lines of the transit.  The Stihl immediately increased our daily production. Instead of detouring around larger trees with four short ninety-degree shoots and measurements as had been done for prior centuries, I’d quickly drop the old scrub oaks or red pines into the adjacent woods and leave them. I regretted my recommendation and its ramifications. A twelve-inch diameter tree that may have been forty years old was too daunting to attack with a brush hook, but a chainsaw put it down in five or ten minutes.

“And because Your years do not pass, Your years are today… All our tomorrows to the end of time You shall make to be in this Your day; and all our yesterdays from the beginning of time You have made to be in this Your day.” St. Augustine, “Confessions,” Book One, Chapter Six

Long cut lines through bramble-clogged Cape Cod woods made up two legs of what we called “spaghetti lots”: an elongated rectangle with two hundred feet of road frontage and a half a mile or so into the trees and vines on each side. A lot of hills, measuring, shooting the lines and cutting.  The other surveyor’s skill that is mostly lost with encroaching technology is the plumb bob. Charlie would spot a wooden stake that we cut out of two by three studs sharpened with a hatchet on rain out days. I’d drive it into the exact location defined by the transit with a five-pound short handled sledge hammer, then nail a small tack into it as a temporary line marker for measurements. We used a metal hundred-foot tape stretched to an exact tension with a spring-loaded scale to make certain as exact a measurement as we could manage. Plumb bobs on both ends of the measurement with the other end of its string held against our tape suspended exactly over our tacks.

On inclines the tape had to be held level as well as with the proper tension. On steep hills, we could manage much less than hundred-foot measurements. Sometimes as little as a horizontal ten foot pull and we would need to place a new stake. The high end of the tape would be held precisely on the tack, the low end held high and level with straining arms and a nearly fully extended plumb bob string, the point of the plumb bob without a quiver held over the tack. The bob could not touch the nail because both the plumb and the exact dimension would be lost. On a half mile traverse, any accumulated small errors of inexactly taken measurements would ruin the closing back in the office.

Now, of course, all this is gone, along with four transit leveling screw gauges, meticulously adjusted by the crew chief at every set up. Electronic self-leveling laser transits and corresponding electronic target poles not only accomplish the exact measurements, the rectangular (or any other angled) multi sided traverses are closed and calculated as the surveying teams go along within the programming and screens of the transits. Plumb bobs, wooden stakes and tacks are forgotten accoutrements.

As I think about plumb bobs, straining arms held high to mark their precise locations to establish reliable borderlines, I ponder the lost plumb bobs of our bewildered culture, the objective moral norms held true and plumb for centuries, pointing by gravity towards the center of the earth, exactly defining with rigor and wisdom the boundaries we seem to want blurred. And I wonder about how human nature, unchanged, mocks both the convolutions and the ubiquitous noise of our technology, and marks as silly our fatuous, doomed attempts at materialistic perfectibility.

“Thus, He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am about to put a plumb line in the midst of My people….”  Amos 7: 7-8a

1 Comment

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Grind

  • “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” James Baldwin

One of the ironies for the socially concerned citizen is the uneven burden imposed on the poor by high minded programs attempting to address other compelling challenges – call it unintended (or unheedful) consequences or collateral damage. The ‘climate change’ agenda as typified by the Paris Agreement is one such dilemma. Irrespective of whose interpretation of the discredited hockey stick curve of global warming[i] for which you’ve signed up, that our abused planet will benefit from a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions bears no argument. The open questions, it seems to me, are what solutions are created, how much they cost and who pays? One answer to the last question in the short term is undoubtedly the “energy poor.”

Whether income is limited by low wages, no work, the fixed income of seniors or disability, the energy poor are defined as those for whom more than ten percent of their income is needed to cover energy costs. Since those folks many times also are housing poor (more than thirty percent of their income goes to basic housing costs), the effects grind hard on their ability to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Some live on a constant edge, a couple of missed paychecks away from sleeping under a bridge alone or with their families. During this current brutal winter in the northern United States, such a load means cold houses with thermostats set well below comfort and pipes at regular risk. Life lived wrapped in a blanket.

If Al Gore or Bill Gates (or Donald Trump for that matter) doubles his electric bill, it’s not even a petty inconvenience. More than likely since someone else probably does the mundane work of paying their bills, they wouldn’t even be aware of it. For someone energy poor, such a disaster could be the difference between fresh vegetables and cheap boxed mac and cheese, straight or crooked teeth for Johnny or a ten-year-old car that takes you to work and one that is busted or needs gas and is parked on the street outside the apartment house where the rent already strains the budget.

Just a few statistics and facts, I promise:

  • Thirty million Americans live in energy poor households. Among the population in the world’s “rich countries,” two hundred million are so burdened.
  • In Europe where renewable subsidies (and costs from emissions caps and targets) exceed the United States, thirty percent of Germans are energy poor; in Greece the toll approaches fifty percent.
  • In the United Kingdom, since 2006 while trying to hit coercive renewable targets, energy costs have risen 36% in real terms, while income has grown 4%. A poll in 2014 found one third of British elderly leave at least part of their house cold; two thirds bundle up with extra clothes in their homes.  15,000 died in the tough winter of 2014-2015 because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes properly.

And so it goes.

 “The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.”  Willem de Kooning

Brayton Point coal fired 1,500 megawatt plant in Fall River. Closed in 2017.

There is good news[ii] regarding carbon emissions with a milestone in 2016: natural gas passed coal as a source of electrical generation for the first time.  Admittedly, a short-term solution, because while gas emits about half the carbon as coal per megawatt generated, the fracking techniques and drilling that freed new sources of plentiful natural gas also emitted significant amounts of methane, an even more efficient greenhouse effect gas than carbon dioxide.

Coal use has steadily declined for the last three years after peaking ten years ago. Nuclear power generation and renewables with hydro-electric leading the pack, have grown as a percentage of power production, but they are more expensive, especially solar and wind. We’ve already noted who gets hurt with that. Who benefits? Those of means and higher income can take advantage of disproportionate government support for expensive electric cars and solar panels on their roofs. The poor and working poor will not be getting energy star tax credits; they’ll be struggling to keep the heat and lights turned on.

Directives imposing or releasing coal from restrictions in the long run will make little difference. Efforts to strangle or to revive the coal industry with Presidents Obama and Trump swapping executive orders are akin to squabbling over saving fax machine manufacturing. Well, maybe not quite that depth of obsolescence. Coal is dying of its own infirmities as an energy source and will expire as quickly as alternate fuel source electrical generation can be brought on line. Xcel Energy is typical. One of the largest Midwest utilities, it has shuttered twenty five percent of its coal fired plants since 2005. Xcel has a goal of reducing their carbon emissions by sixty percent by 2030 with or without the Paris Agreement. “I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment,” Xcel CEO Ben Fowke told Reuters. “And if I’m not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any.” [iii]

A modest, and to me, humane suggestion: avoid the “Inconvenient Untruth” histrionics and cease the ham handed, ideologically and politically motivated, big government (or worse international) draconian intervention on carbon emissions or swaps. Instead focus efforts on research and development of affordable and sustainable energy solutions that do not punish those least able to pay the bills.

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” William Butler Yeats

[i] See attached critique of climate modeling that was done several years ago by a friend of mine who has taught at a large university for many years. Since it is a compilation of his remarks in email exchanges with others, and I didn’t ask his permission to share this, I have taken efforts to remove his name, but he’s one of the smartest people I know, brilliantly adept in math, energy and engineering and in interpreting data. Has multiple patents and published papers.  If you object, B, I’ll take this link down. Climate Modeling

[ii][ii] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/americans-used-a-lot-less-coal-in-2016/

[iii] Ibid

6 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective

Super Moons, Shepherds and Chrétiens

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.” Edgar Mitchell, astronaut and moon walker

On December third, we witnessed a “super moon.” Before the popular media got their hands on them, the astronomers referred to perigee full moons and perigee new moons. From sixteen century French, it derived from ancient Greek meaning simply “close around the earth.” We name any full moon that comes within ten percent of the closest approach the moon in its orbit makes to earth a “super moon.”. Closer means slightly larger and brighter in our view, and stronger tides, both high and low.

What is somewhat unusual this time around is that there will be three of them consecutively. The full moons on January second and again on the thirty first will be perigee moons.  The second full super moon in January will also be a blue moon, the second full moon in a month. And to complete the January 31’st trifecta, there will be a full lunar eclipse, so super, blue and eclipsed. Quite a free show. Hope for a clear winter night in an area without a lot of light pollution. A party would be in order.

When full on a cloudless night, our closest neighbor with the enigmatic smile lights our way. Unique in our solar system with its relative size to a planet, our moon greatly intensifies the tides of our great oceans. Without it, the sun would still cause tides, but not nearly as pronounced. Those tides have a profound effect on the rotation of the earth, slowing it from its early cycle to our familiar twenty-four-hour spin. Without the moon we would see sunrise every ten hours.

“From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.”
The Cat and The Moon, W.B Yeats

From Genesis 1: God made two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night. He made the stars also. I’ve wondered what the shepherds guarding their flocks and saw the angels announcing the birth of Jesus did when there weren’t miracles about. They must have welcomed the full moonlit nights to help them in their assigned watch. I wonder if they understood the moon reflected the sun? Most ancient peoples thought the world was round, but most thought our globe was the center of the universe, and the array of the stars and planets revolved around us.

Only sixty-six years, less than a lifetime, separated the first powered flight of the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong’s “one great leap” on the surface on the moon. Only since then, have human beings viewed images of our home planet from another celestial object. Out of all the human beings that have lived over tens of thousands of years, only we that have lived in the last half century have been graced with this revelation.

Our perspective, literally our worldview, has lifted, never to be the same. In that same sense, our view of the shepherds, the angels, even the birth of Jesus has subtly shifted as well. We see what angels see, but what those fearful shepherds never did.  They were calmed by the angels, “Do not be afraid.” Are our fears, too, put to rest?  Or has the view revealed from the moon of our luminous and fragile blue orb changed us in some way we have yet to comprehend?

“Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle.” 
French lyrics for “Oh Holy Night”, traditional Christmas Carol [i]

 “Midnight, Christians, it’s the solemn hour. When God-Man descended to us….”

I recently learned reading one of the brilliant speeches of the late Justice Antonin Scalia[ii] that the disparaging English word used to marginalize a group of people, “cretins,” originates from the French. Unlike us (as seen in far too many social media posts), the French originally named a group of severely developmentally challenged residents of the Alps “Chrétiens” or Christians in the fourteenth century, not to demean them or Christianity, but to remind all that human beings, all human beings, irrespective of their status, their gifts or their net worth are inheritors of the dignity of man. “Imago Dei.” Made in the image of God. How many of us believe that in our hearts today?

Yet, is this not the center of the mystery of Christmas? And how, dear readers, are Christians perceived in fashionable society today? Let Justice Scalia speak for himself, far more eloquently than I could ever hope to.

“It has often occurred to me, however, that for quite different reasons the equivalence of the words Christians and cretin makes a lot of sense. To be honest about it, that is the view of Christians – or at least traditional Christians – taken by sophisticated society in modern times. One can be sophisticated and believe in God – heck, a First Mover is at least as easy to believe in as Big Bang triggered by nothingness. One can even be sophisticated and believe in a personal God, a benevolent Being who loves mankind, so long as that Being does not intrude too ridiculously into the world – by working so-called miracles, for example, or by limiting human behavior in inconvenient ways…. But to believe in what might be called “traditional” Christianity is something else. To believe that Jesus Christ was God? … Or to believe that he was born of a virgin! (Well, I mean, really!) That he actually, physically, rose from the grave?!?…”

Read the original, more comprehensive in scope. I strongly recommend this book for some opportunity to think deeply about what we may have avoided thinking about deeply. His point here is that simple and unsophisticated is not by definition wrong, and may indeed be the truth, however incongruent and inconvenient that may be for us. Be advised, though, the recognition, and our place in that truth, may call us to honest introspection and change.

Have these times of ours, so confusing, with an ever-present din of anger and fear, conflict and loneliness, concealed in its foggy night something we have lost, and can ill afford to misplace?

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

[i] ‘Oh Holy Night’ Luciano Pavarotti, 1978 Montreal

 

[ii] “The Christian as Cretin,” from “Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith and Life Well Lived.” Antonin Scalia, Christopher Scalia and Edward Whelan, Crown Forum, Penguin Random House, 2017.

1 Comment

Filed under Background Perspective

Morning Dews and Damps

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

From our bungalow on Birch Street in Portsmouth, I exit to the bottom of the hill on Orchard View and turn left on Middle Road by Escobar Farm. Middle Road to the end, right on Union to just before West Main Road, left on Jepson Street to the end at Oliphant Lane and back is exactly ten miles. I hold dear my bike ride at five or six am past nurseries and fields of corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and strawberries. From the top of Middle Road, one of the highest points on Aquidneck Island, on a clear morning the West Bay is clearly visible and to the east in glimpses, the Sakonnet River, which runs fourteen miles between Mount Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

If I’m running late, the strawberry pickers are starting to gather. On the weekends, the farm owners drag a small wood framed snack stand out to field with a tractor to sell snacks and drinks to the U-Pick-Them crowd. At this point of the summer, the magnolias, dogwoods, apples, cherries, horse chestnuts, azaleas and rhododendrons have past their flowering splendor, but the hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susans, daisies, hostas, Queen Anne’s lace and an occasional tree of heaven are holding their own. Everywhere, in every direction, is quiet and the smells of summer. Most of the farms are arable, but there are a few chickens, ducks and dairy cows. One field near the reservoir on Union, just past the golf course, hosts four beef critters, lazily grazing their way to qualifying for their purpose as steaks and hamburger in the fall or early winter.

Colonial houses dating back to the revolution along with a collection of center chimney capes and newer colonials and ranches are distributed unevenly along the way. There are several small developments of newer homes with farmer’s porches and attached garages with large lots for the most part, many of which back up to planted fields, reservoir or golf course.

Traffic is light, and almost without exception the few cars and pickup trucks slow and swing wide around the frequent bicycle riders. Unlike last year, which for some reason was a bad year for cotton tails, I greet adolescent rabbits a dozen times on my ten -mile ride. Don’t know their names; they remain reticent and watchful. The red-tail hawks look well fed.

“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Susan B. Anthony

At the base of a short hill on Union Street just past the U PICK blueberry farm, a few wicker baskets of haphazard common garden vegetables are often displayed for sale on the honor system with a metal cash box. They sit on a flat spot atop the stone wall in front of a rambling two story white house with several additions and out buildings, some well-considered, others more like orphaned after thoughts; the house is just this side of neglected with a slate roof and washed-out, chalky paint. The yard is losing a long transition from tended gardens to an encroaching wooded glade of mostly maples. Curious, I investigated its history and found it was registered as a National Historic site as “Oak Glen.” Julia Ward Howe died of pneumonia here at 91 in 1910 where she had spent many summers.

As a young girl in New York City, she met Charles Dickens through her father, a prominent Wall Street stock broker and her mother, the poet Julia Rush Cutler. Of a literary bent, privately educated, she published learned essays, biographies, plays and poetry. Her husband in a less than happy marriage was Dr. Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; they raised their children in South Boston. She spent many summers here in Portsmouth and much time in the “Yellow House” in Gardiner, Maine, apparently to get away from her husband. Well known as first an abolitionist, she outraged many with her unflattering descriptions of blacks in her book, “A Trip to Cuba.” While disliking slavery, she did not believe in the equality of races. Apparently “all men are created equal,” although an admirable ideal, did not mean all that it implies. Her most passionate cause was women’s suffrage and equality; I suspect that the landed gentry were a bit more equal than an Irish washerwoman taking in Mrs. Howe’s laundry.

At various times, she was president of both the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the New England Suffrage Association, which she co-founded. She also founded and served as president for twenty-one years of the Association of American Women, advocating for women’s education.  At some point, she eschewed her father’s strict Calvinist faith in favor of the less demanding, and more fashionable among the literati, Universalist creed.

Mrs. Howe was best remembered for her song writing, and was inducted posthumously into the Song Writers Hall of Fame in 1970. After meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a friend suggested she pen new lyrics to the same tune as the abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body” with the line about “moldering in the grave.” Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” still rouses many a worship service and patriotic gathering. Four thousand people sang it at her memorial service, as it had been sung at all her speaking engagements for many years.  In 1870, she unsuccessfully lobbied for the country to celebrate a “Mother’s Day” on June second. Two of her daughters collaborated on telling her story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1916. Like so many who left a legacy, she was imperfect, an admixture of the admirable and the flawed.

Oak Glen still on its original 4.7 acres sits unnoticed by most next to a similarly neglected small historic cemetery on Union Street in Portsmouth like the faded matron of a once elegant family. Oak Glen has become for me a symbol of ephemeral celebrity, but her signature work, the words of which came to her in a dream, remains. We sang it at church on the Fourth of July as it has been sung for over a century.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human life.”  H.G. Wells

2 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Brothers in the Morning

“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” Alexander the Great

Last week on a cold early morning with a sharp wind coming up from the bay, I stopped at my favorite coffee watering hole where a small crew has been framing an addition in the back of the restaurant. Two of the carpenters were walking from their pick-ups parked in back, dressed for the weather, gloves without fingers, tool belts over their shoulders, talking quietly with easy familiarity.

I remembered thousands of mornings that began each day with similar working friendships: fence crews, carpenter crews, landscape crews, workshop crews of various kinds for fabricating doors, windows, cement forms, nailing pickets on fences, and most especially and fondly tree climbing crews. So many tree climbing crews, large or only two or three men, in Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado and Rhode Island. Convivial or occasionally contentious, we mustered each morning in weather fair or foul, and set about doing something together that needed doing.

We rarely spoke of politics or the news and never in meaningless loaded bludgeon words like inclusivity or diversity or multiculturalism; we talked about the coming tasks that day – the seventy-foot dead silver maple hanging over a swimming pool or roof or power lines, and how to get the damn thing safely on the ground without injury to property or persons, about chainsaws and handsaws, peaveys and winches, ropes and knots, solid high crotches in the tree to tie into, safe and central. We spoke of trucks, saws and chippers that broke down and trees that had almost killed us. We talked about wives and girlfriends and children and good looking waitresses and beer. In the trucks on the way to the morning’s job, we planned for and complained about the cold, the heat, the wind, the rain, the snow and ice. Sometimes we bemoaned the previous night’s disaster for Red Sox, Bruins or Patriots, or we celebrated a hard-won victory and the miraculous catch the center fielder made climbing the wall to save the game and how the bull pen finally closed out the late innings with no damage.

We spoke of real things, not in slogans, not cant and constructs, but in clear sentences to convey to one another our thoughts, hopes, fears, lives and plans.

“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” Kenyan proverb

The more experienced taught the new guys, and, of course, some mentors rode the rookies derisively for their lack of skills. But they watched out for them, nonetheless. Stopped them before they fell or cut themselves (or their ropes). The rough humor was constant. I remember getting into trouble about forty feet in the air with an ill-advised decision that left me dangling precariously. My foreman Bill yelled up that since Rita was such a beauty he and others on the crew would make sure to go over to console her if I couldn’t get myself out of the mess I was in.  Another day when I was coming down with my rope securely tied in, Bill lay in wait because I was coming down in an open area well clear of the trunk of the tree. He sprung from the bushes and grabbed my rope. With a quick expert roll, he wrapped my feet, preventing further descent. Then he spun me until I was horizontal and my mouth snapped open with centrifugal force.

The jokes were part of the training, training in skills, knowledge and teamwork. When the foreman issued an edict, debate was not considered. The seniors knew what they were about and taught as they had been taught, and their teachers before them. Bill was a gifted athlete and a savant climber, respected and liked. He taught neophyte climbers like me how to fall if necessary (he was a veteran of the 101st Army Airborne) and more importantly to avoid falling. Tension would build in the crew when truly unnerving challenges arose. Bill had a gift for defusing fear and self-focus; it was about the team, covering each other, keeping an eye out for each other’s safety, the ground men making sure the climber’s lines were never tangled in brush should he need to get out of harm’s way in a hurry. Lunch might include rock throwing or axe throwing contests, foot-lock climbing for height and time, arm wrestling or story telling of demented tree felling events in the histories of the more experienced.  The stories always had lessons.

Men have learned and worked together in such crews, each person with a necessary role in the team, since they hunted with spears and clubs. Worker’s guilds and medieval artist guilds evolved from those groups. The first universities were born of these patterns of order based on experience and talent; the teacher’s organization and the masons who constructed the buildings were so modeled. Men relate differently to and with each other in such crews than they relate to women or in mixed gender gatherings.  For those who have not experienced that brotherhood in crews, teams, the military, it cannot be fully understood.

“The anthropologist Lionel Tiger, in Men in Groups, earned the wrath of feminists when he suggested that men had been primed by the exigencies of the hunt to form hierarchically organized groups, with each man performing a particular task, all of coordinated in a team movement to bring down the mammoth or the wild boar. Some feminists countered by saying that women too had to form groups in order to locate and gather berries, which was a strange way of proving Tiger’s point. Berries do not run forty miles an hour. Berries do not have antlers, hooves or fangs.” From the section, “The Triumph of Brotherhood” in Dr. Anthony Esolen’s latest, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture”, which I highly recommend.

1 Comment

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Three Year Olds and Socratic Learning

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”  Lou Holtz

Angela and Meg 1988

Angela and Meg 1988

When our youngest daughter Meg was around four, we were walking around our old neighborhood in Providence. As we approached one house, we were accosted by a malodorous intrusion.  My first thoughts were ‘broken septic pipe’; my second was that all smells are particulate, which was not comforting. I realized that Meg was just trying to reconcile an unpleasant incident and her previous experiences with smells outdoors.  “Dad, is someone having a yucky cookout?” I read that the average four-year-old asks four hundred questions a day. I thought that was an exaggeration until we encountered Meg, a mischief always ready to throw something or run from a call home and always ready to ask a question, most of the time with five follow up questions. She outdid the most dogged of journalists.

Curious Mary

Curious Mary 2015

Our third granddaughter Mary may outdo her Aunty Meg with questions. She gauges the temperature in the room, especially when she thinks she may have crossed a line. “Are you mad?” “Are you sad?” “Are you happy?”  A couple of months ago, she wanted to clear up an issue of compelling interest to her at the moment. When she was instructed to stop picking her nose (which is a remarkably cute one), she immediately asked, “Can I pick the other one?” She needed to know if the prohibition was nostril specific – not an unnecessary clarification for a three-year-old. Curiosity is what leads us first to knowledge, then to understanding, and then perhaps with “know thyself” good fortune, wisdom – that most necessary of gifts.

The wisest teach with questions, many times not providing all the answers themselves, but leading each inquiring mind to seek the truth. Not to say that truth is solely subjective, but that finding elusive, objective truth is not for the weak of spirit or mind. Socrates taught with questions and reminded us that only by coming to grasp with our own ignorance do we scratch out the beginnings of wisdom. In the biblical history of Jesus of Nazareth, we observe that in all His recorded utterances, He answered directly only ten of the one hundred and eighty-seven questions He was asked. He related parables and stories. In those same scriptures He asked three hundred questions.

“Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.” Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

We have learned as a people and as individuals mostly by asking questions: the right questions. For those most difficult to understand questions, a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes, are necessary, and the illumination of history helps. This is most difficult, for to understand our history, wisdom is learning what the events of history were to those who lived them, not in the revisionist light of our own interpretation. The corollary is also dismayingly true. As contemporaries within our own defining events, we don’t know how they will turn out; what the outcome will be in a hundred years or twenty of this cultural phenomenon or this movement of our rulers or this election, we cannot know.  Our understanding while living within these events is indispensable, and the decisions we make elucidated by that understanding equally so, but we cannot know, definitively know. We can surmise based on what has happened to others in similar cultural changes, making analogous choices perhaps. While consequences are to some degree predictable, absolute certainty is not ours to have.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

So let’s ask a few:

  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that industrial capitalism and consumerism needs reform.
  • Is that needed reform to descend into revolution and chaos as the so-called Protestant Reformation did when the sixteenth century Church required reform from its excesses and faults? Is that reform to be clumsily centralized by a coercive government or localized to the town, the association, the parish, the congregation, the family and the person? Will we learn from the last century’s bloody experiments of “reform” of capitalism with fascist and communist usurpation?
  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that the hedonism and self-absorption of a culture cannot lead anyplace good.
  • Will we regain our footing and recover a culture that seeks happiness planted in the rich soil of wisdom rather than in dissociated pleasure, shallow rooted in ephemera and trifling entertainments and sexual license? Will our inclinations lead to further degradation of the dignity and individual worth of every human life? Will our lives tend towards despair or hope; fear and anger or persistence and courage; bitterness or joy; ignorance or faith; hatred or love; humility or the condemning certainty of the self-righteous? Will we spend our precious time in regrets about the past we cannot change or neglecting the present for the chimera of the future while today is all that we have?

 “As you get older, the questions come down to two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” David Bowie

The final questions I leave to those much wiser than I.  From Hilaire Belloc’s brilliant book, The Great Heresies, “But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: Why should we suffer? Why should we die?”

And from John Henry Newman: “On my deathbed, issues that agitate me most now will then interest me not at all; objects about which I have intense hope and fear now will then be nothing more than things that happen at the other end of the earth. They will have no life in them, those things that once consumed me. They will be as faded flowers of a bouquet that do nothing but mock me. What will it avail me to have been rich or great or fortunate or honored or influential?”

 Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found?
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?”
  Bob Dylan, “Slow Train”

7 Comments

Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Independence Day 2016

Father Nick Smith celebrated his seventy-five birthday last week. Although retired, he, like many a good priest of sharp mind, blessed with deep faith and good health, never really fully retires. Father Nick still celebrates Mass a couple of times each weekend and is listed in our parish bulletin at Saint Patrick Church on Smith Hill in Providence as Senior Priest. Educated originally in the city of his birth, Dublin, Ireland, he emigrated to the United States while still a young priest. Thoughtful, kind and with a smile that would calm the savage beast, we are blessed to know him. The gentle lilt of his native brogue in his homilies brings to mind the poetry of the Irish soul. His passion clear, his authenticity doubtless.

This morning’s Mass was no exception to his well-regarded homilies and earned him enthusiastic applause, which, as most know, is not the norm for Catholic Masses, although at St. Pat’s with Father Nick and our pastor Father James Ruggieri is not an infrequent occurrence. Both are extraordinary priests and homilists. For this Fourth of July, I asked Father Nick for a copy of his homily, and with his permission, share it with you as a guest blogger today for our celebration of this anniversary of our country’s birth as an independent nation, now nearing a quarter of a millennium. Warts and all.

 Independence Day, Father Nicholas Smith

Father NickIn recent years the famous Tall Ships have been in New England, including Newport, and I understand will visit Boston next year. It’s quite amazing the thousands who come out to see them: the parade, the pageantry, and the color of it all. And well they might.

The country was discovered by a man on a ship! The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on a ship! Many of us wouldn’t be here if someone back in our family tree hadn’t come to this country by ship.  Tall ships, small ships, passenger ships, cargo ships.  All in a very unique way remind us of who we are and from whence we’ve come.

Tomorrow is the 240th birthday of the founding of our nation. Independence Day is the commemoration of what those peoples sought when they landed on these shores long ago. The first boat people, sailing away from slavery, persecution, famine to a new world of justice and equality and peace. So we don’t celebrate the land at this time nearly as much as we salute a people who came and fought and in many cases died for the privilege of being free. That’s the gift of the Founding Fathers right there in the historic Bill of Rights! That we are all free – free to come and go – free to worship – free to vote for those we want to lead us, and vote out those we don’t.

But we remember—with some reverence even—we remember that this freedom is both delicate and dangerous. It doesn’t mean that you can do what you want. It has its limitations. And the fundamental restriction is, of course, that your freedom cannot infringe on the freedom of another.

As an immigrant myself, I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.

  • No one would want to live in an America where you can be mugged or robbed or shot.
  • No one would want to be a citizen here, and be at the mercy of the Ku Klux Klan or the hatred of the Nazi Party.
  • No would want to live in an area where you’re threatened simply because you happen to be of a particular color or race or creed.

These are sad realities.

  • We’re not free when people in some areas of cities have to put five locks on their doors for protection.
  • We’re not free to walk down the street at night.
  • We’re not free in so many ways.

Because America the Beautiful is also America the violent. The abuse of freedom—a warped sense of freedom—freedom gone wrong is rampant.

Nowhere is freedom more delicate than in the whole relationship of Church and State. They should be separate. We should be free to worship how and where we want. But when you get down to the individual person, you cannot split him up. You and I are both American Catholics. Not one or the other, but both.

So when the priest in the pulpit speaks out on the sacredness of life or against abortion for example, not only is he free to do so as an American, but it’s his duty and responsibility as an apostle of Jesus Christ. What we’re free to do is to accept God’s Laws or reject them. What we’re not free to do is to make them, or twist them around to suit our whims. Jesus gave us God’s Laws, and we are followers of Christ.

Rejection, incidentally, of Christ’s laws didn’t begin today or yesterday. It can be traced all the way back to scripture. “Come to me. Come after me,” is essentially what Jesus is saying in that beautiful gospel today. Clearly, a significant number didn’t then, and don’t now.

On this great weekend, however, we want to look at the positive! God knows we get enough of the other. So, if nothing more, recall the immortal words of President Kennedy, words which every American child should know like you know the Hail Mary. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

The only America we can pass on to the people of tomorrow is the one we create today and love today. If you’re not satisfied with it, stop sitting on the sidelines and complaining. Work at making it better—doing your bit to make it a country of high moral standards, a country of neighborliness and justice and charity. A country where the phrase “In God we trust” is more than just words on a coin.

So what are we celebrating today?

  • We’re celebrating the past—the people of the ships—your forefathers, who sacrificed not only that we could be, but that we could be free.
  • We celebrate the future—the hopes, the dreams, the ideals we have for our children—and theirs.
  • But also, and most important in my opinion, we celebrate the present—one another—because all we’ve got is one another.

Let’s pray in this Mass that we can grasp anew something of the great gift of freedom—and the responsibility that flows from that gift.

Let’s pray that God’s kingdom

  • A kingdom of love, not hate.
  • Of hope, not despair.
  • Of peace, and not war

That this kingdom of God may penetrate our very beings and sweep through this land from ‘sea to shining sea.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Background Perspective