We’ve Hit Peak Stuff

“If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff … peak home furnishings,” Steve Howard [IKEA’s Head of Sustainability] said…

The Guardian

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Tragedy Strikes the Rutherford Atom

Sometimes, a memory will hit you and then all sorts of things shake out.

First. I recently stopped using Facebook. Except to read Bloom County 2015 (now 2016). I just got overloaded with all of the politics. So. But I wanted to stay in touch, so I found an application that would let me read Facebook Messenger stuff—which means I have a direct line to many old friends, I just don’t have to listen to them bloviate.

So far, so good.

So. Yesterday, I got a friend request. It took me a few moments to grok who the person was, and then a huge flood of memories came back.

L was a guy I knew back in an electronics class in high school. In fact, as far as I know, that was the only class I had with L in all the years I attended school. He was a bit of a telephone hacker, a bit of a braggart. And he was my arch nemesis.

That last status applies to L because, back when I was in junior high school (yes, I am that old), there was this one girl, R. I had the most massive crush on R. She and I were in quite a few classes together. We wore the same kind of round wire-frame “granny” glasses popular in the early ‘70s. On a school trip to the Guthrie Theater we sat next to each other. Of course, junior high was, at least in those days, too young to date, but I made serious plans for high school. I would woo R, and we would be happy, and—well, honestly, I had no idea beyond that at the time (I was a slow learner).

So, anyway. High school came around and at some point during the summer, L had become R’s permanent boyfriend. She had shed her glasses and studious ways (the ones I had assumed she had), for contacts and fun. Her formerly straight hair was now something entirely different and she was wearing colorful clothes. She had bloomed.

I do not know how, I do not know why, she got together with L. I had never made a move on R, and I never let her know of my aspirations, and after a while I got over their PDAs and I moved on.

I note all of this because of how much, I realized, after seeing L’s message, I had moved on. I had not thought of R once in the very nearly four decades since I graduated high school. I’ve thought of other high school and post-high school girlfriends and acquaintances, but not her.

I have no idea why.

And yet, seeing L’s name yesterday brought back, intensely, those years of high school. Dates, jokes, the smell of the library and the electrical hum of the ballasts in our school theater’s green room…

It also brought back another odd thing. “Tragedy strikes the Rutherford atom.” That was the legend beneath an illustration in what must have been a physics textbook I had in high school, showing an electron spiraling in to crash into an atomic nucleus. Rutherford had got a lot of things right, but not everything. The Rutherford atomic model was replaced by Bohr’s model not long after it was created. So the illustration, and its legend, were particularly droll.

But it’s not the kind of thing you can translate. I mentioned it to T, and she was all “Oh. That’s interesting.” I suppose it’s the sort of thing that works better with an illustration.

Or perhaps, like R, it’s something best left behind.

 

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Ground Control to Major Tom

It’s highly, but not extremely, unlikely that I heard Space Oddity when it came out in 1969.  In 1969 I was so into space that I would have listened to anything that had the word “rocket” in or anywhere near it.  I was 11 years old, and Apollo 11 was happening, and we were finally leaving the dust of this dirty little planet…

Last night, my 16-year-old daughter and I worked on some parachutes.  For some model rockets we’re building.  So it was a bit of mind flip this morning to wake up and learn that David Bowie had died.

That’s about all I have to say, except that I have a message for David, wherever he may be:

“I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.”

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Thelonious Monk and the Vonnegut Brothers

This morning, I heard on the radio the story of Thelonious Monk, a young man who died, shot to death, in Baltimore. I know about him only because NPR ran a story this morning, and NPR ran the story this morning because Adam Marton happened to notice his name, and because he remembered that name. On January 5, Marton posted this on his Facebook account:

Thelonious Monk, 28, was one of Baltimore’s 344 homicide victims in 2015. Thelonious stole my car about a decade ago and while he was never charged with the crime, case search shows he was arrested dozens of times in his short life and spent time in a juvenile detention center. He fished my keys out of the night drop at Mr. Tire one summer night. It was barely an inconvenience, such is my life. Insurance covered a loaner and Brooke and I went on vacation, as planned. When I got my car back a few weeks later, Thelonious ha[d] installed a baby seat and a subwoofer and the car was strewn with job applications. It was and remains one of the most heartbreaking scenes of my life. Our lives crossed, however oddly and briefly, and I can’t help but think that Thelonious probably never had a chance. A chance to escape, a chance to succeed. The opportunities I have always enjoyed. I feel like maybe he was trying to use my car to make a break for it. I wish he had made it. Rest in peace, young man, I will never forget you.

We often talk abouit how “the system” is failing young men. No, actually, we talk about how “the system” is failing young black men. I couldn’t help but think, while listening to this story, that we have failed young black men. And through failing them, we have also failed young black women and young black children.

Some of you will brush this thought off like a mosquito. We haven’t failed anyone, you will think. Maube “the system” has, but certainly not us. Others will realize that the #BlackLivesMatter movement of the past few years arises out of evidence that we have, in fact, failed, and failed badly. But beating ourselves up over failing isn’t a way to stop failing—it reminds me of nothing so much as an old MAD routine comparing films about WWII made during, immediately after, and recently (i.e., the 1970s—told you it was an old article). As I recall, it described a post-war film as portraying German soldiers agonizing over putting Jews into the death camps, handing out dolls and candy, and talking about how they would devote their lives to humanitarian causes after the war. But they were still putting Jews into death camps.

If we do not change the world, that is exactly what we are doing. So what can we do that’s different?

Yesterday, I was in a webinar addressing what mediators can do before mediation sessions begin to prepare their parties (the world client is inapposite). The presenter cited something called “the miracle question”:

Suppose tonight while you’re asleep, a miracle happens and when you wake up in the morning the problem(s) you are experiencing have suddenly disappeared. How would you know that a miracle had happened? What would be different? What would you be doing, thinking, or believing differently about yourself that would indicate that a miracle occurred?

This approach dovetailed with my reading this morning the final few pages of Ginger Strand’s The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. It’s a book about how each of the brothers—one a gifted scientist, the other a gifted writer—found his way out of the growing war machine that has been American government, science, and industry since the end of World War II. It’s a book about ethics.

In her final pages, Strand refers to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:

The real hero of Cat’s Cradle is Bokonon, the prophet who admits that his wisdom is based on lies but whose invented religion gives human beings comfort. Like the Ghost Shirt Society in Player Piano and the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in The Sirens of Titan, Bokononism provides an alternative to the sterile technological belief in truth personified by Felix Hoenikker. It uses false myths and harmless lies—foma—to encourage humans to love one another, to acknowledge their connectedness, and to spend their short time on earth with grace and compassion.

In crafting the creed of Bokononism—for which he would finally, years later, be granted his anthropology degree from the University of Chicago—Kurt found perhaps his best embodiment of the truth he had learned all those years ago in The Brothers Karamazov: If God did not exist, human beings would have to invent him. And if that’s the case, why not invent a kind and loving God, a God who encourages us to find the sacred in nothing more, and nothing less, than our own human selves? (P. 229)

Let’s assume without deciding that such a God exists. Would such a God be pleased with what happened to Thelonious Monk, father, job-seeker, perhaps car thief? Would such a God be satisfied with us beating our breasts while consigning Thelonious and other young men to the dustbin of society?

Let us not imagine a different world only. Let us invent it. Let us enact it. Find hungry people and feed them. Find the homeless and give them shelter. Let us leave our fear behind. Let us, in the name of the kind and loving God whom we believe in (or whom we invent) help Thelonious to make a break for it.

 

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The Inner Light

Without going out of my door
I can know all things on Earth
Without looking out of my window
I could know the ways of Heaven

The other day, on my way to work, the Beatles’ Inner Light came on my MP3 player. I knew immediately it was the Beatles, but I didn’t know the lyrics—perhaps I never had, or perhaps I never had listened closely. This time, having nothing else to do, I did.

I know that for the Beatles—or for George Harrison, at least—these lyrics were meant to be taken metaphysically. Mediation as a means to insight. But it occurred to me as I listened to the first verse that this has become the way of the material world. This is the world we live in. I first met it in the 1990s, when I was a software engineer, and a friend of mine preferred to hit a web page to check on the weather rather than look out his office window. Since then, we’ve just moved progressively deeper into our own digital worlds.  And away from the real world.

Thanks to the Internet (or at least, Wikipedia), we now can know all things on Earth. We can know the ways of Heaven—at least as far as the weather is concerned.

The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows

But it’s not precisely true that, as the chorus goes, “the farther one travels, the less one knows.” Rather, what’s true is that the farther one travels, the more one realizes how little one understands. (All of this turns on the distinction between knowledge and understanding. While knowledge can be gained from a web page, understanding cannot.)

Many years ago, I sat in a theater in Cambridge, England (which is not all that far away) and listened as an audience laughed at the places in a Monty Python film that I wouldn’t.

Do you know that a regular coffee is different depending on what part of the country you’re in? Black. Black with cream. Black with cream and sugar.

Do you know that people in other parts of the country don’t think the way you and I do? That our religions and our politics are among many? That other countries are far more technologically advanced than we are? That soda and pop are the same thing, but in different places?

Do you know the difference between Sunni and Shia? Would you know a Wahhabist if you met one?

Put down your phone. Close your notebook. Put your pen in your pocket.  Meet the real world.

Travel. You won’t know any less, but you will understand more.

 

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Spoon River Anthology

The other day, on my way somewhere by car, I heard an NPR article on  Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems first published in 1915 by Edgar Lee Masters.  Not mentioned by NPR was that for some years, Masters, an attorney, worked with Clarence Darrow.

Why had I never read this before?

Spoon River Anthology is a series of over 240 short, free-verse poems, the first-person voices of the dead buried (perhaps for the most part) in Spoon River, Illinois.  Some of the dead speak to each other, or of each other, or to important principles, or to the vanity of the flesh, or to the importance of the flesh, and almost all are titled with the name of the speaker.  Some are happy to be dead, some are not.  The poems are subversive in the extreme.  It’s a spectacular work.

Yesterday, I googled up a website that contained the full work and read through it.  I encourage you to do the same.  Here’s one of my favorites:

 

Fiddler Jones

THE earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill— only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

This poem, only a page in length, is a lesson in perspective.  Consider the following couplet:

What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?

Highly recommended.

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The Day After

I just saw a quote, something to the effect that “There’s nothing sadder than not being a child at Christmas.”

My first response was to agree with it. My second was to (over) analyze it.  My third was to start humming “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

I mean, why should it be the case that being older on Christmas is sad? I don’t think that it has anything to do with age.

When I was a young parent—and still, to a certain extent, though the youngest of my children is approaching a 17th birthday—it was tremendously satisfying to stay up Christmas eve (and sometimes early morn) wrapping presents. What made it special were the twin notions of hope and surprise. Hope on the part of children (and earlier, of spouses, significant others, crushes, and of the self) and surprise (watch a kid opening a box sometime: it’s special).

Being able to hope and to be surprised, or being able to fuel both hope and surprise, is very cool (at one time in our marriage, T and I would each put a large present for the other under the tree a few days before Christmas and play a game of n questions to try to figure out what it was). But as we age (and as the internet homogenizes our wants and the availability of stuff to meet those hopes) that ability goes away. A three- or four-year-old child hopes, but doesn’t hope for specific things (I may be a little wrong on that, because our kids grew up without TV, and I don’t really recall TV until I was 7 or 8). I mean, maybe the child wants a truck but the brand, color, and size aren’t terribly important.

The best Christmases I remember were around the time I was 9 or 10, when one of the obligatory gifts would be a Japanese “tin robot”, something like this:

Robot

Such toys would break, often within a few hours or days, but there was a coolness, a surprise factor, about such toys that made them fantastic in a literal sense. I remember playing with such robots in front of the fireplace in my parents’ home, watching their laser eyes ignite the bark peeling from birch logs.

A little later in life, our hopes become specific. One hilarious case comes to mind…I must have been 12 or so. I was into models and rockets, as was my younger brother, D (but of course, I was more into them). We got up early Christmas morning and poked, prodded, and unwrapped bits of packages until we knew what was inside. We didn’t pay attention to the tags. Anyway, one of the packages contained a three-foot-tall buildable model of the Apollo/Saturn V rocket/spacecraft (for those too young to remember, Apollo was the spacecraft and Saturn V the rocket that lifted it to the moon. Tl;dr: Apollo 11). This model: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_9uXRGjfEU. It was the very first thing I went for under the tree, and I thanked my parents profusely before they informed me that it was intended for my brother!

I was crushed, not because I didn’t get some very cool stuff, but because that had been my specific hope. Ah, well. So it goes. A few years later, when I had earned my ham radio license and was operating a relatively powerful (300 watt) transmitter, I had made clear to my folks that I wanted an SWR meter, a device used in tuning a transmitting antenna. They got me one that was designed for CB radios that put out a maximum of about 5 watts:

SWR

Live and learn.

Today, of course, we have online wish lists, courtesy of Amazon, and we can be completely unambiguous with respect to our desires. And so the element of surprise dies, and hope becomes very specific, and if not met, it dies.

This year, two older children wanted to get a big present for my youngest. Knowing she was into gaming, they consulted carefully with her about what kind of keyboard and mouse she wanted, and got her exactly those. Perfect—and hope satisfied. Alas, however, no surprise. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but I do think it’s sad.

So maybe this is why, as I get older, I have given up on saying anything about what I hope for. I can always get what I want, but I like to think that surprises are better than hope. This has led, over the years, to my getting lots of chocolate (which is fine).

This year I received, inter alia (sorry), a wonderful bottle of fountain pen ink from my oldest (Thanks, M!), some jokey lawyer stuff, including a “lawyer decision maker” spinner and a book of lawyer cartoons, from my 2d (Thanks, J!), a “Don’t Blame Me—I Voted for Bill & Opus” T-shirt from my 3d (Thanks, I!), and a book called The Brothers Vonnegut from my youngest (Thanks, Tg!).

All of these were complete surprises. I had no list. I’m wearing the T-shirt, one of my pens is loaded with 1670 ink, and I’m 60pp into The Brothers Vonnegut, having finished the book of lawyer cartoons yesterday.

 

Maybe I’m too old to hope. Santa won’t bring me a Saturn V, or a slot car set. He won’t make my high-school crush fall in love with me, as I once hoped. But it is nice to know that at 57, I can still be surprised. And that’s not sad at all.

 

 

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