Category Archives: Culture views

American Elm

“The elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about…” David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Recently we were walking in the historic section of Newport. In front of the Judicial Center near the Old State House or Old Colony House[i] on the east end of Washington Square we chanced upon a mature eighty-foot American Elm. Once common along so many New England town commons and main thoroughfares, they are now a rarity, especially one as large and old: a true wonder and gift to behold. The spread of the nearly vertical clean main leaders and branches draws the eye upward like few other species do. Like Chartres or Notre Dame, they lift the heart and spirit.

When I was first learning tree pruning crafts, elms were among the more challenging for neophyte nervous climbers. High unprotected foot-locking while gripping together two strands of climbing line to reach the lowest branches followed by some long, shin chafing, sweaty palmed scurrying up steep, sometimes slippery leaders made getting into one of these tall beauties uniquely difficult. But once tied into the sinewy, supple limbs in a secure upper central crotch, then balancing to reach outer limbs and swinging from limb to limb were exhilarating, unencumbered and fun.

The scourge of Dutch Elm Disease in the sixties and seventies all but wiped them out. American elms form natural root grafts, so once one magnificent individual was infected, the fungus could infect the arteries (xylem in this case) of every elm with overlapping root systems and lay waste to a whole street. Unlike many other species, elm trees are particularly vulnerable because they transport their water and nutrients only in one outermost annual ring. Once those fragile single layer vessels are clogged with fungi, the elm was usually doomed. As I matured in my tree climbing experience, so did the disease spread, and I spent many more days taking down and destroying these beautiful dead creatures than pruning live ones. A chainsaw is a poor instrument for fine pruning.  The elm bark beetle overwinters in dead elm trees under the bark and fungus spores are spread stuck to their bodies when the hatched mature beetles fly to bore into healthy trees in the spring to lay their eggs. A perfect symbiosis: the fungus needs live xylem; the beetle needs dead bark to protect its burrows and nests over the winter. The shared unlucky host is the dying elm tree. Cleaning up and getting rid of dead elm wood is one of the more effective preventatives in the losing battle against the disease, so we muscled them to the ground. To spot the yellow telltale flagging of wilting leaves on a tiny limb was a portent, dispiriting, like the long, meaningful, silent gaze of an oncologist when the biopsy results come back, preparing to deliver the bad news.

Segue: The English word “truth” derives from the Old English “triewth or treowth” meaning trustworthiness, constancy or faithfulness. Ultimately it is believed to have descended from the ancient Indo-European word for wood or tree, “the semantic link being the firmness or steadfastness of oaks and such trees.”[ii] As the elm tree is perfect, true, consistent and faithful to its purpose, so, too is objective truth. As the elm tree dies of its own vulnerability and a tiny spore, so too in post modern times does the concept and common value of “treowth.” Truth has devolved to whatever is necessary to achieve the ends of the definers.

“In our time political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims,” one turns to “long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The George Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays and Reportage (New York: Harcourt, 1984) originally published in 1948, 363

In 1948 to brilliant minds like Orwell’s, the future degradation of language was clear. No longer do news media, politicians or bureaucrats write the truth or even the facts as they understand them. Language is persuasive; symbolic acts are persuasive; film, music, political discourse, fiction and non-fiction are persuasive and always in service of the chosen narrative, the agenda. Whatsoever advances persuading others to strengthen the agenda is right. Right, objective right, what we ought to do to be true to the facts is secondary even accidental. Such adherence to fairness and objectivity is considered foolish, or worse, a betrayal. It does not even matter really if we convince others to change their minds, but we must stay safely in our concurring herd. To suffer rejection and mockery because we speak in criticism of the current accepted normality, no matter how abnormal, is our deepest fear. We speak and write and post bullet point posters to gain “Likes” from the likeminded.

The Kavanaugh circus is the latest episode. Someone’s lying, and it doesn’t matter so long as the agenda is promoted. That Senator Feinstein and her gang of bushwhackers held on to the letter from Dr. Ford with the uncorroborated accusations of sexual assault for over six weeks was part of the ambush. Grossly unfair to Justice Kavanaugh with the eleventh-hour sandbag job, and grossly unfair to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford because, while it riled up the likeminded in the media, filling all with self-righteous indignation, the surprise attack time frame left few prospects for proper investigation and vetting. Dr. Ford was left naked in the public square by her allies and the circling hyenas surrounding Kavanaugh, who were only interested in embarrassing the judge, undermining fair due process and stopping the nomination at any cost. Including awful cost to Dr. Ford: whether she is believed or not, her life is irretrievably changed. The truth, the true facts had nothing to do with the cauldron or the agenda.

 Then we had the box of coat hangers delivered to Senator Susan Collin’s office. So many lies in that box, it’s hard to sort them out, but the nearly unbearable pressure was clear. Vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh and soon will follow thousands of butchered and maimed women abandoned on bloody kitchen tables. That Kavanaugh would be one vote of an impossible to predict nine was not a consideration. Forty-five year’s weight of stare decisis since Roe v Wade was not a consideration. Should the extremely remote possibility of a reversal or a curtailment of the most liberal abortion ruling in the world occur, the law would revert for the states to establish in their various jurisdictions, and the great majority of the states allow abortion in almost all circumstances. Voters could vote. None of the facts mattered, only the emotional bludgeon.

Senator Collins stood strong against it all. A pro-choice Republican with the full onslaught of the abortion lobby storming her office, she stood strong. And she will be forever vilified for it, attacked politically in every way because she held that the facts did not support rejecting the nomination of a man with a thirty plus year history of brilliant jurisprudence and the support of every woman that he had mentored and advanced during his long career. Here is what she said: “Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence, and fairness do bear on my thinking, and I cannot abandon them. In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.”

Fair minded? Principled? Thoughtful? What we say we want in our leaders, but rarely support in practice? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Senator Collins supported both liberal Justices Kagan and Sotomayor. She voted to sustain the Affordable Care Act. She voted for the largest government stimulus in our history submitted by President Obama. But when she held to principles, fairness and thoughtfulness with Judge Kavanaugh, that is the unforgiveable sin to the pack that wants to run her down and tear her to pieces. Such is the fate of treowth tellers.

“And this is why the great American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor said that the truth will not only set you free, it will make you odd.” Charles J. Chaput (New York, Henry Holt, 2017, 110)

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Colony_House

[ii] John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: Arcade, 2011), 543

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Safe Sex

“Time Magazine and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of Popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.”  ‘Adam and Eve after the Pill, Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution,’ Mary Eberstadt, 2012

Quite a few years ago, because of our work with youth and engaged couples, we were asked to give a talk on sex to a group of high school age students. At one point during the talk, while Rita was starting to talk about HIV and the thirty or more sexually transmitted diseases ripping like a prairie fire through young and old alike, I was quietly off in the front corner of the classroom getting dressed.

 I put on surgical room booties, surgical scrubs, mask, goggles, cap, and I double gloved with latex. By the time I was fully garbed, of course, even though I hadn’t spoken a word, I had their full attention. I held up my other prop, a sad, deflated condom[i]. In their health classes in public high schools, much had been made of “safe sex:” condoms being stretched over bananas and other directives of socially acceptable orthodoxy regarding such things for teenagers. I said, “What I have on is what medical practitioners do to protect themselves from AIDS and HIV infections (along with hepatitis, gonorrhea, syphilis herpes and all the rest). Holding up the shriveled latex penis cover, I said, “And this is what they tell you is going to protect you.”   Let’s look at that a bit.

Theatrical, perhaps, but they weren’t hearing this anyplace else, so we may as well have made it memorable. I pulled out my other props: a basketball hoop with the net tied at the bottom with twine, a basketball, a two-gallon metal bucket and a package of BBs. We asked them what the failure rate was for adults within a given year for condoms to prevent pregnancy. The manufacturers will tell you 98%. The statisticians clarify. Yes, 98% if used perfectly every time, but in real life with real people, condoms, if used as the sole means of contraception, fail at a 15% rate within a year.  Do you think young people in the heat of the back seat or couch or beach blanket are going to be able to attain perfection?  More often or less often than 85%?

Next, I asked how many days a month can a girl achieve a pregnancy? The answer is two or less as her egg travels down the fallopian tube. Fertilized, the egg morphs almost instantly into a tiny, tiny human being with all the unique DNA information necessary for maturity. Next, the new minute human implants in the uterine lining, utterly transforms the young woman’s body into a perfect baby nurturing environment and begins the growth with which each one of us started. Basic embryology. Unfertilized, it is flushed out of her body in the normal cycle of menstruation. The male sperm lives for between twelve hours and at the outside seven days. Usually, it lasts less than five days. To be safe, let’s use the outside range of egg and sperm for a total of nine days. I then asked them how many days a month can a sexually transmitted disease transmit?  “All of them,” our bright students correctly answered. If imperfectly used condoms normally fail at a 15% rate to block a pregnancy, how will they hold up against STDs? Not an inconsequential question.

What happened to the basketball and the BBs? The last piece for them. I popped the basketball into the tied net, and we all watched it hang up, trapped. Finally, I put the tin bucket under the net and poured in the BBs. Clamorous metal noise commenced. I asked what is the ratio in size of a human sperm to a Human Immunodeficiency Virus? Are you ahead of me? Basketball to a BB is the answer.  How was that 15% looking now?  Is Russian Roulette with only one bullet in the cylinder safer than two?  We ended the science conversation by telling them that their best protection against pregnancies for which they were nowhere near ready to be responsible or against sexually transmitted disease, sometimes incurable, was not between their legs, but between their ears.

“She with whom I had lived so long was torn from my side as a hindrance to my forthcoming marriage. My heart which had held her very dear was broken and wounded and shed blood.” ‘Confessions, Book Six, Chapter Fifteen’ St. Augustine

After the science lesson, we discussed with them that sex had been both made too much of and trivialized in what they saw and heard everywhere in our oversexualized culture. Undoubtedly, sex is important to human closeness in men and woman relationships, but it is not the whole truth, or even the most important truth, about intimacy. In most of what they read and watch, sex is distorted, limited to a binary viewpoint- either fantasy graphic or fantasy romantic, utilitarian porn or Cinderella. What is the true end, the whole, the nature of, the ‘final cause,’ the purpose of sex? To strengthen the union between men and women in the most personal of ways? Yes.   Also, to develop new human life, form families, continue our species? Just so. A two-fold purpose deep in our nature, inextricably entwined.  Unitive and procreative. Who tells the young of this? What terrible responsibility do we shirk in not doing so?

The union of the sexual act is both profoundly real and profoundly symbolic.[ii] But it is only one aspect of the intimacy of man and woman. Total vulnerability and openness. Total gift of one to the other. Total trust and sharing of our dreams, hopes, fears and fragility. Total openness to new life, both within us and separate from us. Centered hopefully on vows of permanence one to the other necessary for family and optimum child rearing. Not quick hook ups: pneumatic encounters with quick fix orgasms to assuage our powerful drives or to prop up our drooping egos.  Each urgent event possibly short circuiting other less urgently compelling communication so necessary to our long term mental, psychological and spiritual health. Each casual or frenetic sexual encounter with underwear quickly discarded on the floor requires protection, but not condoms: soul protection, cauterizing nerves, connections, sealing off part of our self that will diminish our capacity to truly share ourselves with another person. Each ephemeral encounter first exposing, then hardening by necessity those aspects of our uniqueness and personality that are best healed and nurtured by vulnerability and by love. Love of the other for the other, not a selfish yearning for reciprocity out of bottomless need, but sacrificial and total. Love as deeply desiring the good of the other, for the other, not ourselves. In the light, not the darkness. Therein lies the power and the presence. Sexual intimacy rooted in this love is all in. Nothing held back. No barriers.

In the end ‘sex’ and ‘safe’ are alien to one another. Sex is not safe. It is not supposed to be.

“In the ‘Republic,’ the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly what was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with it a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.’” C.S Lewis quoting Plato in his “Abolition of Man” in the chapter “Men Without Chests.”

 

 

 

[i] Too many words needed to address the disconnectedness of condoms. They are a barrier method of contraception with all that implies. As cuddly, close and intimate as spooning with your beloved while wrapped in aluminum foil.

[ii] See Ephesians 5:31-33. Far beyond the scope or abilities of this blog post or blogger to investigate marriage as sign and symbol of God’s intimacy and love for His people.

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Transitions

Guest blog post – Rita Parquette

In the mid-seventies, I worked as an obstetrical nurse in the labor and delivery rooms of Augusta General Hospital in Maine. Post Roe v Wade, the transition was well underway from abortion as a rare medical necessity to save the life of the mother to common. We witnessed the practice grow from rare to wildfire – sixty million in the U.S. since those early days. The near religious fervor of the pro-abortion lobby seeking ever fewer constraints placed on killing their offspring, at first was a small minority, but well financed. They rode a wave of ironically named ‘liberation’ and ran over all compunctions and objections. Roe was the most liberal decision regarding abortion in the world at that time.  It allowed abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.

During that time, nurses were sometimes demeaned by a few doctors, but they held firm as they were able. One firm stand for many of us was abortion. We observed with justified concern the decreasing empathy and hardening treatment of both mothers and babies from those doctors who shared one characteristic in their practices: they added abortion provider to their resumes. The doctors plying the termination trade were having difficulty finding OR nurses to attend them in the Augusta General operating room in the basement; at one point the head nurse on the upper OB floor asked us to “help out our doctors.” We refused. Our job was healing and preserving, not deliberately taking life. This was not a religious decision, but a humanitarian one and conformed to the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

“Those eyes that had hardly opened to the light of the earthly sun forever and ever were closed to the light of the earthly sun…” From “God Speaks,” “Holy Innocents” Charles Peguy

One anecdote remains always vivid in my memory and haunts me to this day, nearly forty-five years later. On a typical busy evening, I was helping two young mothers in labor. We had moved on from the scopolamine doping of women to more humane and dignified obstetrical practices. My practice was to try and calm their fear, then guide them through controlled breathing and relaxation techniques.  One of my patients was only about sixteen weeks pregnant, and we had no neo-natal intensive care facilities in Augusta. Optimally we would attempt to arrest her sporadic and weak contractions. Standard practice was to start an IV. Hydration and improved electrolyte balance at times could stop premature labor, and the pregnancy could proceed to term. Not that night.

Dr. R, one of the more zealous of the pro-abortion OB/GYN practitioners, entered the labor room and spoke briefly to the young mother; I was busy with another patient and not privy to the conversation. He then strode over and instructed me curtly to put an ampule of Pitocin into the IV.  Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, which is a natural powerful hormone that induces more rapid and stronger contractions to intensify labor.  We were trying to retard labor or stop it to give the baby her best chance, so I was surprised, then aghast. I refused and told him that if he wanted Pitocin into that IV, he would have to do it himself! We used metal folding clipboards for medical charts. While I was busy standing at the nurse’s high station writing my own notes, he flung this patient’s metal chart about five feet, hard, and hit me on my left side in the ribs. I never saw it coming. Then he added the Pitocin into the IV. The labor intensified.  I was there for the mother and her baby.  I monitored the babies heart beat with a fetal stethoscope and told the mother I was getting a good heart beat and added that information to my notes.

Inevitably she was ready for delivery and wheeled into the delivery room. At this point, Dr. R’s friend, an anesthesiologist entered the scene.  We had many wonderful doctors at our hospital, but Dr. R and this particular anesthesiologist were not among them.   This anesthesiologist’s favorite way to summon a nurse was to whistle with two fingers in his mouth.  He put my patient deeply under, something rarely done because of risk to the newborn infant. The Pitocin accelerated labor, delivery ran its predictable course, and the unconscious mother delivered her tiny baby girl.  Dr. R dropped the baby into a stainless-steel basin nearby normally used to receive the placenta. He finished up quickly and left the delivery room before the mother awoke.

Immediately, a nursery nurse, whom I had already warned about the coming of this small baby, rescued the baby from her cold metal refuse bucket, wrapped and carried her to the newborn warming station where she suctioned her in a futile attempt to clear her breathing passages and stimulate breathing. She then rubbed and did her best to comfort this tiny girl. After over ten minutes without a breath, her heart ceased its beat.  The scene felt surreal to me; I was out of sync with the events and with the doctors – like a dream, a disturbing dream. I did not know what else I could do. Something like this had never happened to me or the other nurse.

Epilogue reflections:

When the mother woke from the anesthesia, I told her that her baby was born with a heartbeat but was unable to breath. Still somewhat drowsy, I tried to comfort her, but she seemed hard to reach.  I think she too might have felt like she was in a surreal world and not sure how she got there.  After her discharge, the mother called a mortician and a funeral was held.  The funeral home director received the doctor’s notes, my nurse’s notes and the notes of the nursery nurse who had done her best for the baby. Both doctors described the little girl as macerated, born dead, indeed they agreed she had been dead for a while. Both sets of nurse’s notes described her true condition. Since medical notes can wind up as legal documents, the funeral director notified the hospital administrator of the discrepancy and conflicting narratives. When the nursing supervisor for our shift came to me for an explanation, I assured her the nurse’s notes were the accurate ones and explained exactly what happened. She gave me a knowing look, and I never heard another word.

A couple of years later, when we had returned to the faith of our youth, I confessed this incident to our pastor, who remains a dear friend to this day. He suggested lovingly that in the circumstances I tried my best and that I needed to forgive myself. Father Joe further suggested that I should name the baby and pray for her mom and for all that had happened around that difficult night.  I named her Gabriella and do pray about this still. I hope to see her again some fine day and have a conversation.

A final related episode comes to mind. The equally troubled nursery room nurse had a discussion with an experienced and humane pediatrician the next day. She explained to him what had happened and asked if we had done the right thing in trying to save her and delivering all the professional care we could muster for that little girl. He smiled sadly and looked into her eyes. He assured her, “Where there is life, there is always hope.”

 “I AM says God, Master of the Three Virtues.  Faith is a faithful wife. Charity is an ardent mother. But Hope is a tiny girl.” “God Speaks, “Hope” Charles Peguy

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Diner

“Everyone is entitled to his own nostalgia.”  James Wolcott

We have long favored funky short order breakfast diners in small towns; eggs over easy with crisp bacon and superlative home fries, especially accompanied by a ‘never empty’ cup of better than average coffee with the good company of diner regulars is one of our favorite dates and has been for fifty years. Only a slightly overweight waitress with a quick, knowing smile could improve upon the experience, and often does. Not sure why. This may indicate a skewed character with some undefined deep flaw yet identified. But I’m comfortable with the risk.

Earlier this week we headed to pick up our completed tax returns at the office in Swansea, where they have been calculated for us for over twenty-five years. I was coming from a predawn visit to the gym followed by a semi-annual doctor’s checkup. No prior time for breakfast, so we stopped at a local diner we had not previously tried. Another guilty pleasure is checking out new diners. One stop is sufficient to rate the home fries and coffee; the rest of breakfast is hard to ruin. Whether we ever go a second time is almost entirely based on those two criteria. The parking lot was full of clearly local cars with only a couple less than five years old. A good sign.

The menu was on the chalk board and one simple sheet of paper encapsulated in plastic. Each item was unembellished with elaborate description. The specials included an omelet with a spicy Portuguese sausage. The odor was coffee, bacon with a faint overtone of old grease and a combination of worn wood and linoleum curled in the corners. White eight by eleven notices were pinned to a bulletin board and taped on some windows advertising local handyman services, school plays and an upcoming meeting at town hall regarding changing rules at the transfer and recycling station.

The waitress was just this side of indifferent, but wary and quick to our booth. Perfect. Most of the tables were occupied and almost every round red Naugahyde stool on a stainless-steel post at the counter had an ample behind on it, even a few plumber’s cracks. Knowing laughter at the counter with a well-known customer. Our waitress pretended shock, smiled lasciviously, and proclaimed for the room, “And you kiss your mutha with that mouth!” She was not crabbing over towards a safe space.  We were for the most part ignored by the regulars, but it was a benign neglect. Catch an eye and get a quick smile, but the furtive eye was not easily caught. Most were involved in conversation with two or three fellow diners, conversations that started twenty years ago with daily or weekly updates.

“I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” William F. Buckley

In my experience, the regular customers of a local diner are the same everywhere, just different in specifics. This week’s morning crowd was mostly north of sixty, more men than women, some seventies carry over long hair, a couple of beards and a few unshaven, but clean faced maybe a week or so ago. Although the place didn’t allow smoking inside, quite a few of the diners sported a pair of nicotine stained fingers and looked like they’d be more comfortable with a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray near their coffee mug.  Without taking a poll, I assume most did not have many letters after their signature. A half dozen or so looked well educated in their green youth, but their schooling was not at Brown or Rhode Island School of Design, more likely in the Mekong Delta or Khe Sanh.  Three or four of the tin ceiling panels had been replaced with posters honoring diners who no longer could eat breakfast there, grease dimmed posters with names, ranks, nicknames like Doc and Gunny, medals, military outfits and mottos. One customer sat by himself wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and a thousand-yard stare, drinking coffee, but had no breakfast on the counter.

The most recent candidate of the people famously classified the diner’s good folks as deplorables, and the remark may have cost her the presidency.  Their hands are calloused, and their backs stooped a bit with wear and tear. They believe in a functioning border, but for the most part lack xenophobia; working hard was valued, not working was not.  Marriage and family, even though some failed at it, was assumed to be the basic unit of a well-ordered society, and marriage is between one man and one woman with children the natural expectation and responsibility.  Almost universally, they knew something vital was bleeding out in a culture they wanted desperately to preserve. Maybe it couldn’t be well articulated, but they would vote to try to stem the loss. I prefer their company to the sophisticated most of the time.

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”  Harper Lee

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Winter Views

“Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.”  Cardinal John Henry Newman

As each year closes, we find ourselves retrospective, along with everyone else. Newspapers, magazines, and television are awash with ‘best of’ and ‘top ten’ lists of everything from sports events and politics to movies and songs. Even Pandora sent me a list of what I liked last year and how much and to what I listened. A little spooky – like the intrusive proliferation of ads for products or events peripherally related to what I mouse clicked on a Google search or liked on a Facebook post.

This year end I ponder what has happened to once perfectly useful words. Remember “diversity,” which once implied a dialogue of different ideas with civil discourse, point and counterpoint, reasoned debate? Now the word is withered and alludes to a loose tolerance (there’s another shrunken word) of sexual proclivities and racial or ethnic make-up. Even of changing our gender, as if the XY or XX chromosomes embedded in every cell could be expunged with mutilative surgery, ill-advised hormone shots and a change in wardrobe. Such miscreant, truncated tolerance undoubtedly fails to embrace the dissidents who choose to not bake wedding cakes or to not provide chemicals to kill our offspring. They are hammered flat on the anvil of ‘progressive’ law. But I digress.

Another pernicious word that has been transformed to our great harm is “values.” We must form our lives around our values, live our values, expound on our values, etc. Of course, values are malleable, just as we once variably valued our possessions, our pets, our Bitcoins, our portfolio; they change and are negotiable, subjective and subject to the market. We rummage around and indifferently agree on a value, so that the easy or the trendy prevails. Or what tickles our erogenous zones and assuages our guilt (another perfectly good word ruined by consignment to mere neurosis). We are “distracted from distraction by distractions.”[i]

Whatever happened to “principles?” Principles are drilled into bedrock, in objective truth, and it is that objective truth which became suspect. Your principle is my punchline; who’s to say? Four hundred generations of human wisdom has been found wanting. Principles abandoned, replaced by tepid, washed out ‘values’: timid, reticent replacements. ‘Truth’ replaced by “I’m OK, You’re OK.” ‘Good’ replaced by ‘nice.’ ‘Freedom’ replaced by ‘license.’ ‘Virtue’ replaced by vague platitude.

“(A republic) is only to be supported by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private (virtue), and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” John Adams

“And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”  Farewell Address, George Washington

 Without exception the Founding Fathers of our country knew that a virtuous people with a common bond of shared morality were necessary for this most messy form of self-government. The breakdown of a shared base of Judeo Christian morality and a communal language of stable principles is a great danger to our country. David French wrote a thoughtful, year-end article in National Review.[ii] It begins, “If I had to pick one of the most under-appreciated and under-reported stories of 2017, it would be that a post-Christian America is a more vicious America, and that the triumph of secularists is rendering America more polarized, not less. Remove from the public square biblical admonitions such as “love your enemies” and the hatred has more room to grow. When the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — wither, then the culture is far more coarse.”  Is there any dispute that our public argument has become more polarized, less reasoned and more vitriolic? Are we yelling more epithets at each other and at our political adversaries with bumper sticker, vulgar, repetitive talking points parroted from one website to another? Are we debating the issues or lazily calling each other morons, pond-scum, or far worse? Are we listening to anyone other than our fellow true believers?

When discussion is stifled, shouted down with curses and condemnation, and when dissent from the current orthodoxy of “diversity” and “tolerance” is threatened not just by intelligent counterpoint, but by lawsuit, the law itself or violence, can despotism be far behind?  Does the loudest impassioned scream settle the debate?

We saw in the late, unlamented twentieth century, the most murderous in human history by far, the natural consequences of tyranny that chose atheism, arrogance and division over peace with mutual respect for the dignity of human beings.  Like a grotesque planetary natural experiment, it recurred so many horrific times in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Communist China, North Korea, Cuba and Cambodia and the endless “people’s” revolutions of Africa and South America. Power overwhelmed, and the innocent died.

If we lack even a common language with agreed upon terms, how do we talk about anything? If truth is defined as subjective and amorphous rather than as objective and solid, where do we begin? Is objective moral truth an illusory myth, or is moral law an element of nature like gravity with necessary and inevitable consequences for disregarding it?

To digress briefly once again, one of the fascinating stories of 2017 was a verification of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. The most dramatic instance in 2017 was confirmed with what the scientists define as “multi messenger astronomy”: an event detectable and verified across many studies like gravitational waves confirmed with concurrent or nearly concurrent gamma ray, X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio waves logged in multiple observatories.

Such was the case with the first ever detection of the merging of binary neutron stars, another proof of Einstein’s predictions. In a galaxy far, far away (130 million light years give or take a few billion miles), two massive dead stars orbited each other for ten thousand centuries or more, growing ever closer as gravity inexorably, infinitely slowly, drew them together. As they approached their finish as a binary system, the dense, lightless stars whirled ever more rapidly about each other, quickening to many hundreds of orbital revolutions a second.  When ultimately, they collided and merged in seconds, astonishing amounts of energy, including gravitational waves escaped. This cataclysm occurred millions of years before any human being looked to the skies, but when the waves caught up to us, like time travelers, in August of 2017, we saw and heard.[iii]

Whether we will it so or wish it so, gravitational waves have their way with us. They wash over us. They and gravity’s repercussions exist whether we believe them to be true or not. Can you feel the waves?  Can you feel them?

  “Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.”  Bob Dylan

[i] From T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot:

Neither plenitude nor vacancy.  Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before time and after.

[ii] “Can America Survive as a Post-Christian Nation?” David French, National Review, December 2017

[iii] “When Neutron Stars Collide,” Govert Shilling, Sky and Telescope Magazine, February 2018

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Ironies

“It is innocence that is born and experience that dies.

It is innocence that knows and experience that

does not know.

It is the child who is full and the man who is empty.”

From “Innocence and Experience” in “God Speaks,” Charles Péguy

 

“That’s not fair!” screams the fuming child. And sometimes they’re right. An outraged young child is quick to spot hypocrisy and irony, and it is the adult who points out in our maturity how sometimes it is necessary to tolerate a bit of it, to comprehend the subtlety, to live with the accepted cruelty and how life isn’t always fair. And sometimes we’re right. And sometimes we’re rationalizing the irrational.

Several stories and threads have prompted a “that’s not fair!” reaction from me, and perhaps the adult in me must learn to adjust my expectations of justice and accommodate the irony of that adjustment. Comes with maturity and experience, I’m sure.

Cecile Richards, the million-dollar compensated president of Planned Parenthood, complained, “I’m infuriated. “I’m heartbroken,” when describing her reaction to President Trump’s decision to put immigration reform back where it should be with Congress by reversing the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive actions of President Obama. Let me state up front, I have great sympathy for the plight of immigrants and Dreamers, and profoundly hope for a just and compassionate permanent resolution and have written to my representatives and senators in support of a solution. But to get back to Ms. Richards, she continued, “Here at Planned Parenthood, we firmly believe that every person has the right to live….” Huh? Her organization profits greatly by taking the lives of over 320,000 pre-born humans each year, presumably with their own “right to live.” Irony doesn’t seem to quite cover it.

In a somewhat related irony, the New York Times, among others, made it a campaign to excoriate and ruin David Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress. If you can remember and stomach the videos, the CMP published on line a series of exposé videos of Planned Parenthood showing PP executives bargaining for better prices to sell baby parts and laughing over cocktails about some of the amusing incidents that occur when they diligently apply their skills to crush skulls to save hearts, livers and lungs or crush hearts, livers and lungs to save intact skulls and brains to maximize the profits. At the same time, the NYT’s ran a whole series based on undercover videos about the gratuitous cruelty of Big Farming slaughterhouse practices. Perhaps the quote of Ingrid Newkirk (founder of PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” should at least infer that the boy might have the same rights as the rat, dog and pig, but I suppose that asks too much. Great article on this by Mary Eberstadt of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “Why Animal Lovers Should Abhor Planned Parenthood.”

 “Truth is too simple for us: we do not like those who unmask our illusions.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Occasionally public figures inexplicably give us an unexpected glimpse into their inmost thoughts. Such was the case in 2009 when in an interview with Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said this about the archetype judicial activism decision, Roe v Wade, in 1973, “Frankly I thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” Ah, so it is revealed. Margaret Sanger, the founder of the country’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, made no secret of her eugenics agenda and her disdain for the poor, the immigrant, the minority who so heedlessly breed children. [i] Apparently, Ms. Sanger’s intellectual offspring have retained her biases and her program.

“Not so!” you protest. “Current practitioners of the craft of baby dismembering are not eugenicist and racist!” Just so. Since over 78% of Planned Parenthood clinics are within walking distances of minority neighborhoods, and over thirty percent of abortions are perpetrated on the eleven percent of the population that is black, one must reflect if Sanger’s successors are just more adept in hiding the motivation behind their campaign.

The intensity and animosity between the ideologically estranged seems to deepen by the week.  “Repugnant Cultural Others” are group defined, self-defined. We use them as a mechanism in our human predisposition for what Cass Susstein named “global polarization” in 1998, that tendency to become increasingly radicalized in our opinions and proposed remedies as well as self-limiting our choices for conversation and reasoned discourse. Circumscribing our lives by drawing an inclusion/exclusion circle by meticulously defining our RCOs and taking great care to leave them out in the cold.

So those opposed to (or who favor) gun control (or abortion or for quelling global warming) talk only to each other, become more convinced of the righteousness of their position and move more radically towards the poles pushing for drastic action.[ii]   Since the kindling of the social media wildfire, this phenomenon has exponentially intensified. Only a few minutes reading posts about opinions with which the posting disagrees proves the point, using terms like “moron” or “hopeless idiot” or “evil” or expletive deleted. Tallying “Likes” has replaced moral debate.

Subsequent generations also seem to worsen incrementally. Sometimes the apple falls from the tree and rolls way down the hill. Such seemed the case with a previous Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., son of the esteemed poet and professor of the same name. Justice Ginsburg was not the first Supreme to promote a draconian solution for those troubling other human beings who were not worthy of breathing the same rarified air as the self-satisfied elites. Justice Holmes advocated publicly for “sterilizing idiots.” Since his father, I expect, never imagined a society in which he would live that would contemplate such things, there is one final irony for today, and not a comforting one.

“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

[i] See prior post, Maggie, Part Two

[ii] See “The Law of Global Polarization,” Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago Law School, John M Olin Law and Economics Working Paper No. 91 12/7/1999 Available free on line: http://www.law.uchicago.edu/Publications/Working/Index.html

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Beer Cans, Sandwich Wrappers and Other Flotsam

“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.”  The Brothers Karamazov,  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sunset from Dummer’s Beach campground, Webb Lake

When our son Gabe was seven or eight, we were driving back from Portland to our home in Farmington, Maine. At some point on Route 202 near Winthrop, he rid himself of a pesky bit of trash out the open back window of our Ford. In Maine, then as now, littering is a hanging offense, and a state trooper spotted the infraction and did a quick U turn behind us. A mile or so down the road, he pulled us over.  He politely asked if I knew what we had perpetrated, and I pleaded ignorance. He instructed me on the serious nature of our offense. Gabe in our backseat looked like a puppy who just ate the stew meat off the kitchen table.

I asked the trooper, who understood exactly what had happened, if Gabe would have to go to prison or just work off his fine in home confinement until he was twenty-one. We negotiated a just settlement, and the trooper took me at my word we would reverse course, find the offending litter and retrieve it, which we promptly did with no Maine State Police vehicle following us. Gabriel learned from his experience, and it was many years before he had to spend a night in jail.

We’ve noticed on our bike rides here in Maine that roadside litter is much rarer than in Rhode Island, where it is a plague – an occasional yahoo beer can on these rural roads in Maine, but if we see three in a mile, it is unusual. In Rhode Island, just past the welcome to beautiful Rhode Island signs, the mess begins along the road, even on the beaches after hours. I’ve often wondered what combination of neglectful parenting, ignorance and arrogance prompts passersby to believe it is someone else’s job to clean up after them.

I think the lack of jeopardy may account for some of it in Rhode Island-I’ve never seen littering laws enforced; and in Maine residents and visitors alike harbor a respect, almost a reverence, for the beauty around nearly every turn.

“Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old, ever new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.”  Confessions of St. Augustine [i]

 As we stood silently for long minutes watching the sunset just to the south of Tumbledown across Webb Lake, I was struck anew with the gratuitous beauty of sun, clouds, mountains and water. Why was nature made beautiful instead of pallid and enervating? Why are human beings such that their senses and spirits perceive the beauty? What grace and gift is at work here? The same grace and gift moves artists of music, form and hue to create as best we can a reflected beauty. And, most importantly, what Truth is to be found congruent with the Beauty?

When we fail to ask such questions, when we persist without respite in the endless business of commerce and noise, amusements and entertainments precisely to avoid asking such questions, we dodge not just blundering through some sophomoric speculations, but hazard missing why we are on this big blue beautiful ball hurtling at unimaginable speed around the galaxy and through the void: we risk missing the entire point. We fail to pay attention to the jeopardy of forgetting our teleology, the end for which we exist as separate from the other creatures on this fragile planet, and perhaps from the other creatures (if there are any) in this universe.

In an Associated Press syndicated technology article this week in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the latest “big leap” in Apple technology was lauded. “Augmented reality” (AR) will be rolled out in the next iteration of software for iPads and iPhones with built in capability for entrepreneurial “killer apps” to layer on enhancement to our staid, just plain old reality. Related to virtual reality, it will feature the ability, like the washed-up “Pokemon Go” phenomenon, to allow us to visualize in our surroundings magical apparitions that aren’t there. Millions will be able to spend billions of their finite, irreplaceable hours distracting themselves with these wonderful apparitions because, apparently, we don’t have enough distraction already. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are frantically working to roll out their own AR versions. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, hailed AR as “profound technology.” Indeed. “I am so excited about it, I just want to yell and scream!” exclaimed Mr. Cook.  Exactly so, I say; I have a similar urge. [ii]

I would make a modest proposal to Mr. Cook and to you, dear reader. Perhaps we could better spend a little time undistracted, unentertained, without a screen, with some unaugmented reality. And in that quiet without noise and interruption, without beer cans and roadside trash, ask ourselves some questions. I would suggest that a sunset over Webb Lake, looking towards Mount Blue and Tumbledown might be a good place to start.

“We’re all haunted by (death) in one way or another. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to push away, you just get a cappuccino. But, yes, you’re haunted by it in a different way (as you get older).  I feel its presence. I feel it in my sleep, in dreams, in waking.” Sam Shepard, who died this week at 73.

 

[i] Quotes from Dostoevsky and Augustine were cited in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia. In writing about these things, Archbishop Chaput quotes some lines from “Evening,” a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke and continues with his own comments:

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you

one sinking and one rising toward the stars.

 

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the

night.

 

To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping

all,

is changed in you by turns to stone and

stars.

 Philosophers and psychologists have offered many different theories about the nature of the human person. But few have captured the human condition better than Rilke does in those twelve lines. We are creatures made for heaven, but we are born of this earth. We love the beauty of this world, but we sense that there’s something more behind that beauty. Our longing for that “something” pulls us outside of ourselves.

 [ii] Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy, TEXx talk, Adam Alter

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Pastoral Pools and Quiet Eddies

“In any man who dies there dies with him, his first snow and kiss and fight. Not people die, but worlds die in them.” Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I noted last month with passing sadness the passing of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He died in Tulsa, having taught there and in New York City for many years. His was the first volume of poetry I can recall buying, before Yeats or Eliot or Robert Frost, I read Yevtushenko. The 1962 paperback sits somewhere among many other books in a box in our basement. Yevtushenko was never a full blown Russian dissident like Solzhenitsyn, but he contributed to the awakening of Soviet Union freedom in the sixties. Babi Yar was his breakout poem[i], and it described the Nazi murders of 34,000 Jews in a ravine outside of Kiev that foretold of millions more. Written as a protest of the Soviet Union’s pogroms and history of antisemitism, and its refusal to erect a monument to those who died at Babi Yar, Yevtushenko cried out an appeal to the Russian conscience:

 

 

-“They come!”

-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”

-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

  Yevtushenko is forever linked to Dmitri Shostakovich, censored by Joseph Stalin, whose Thirteenth Symphony is entitled Babi Yar after Yevtushenko’s poem, which is recited with other Yevtushenko poems during the performance. The most well-known recorded performance of which in America was with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony with Sir Anthony Hopkins reading the narrative. All of this started me thinking about some recent reading and the decline of poetry, which is little read today even in universities and is increasingly the province of an esoteric small community and obscure journals. And rhyme is infrequently employed, nor has it been in many years.

“Simple human beings like rhyme better than prose, though both may say the same thing, as they like a curved line better than a straight one, or blue better than grey; but, apart from the sensual appetite, they chose rhyme in creating their literature for the practical reason that they remembered it better than prose. Men had to carry their libraries in their heads.” Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams

The marginalizing of poetry has a price. Permit me an inept analogy and story. Dick Leary was the Information Technology Manager for my first lumber company before we called such a person an IT Manager; Dick was the computer guy. We had seventeen locations and seven hundred employees and ran what was a precursor to the cloud – dumb terminals at a hundred work stations all logged into a one lung old remote Sperry mainframe, Unix based with green screens and menus. Dick was a true eccentric and an aficionado of craft beers a few decades before that became fashionable. He lived near Meredith in the lakes country of New Hampshire. The Sperry lived upstairs in the offices at our Meredith store.

Over a beer or two, Dick would bemoan the coming of Windows, GUIs and related technological advancements. He was a lover of concise code back before the rapid growth of storage enabled programmers to ply their craft almost without regard to memory limitation.  He thought that this profligacy lacked imagination and the genius of the early code writers, when every byte was carefully planned – a wasteful proliferation of dead code layered upon dead code like vestigial organs. Dick was admittedly obsessed with what he perceived as a degradation of brevity and elegance, a distinction that escaped the rest of us.

“Again, and again we are told by all sorts of priggish and progressive persons, that mankind cannot go back. The answer is that if mankind cannot go back, it cannot go anywhere. Every important change in history has been founded on something historic: and if the world had not again and again tried to renew its youth, it would have been dead long ago.”  G.K. Chesterton from his book on Robert Lewis Stevenson

The analogy to computer programming breaks down as all analogies do at some point, however, at the risk of seeming a cranky eccentric, the underlying point of Dick’s complaint is more than mere nostalgia and resistance to change. And neglecting history and the wisdom of centuries has more import and impact than forgetting FORTRAN and COBOL.

Our poems and songs were necessary to human memory of who we are for ten thousand years or more. They enabled us to learn and grow. Technology for information storage started slowly with the Guttenberg press, advancing to linotype and typewriters, which was the state of the art when I was in high school reading Yevtushenko sitting on the floor of a bookstore, not so long ago in history really. Currently with the development of nanotechnology and the “internet of things,” the sum of accumulated human knowledge, much of it layered on like Dick’s superfluous programmer’s code, doubles every twelve months, and is projected to double every twelve hours.[ii] Take a deep breath and think about that: the sum of all human knowledge that took us twenty thousand years to accumulate will double every twelve hours. How much of that data is useful or edifying or gifts us with wisdom, counsel, truth and beauty is a matter of concern and doubt, but the volume is imposing.

Trying to “drink from a firehose” has become a favored cliché of news commentators. In the last twelve hours, it has become woefully inadequate. Perhaps the appropriate metaphor is more like trying to drink from the uncontrollable rapids of a flooding river.[iii] Caution must be taken by every person to drink from pastoral pools and quiet eddies: to seek quiet, to think and read what is truly worth our increasingly finite time. Elegance and brevity and the carefully chosen word needs to be honored and preserved in mind and soul or we endanger some of what makes us human, washed away in the deluge.

“A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly it is a thing of love.” St Augustine

[i] http://remember.org/witness/babiyar

 

[ii] http://www.industrytap.com/knowledge-doubling-every-12-months-soon-to-be-every-12-hours/3950

 

[iii] The irony of writing this on my laptop in one of perhaps  millions of blogs is not lost on me.

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Sticky Butt

Sticky Butt[i]

“I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.” E.B. White

I killed one of the new chicks  a couple of  weeks ago because I didn’t know enough about ‘sticky butt.’ Thinking the intimate task of vent cleaning could be procrastinated and hoping it would take care of itself I neglected basic chick care. Not understanding that something malevolent was backing up, we discovered our ignorance when early one morning our still fuzzy golden Orpington was lying on her side unmoving with hazed eyes, and the other chicks were unmindfully stepping on her having tired of pecking her.

In Maine, we kept laying hens, but they were given to us when they were about six months old by a friend who was moving to Alabama. By six months they are laying eggs every day and the deadly sticky butt is no longer a threat. As we have learned since, hens caring for their chicks keep them warm, show them where the food and water are and clean their little butts. Humans must learn this expertise along with many other forgotten skills necessary to take care of our egg providers.

“The most solid piece of scientific truth I know of is that we are profoundly ignorant of nature. “  Dr. Lewis Thomas [ii]

Rita’s grandparents were first generation immigrants during the Great Depression before the welfare state. Egg laying chickens and broilers were kept along with an annual pig and a large vegetable garden. They knew how to slaughter and dress them, how to make sausage, render the fat and store hams and bacon, preserve meat, can vegetables, and all the intricacies of soil, sun, bugs, composting and keeping the soil sweet where it’s needed and acidic where tomatoes grow. Egg shells for calcium to keep the tomatoes from rotting as they ripen: so many skills and such deep knowledge of the earth and self-provision. Skills and knowledge, we do not have.

Our immediate forebears knew how to hunt, how to field dress, take home, prepare and cook game. They knew where to find tasty edible mushrooms that won’t poison us, what sort of ground hosts wild blueberries, where the black raspberries could be picked. How to repair almost anything in their house was second nature—from basic carpentry, plumbing and electrical to finding, cutting and splitting the wood for their stoves. The relationship of tides to harvesting the plenty of the water, what blooms when, the differences in using and identifying oak from maple and walnut. How an apple tree is pruned and when, a pear tree, a cherry. How to plant gardens and a wide variety of trees, flowering and fruit bearing shrubs. How to grow grapes and make wine. How to put in a good fence or a rock wall. What do we do when the shovel hits a rock or a root or solid ledge? When do we till the soil and how do we put it to bed in the fall to prepare it for the next spring?

Mostly through work experience and home gardens, I have learned quite a bit about some of these things and some about all of them, however, my acquaintance with them is full of gaps, and I had little hands on learning curve around the house when I was young. I was above average mostly at mowing the lawn. Felling trees, heating a house with a woodstove, framing and finishing a house, gardening, raising chickens and fixing a variety of tools and household problems came later with some expensive on the job training. As a friend of mine who managed skills and knowledge teaching for a large corporation once told me: we pay for a training program whether we have one or not.  From what I’ve seen, most Americans, especially the majority who are urban dwellers are similarly disadvantaged.

Most troubling is not the lack of basic survival skills that were familiar and natural to our most recent ancestors and almost all of those before them, but the distancing of ourselves from natural things. We have made incoherent efforts to further distance our children, whose experience of nature is even more bound up in a high definition screen, and a lot of the time transfixed and passive in front of that screen is burnt up with distraction, games, pop culture and worse.

The remedies are simple and difficult: shut it off, learn to lie on the ground and look up at the sky again, to feel dirt, vegetation, rocks and roots under our feet. Reacquaint ourselves with sweat, sun, weather pleasant and adverse, sore muscles not made so in a gym with loud music and large screen TVs. Reacquaint ourselves and our children with the constellations and planets in the night sky someplace with no ambient light from sources having any connection to an electric power plant – just illumination with light that has been journeying toward us for a billion years. Fill our spirits and imagination with real things created by divine Imagination, not disjointed visions written by strangers in bytes, zeros and ones.  Our minds were designed to seek and know natural wonders, beauty and truth. Find them.

“Statistically, the probability of any of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”[iii]  Dr. Lewis Thomas

[i] As named at the Agway store where we bought the chicks. In the chicken whisperer book the condition is called “pasty butt.” Whatever its name, it cannot be taken lightly when one is responsible for the care of chicks. Probably not all that good for people either, should the symptoms present themselves.

[ii] Lewis Thomas, physician, essayist, poet and more was a profound influence on many, including me. His elegantly written books “Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher” and The Snail and The Medusa: More Notes of a Biology Watcher” taught me many things when I was young that have not been forgotten.

[iii] It has been calculated that the probability of human existence is statistically practically null, ten to an exponential power with 183 zeroes after it. If the temperature of the universe in the first seconds after the Big Bang varied by a millionth of a degree in either direction, no carbon would have ever been formed. Similar limits exist for the formation of free water molecules. No carbon, no water, no evolution, no life. Odds of say, the city of Rome or Chicago suddenly dropping from the sky full born ex nihilo are less. If this “anthropic principle” does not indicate design to us and hence the presence of a Designer, there is a willful blindness, a credulousness based on contorting perceptions of reality to fit locked down preconceptions, at least so it seems to this slogging blogger.

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Alternate Facts

Alternate Facts

“The lowest form of popular culture—lack of information, misinformation, disinformation and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism.” Carl Bernstein

newspapersPaul was an officious stiff, unattractively convinced of his own self-importance, as lawyers can be sometimes, but I did feel guilty when his wife, whom I had never met, cried over the phone when she tried to make me understand that he was just trying to do the right thing for the town and how could I write such awful things about her husband?  Didn’t realize a guy like that might have someone who loved him. So maybe I didn’t have the stomach for it after all.

The night before, working as a stringer for a daily paper, was typical. Attend a local planning board meeting; take copious notes in my official reporter’s pocket notebook, secure in the back of the hearing room as a cocky upstart of the fourth estate.  Run back to my 1956 Chevy pickup and drive to the newsroom office and join four or five others beating a midnight deadline for the morning paper. Bad coffee out of the machine with chemical cream, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray and banging away with two fingers, we raced to keep it short with few adjectives, none of them purple, and long on finding some sort of headline to draw the reader’s interest and the advertiser’s money. Controversy was desirable, if not mandatory[i]. Though in high school and college I had gained typing proficiency with all hands-on-deck, in the newsroom only women reporters exhibited those skills. The guys eschewed full fingered participation, so I quickly revised my technique and picked up speed on the old shared typewriter using twenty percent of the digits available to me. Macho vanity has few limits. Editing was red lined, then cut and pasted with actual paste and scissors, sentence by sentence and paragraph on the final copy submitted to the typesetters.

I forget the details, something about a set-back requirement for an addition that was being infringed by a foot or two, and the board, led by Paul, barring a zoning appeals board effort, was about to cost the homeowner a large amount of money. I turned up what I saw as a conflict of interest from a previous kerfuffle between Paul, in his law practice, and the homeowner, while rummaging through the files at the newsroom doing a quick background search on old stories (real paper files way before Google or Lexis Nexis were even imagined, much less verbs). Throwing that perhaps unrelated story into the second paragraph, heedless of what effect the unproven connectedness of the two issues might have on the parties involved, I submitted the story, pleased the local news editor and went home. I had, after all, called Paul’s house for a comment, but for some reason they didn’t answer their phone at ten thirty.

I had established early on that to please an editor with his brutal red pencil, one had to write cleanly, try to get the facts straight, but be careful about which facts were included and which ones were avoided, especially if they conflicted with the editor’s ideology or preferences about local personalities. I was a fast learner. After a year or so, I understood I truly didn’t have the stomach for it and needed a real job for my small family.

“When I started working for Rolling Stone, I became very interested in journalism and thought maybe that’s what I was doing, but it wasn’t true. What became important was to have a point of view.” Annie Leibovitz

Recent polls have public confidence in news media at an all-time low. About fourteen percent of the population believes that they can believe what is in the papers or on the screen. I grew up thinking that although the New York Times and Boston Globe and CBS might have a leftward bias in their editorials, they strove to get it right in their news coverage. The “Gray Lady” wouldn’t tip the scales in their reporting of events, of facts, of actual happenings, right? Look at all those Pulitzers. As it turns out, I was wrong then, which was verified in my brief dalliance with the business, and now the public has such deep skepticism, we have no bulwark against propaganda, no filter for what is true and what is a campaign. Then we had at least the comfort of journalists being circumspect, but subtlety is no longer a veil that is even pretended: not even a pretense of objectivity nor an apology for the vacuum. The gloves are off, and no one has faith in anyone’s facts.

To our great detriment, the media feeds on disinformation and distrust, which in turn fans the flames of divisiveness and anger. Where do we turn? Whom do we believe?  Who do you trust? (With apologies to grammarian readers). Facebook rants and 140-character flatulence fills the void.

“Journalism, as concerns collecting information, differs little if at all from intelligence work. In my judgment, a journalist’s job is very interesting.”  Vladimir Putin [ii]

                                                                                       –30–

[i] The pressure on periodicals, newspapers and electronic media to attract readership and viewers has only  gotten more intense with a life and death struggle with social media competition for advertising dollars. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/the-mark-zuckerberg-manifesto-is-a-blueprint-for-destroying-journalism/517113/

[ii] [ii] Ask Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov how interesting Putin thinks journalism is. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/01/29/kremlin-inc

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