The Importance of Context
I spent half my career in higher education as an administrator and professor of English at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Located on the city’s northwest side, it is 5500 north and 3500 west on the grid, not that far from O’Hare International Airport (ORD). I used to puzzle visitors by pointing out that Northeastern was actually southwest of Northwestern. “What?!” They would exclaim. It was a matter of context...
No, not that kind of training, as in preparing for the Boston Marathon, although this kind does have in common with that one the idea of forward motion. To clarify, I’m talking today about the Amtrak variety of training. More specifically, today’s reflection will deal with our recent trip from Emeryville, California (i.e., Oakland, in San Francisco’s East Bay) to Denver. Here’s the context. Cedar, our housemate Phil, and I had been at a conference on the University of California campus in Berkeley. To save time not to mention wear-and-tear, we flew out but decided it would be fun to take the train back in order to enjoy the lovely scenery between the northern California coast and Colorado’s front range. A major difference would be 36 hours on the return versus two-and-a-half on our flight. Moreover, we would be sitting up in coach versus the luxury of a night in a compartment. The cost difference between the two was a factor of five, and as retirees, we just couldn’t afford the greater comfort. Moreover, by the time we booked our trip, the sleepers were no longer available anyway...
Three Slogans to Live By
Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick, mentions early in the book that a whale ship was “my Harvard and my Yale.” Like many of us, he was a student at the University of Life. An example of a Life University honors student in my experience was our African American housekeeper (AKA “the colored maid”), Florine, who, despite a seventh-grade education, was among the brightest and best people in my 83 ½ years of living. As a triple Yale graduate myself (B.A., M.A., & Ph.D.), I have enough life experience to know that formal education isn’t the be-all and end-all of personal development. One way I know this is, courtesy of an alcoholic family member, my decades’ long membership in Al-Anon, the Twelve-Step Program for friends and families of substance-, food-, or sex-abusers....
On Sunday, April 16, 2023, at 9:32 a.m. I was admitted to Colorado’s maximum-security prison in Cañon City. This was my second-time to be inside. Twenty-five years ago I was admitted to a medium-security facility in southern Minnesota. Fortunately in both cases, as in the game Monopoly, I was “just visiting.” In the first, as Metropolitan State University’s academic vice-president, I was presenting degrees to several inmates who had just completed our “at-large” bachelor’s program. To be sure, these prisoners were anything but at-large. This time around it was again a graduation ceremony for the eight or nine inmates who had just finished a five-month authentic-relating course given by the nonprofit Realness Project....
Time, the Eater of Things
There’s a saying in Latin, Tempus edax rerum; “Time, the eater of things.” The Germans put the same idea this way: Alles wird vergehen, und auch Du; “Everything will pass, and that includes you.” I’m sure, if I investigated it, I’d find similar ideas in many other languages as well: the transitoriness of everything in the universe. Even the Rocky Mountains, my western neighbors here in Boulder, Colorado, are on borrowed time. It doesn’t seem that way, of course, but sooner or later—actually much, much later—erosion will do its job, and as we hear in Handel’s Messiah, the high places will be brought low.
Who knew that you could find wisdom for living in a tire shop? But you can, and in this little essay, I’ll try to prove it. So, to quote our President, here’s the deal. Tire stores exist because cars need tires to run on. No tires, no car travel. But the tires must be and stay in good shape. Once the treads are gone or nearly so, the car will slip and slide all over the place, even in good weather, let alone in rain, snow, or ice. So you have to replace those round car-feet from time to time to make sure you can go up hills and down dales safely. Beyond this, you have to keep your tires inflated to just the right pounds-per-square-inch (PSI) as specified by your automobile’s manufacturer. Also, there is the matter of balance. Tires have to hit the ground to permit the maximum tread on the ground. So all four of them must be in balance with one another to enable this to happen. Finally, there is the matter of alignment. According to Google, “[tire] alignment refers to an adjustment of a vehicle’s suspension—the system that connects a vehicle to its wheels. It is not an adjustment of the tires or wheels themselves. The key to proper alignment is adjusting the angles of the tires which affects how they make contact with the road.” If cars are not in good alignment, they will eventually become undrivable...
Woke Up, Little Rennie!
At 83 I find it hard to be “woke.” But before I go any further, let’s define this highly charged political term. Here then is what I found in Wikipedia:
"In activism and politics, woke (/ˈwoʊk/ WOHK) means "alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for American Left ideas involving identity politics and social justice, such as the notion of white privilege and slavery reparations for African Americans. Originating as an adjective in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), the word may also be used as a noun."
Wokeness these days, at least in Boulder, Colorado, where I live, includes stating your pronouns when you introduce yourself at meetings and indicating the tribes on whose stolen lands you live—here in Boulder it’s the Northern Arapahoe, the Cheyenne, and the Ute. I suspect more such items will be added in due course. All this reminds me of self-introductions at AA meetings: “Hello, my name is So-and-so, an Alcoholic.” The confessional mode of the Jesus prayer also comes to mind: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “Bark less, wag more!” Borrowing its sentence structure and rhythm, let me create a motto of my own for purposes of this blog: “Flap less, glide more!” We can learn so much by observing the natural world. Take birds. The smaller the critter, the more it seems to flap when it flies. The hummingbird is the posterchild here. Small though it is, it flaps like crazy. According to Google, my go-to source for this kind of information, “The Giant Hummingbird beats its wings 10-15 times per second. The fastest recorded rate is about 80 beats per second on an Amethyst Wood-star Hummingbird. North American hummingbirds average around 53 beats per second in normal flight.” Miraculously, its small, frenetic wings can take the hummingbird as much as 1,300 miles without landing. In fact, all small birds seem to be flappers, not gliders. Yet when we observe the gliders among the avian species, they all seem to be big, like hawks, eagles, or vultures. Take the bar-tailed godwit, a relatively large bird, which has been recorded as flying 7,580 miles from Alaska to New Zealand. “Godwitted,” indeed!
Three Weeks Without TV
If some official U.S. body were to devise standards for being a true, red-blooded American, one that would surely make the cut would be a minimum of eight hours of TV-watching per week, preferably on commercial channels. On second thought, eight hours may be far too little. So just think that my wife and I went three weeks without a single minute of TV, and we’re both bona-fide U.S. citizens. How could such a thing be possible? Well, to start with, we just spent three weeks in Central America, specifically on vacation in Costa Rica. And in the interest of full disclosure, even back home our addiction to the tube is rather minor—the opening 20 minutes of the PBS Newshour most evenings and the latest Netflix series that’s been recommended to us, currently “Virgin River”: a soap opera to be sure, but one with high-quality writing, attractive lead characters, and lovely scenery. That gets 53 minutes of our time most nights...
Cedar, my wife, and I are on the second half of our three-week Costa Rican vacation. More specifically, we are staying at a beach hotel on the country’s Pacific Coast. Our first day there we notice people hanging by a harness from a large parachute about 400 feet straight up while a speedboat is pulling them around the bay at a good clip. We would never do anything so risky, we agree. On day two, there are now three sets of parasailers up at the same time from two or three different concessions in our bay. Most contain two hanging black specks, AKA people. After about 15 minutes each, they all drop into the Pacific some 50 yards from shore. A jet-ski boat awaits to help these individuals from the water and take them back. We watch the former customers walk proudly up the beach to have their harnesses and life vests removed. They seem none the worse for their adventure...
The Attitude of Gratitude
In addition to its Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, all the Twelve-Step Programs have and use Twelve Slogans. They are short, pithy, and sometimes rhyming sayings that help recovering addicts and their enablers stay on the straight-and-narrow of recovery. Some of the better known are One Day at a Time, Denial Is Not a River in Egypt, Let Go and Let God, and the title of this week’s blog, [Have an] Attitude of Gratitude. Indeed. Gratitude has been named by some of the social and other scientists who study human happiness as a key to living a good, satisfying life. In this vein, the German mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), is credited with saying, “If the only prayer you ever uttered were ‘Thank you,’ it would be enough.”..
Famous words that we Americans encounter as little kids in first grade if not before, although without the question mark. Once in college, if we’re lucky, we learn to follow the Polish proverb, “Remember to doubt.” After all, Doubting Thomas, Jesus’ skeptical follower, is the patron saint of education. But, for whatever reason, I never doubted the soundness of this famous phrase from our Declaration of Independence. Then in the early 60s, a new-minted Yale graduate, I happened to read Viktor Frankl’s account of his time in concentration camps, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). There Frankl recounts how younger, fitter men than he, an intellectual, would lose all hope and quickly die. Frankl, whose early manuscript on what he would later call logotherapy, was burnt by his captors, decided to use mental alchemy to turn his remorseless imprisonment into an experimental laboratory. To wit, he used his skill of observation to test out his theory that the worst thing that can happen to a person is loss of a sense of meaning or purpose in life. His motto in effect became, “My imprisoners can harm my body and take away my physical freedom but not my ability to observe, think, and thus have meaning in my life [my words].” In short, the Nazis could abuse his body but not his mind, heart, or soul. In his reflections in the latter part of the book, he suggested that the (American) pursuit of happiness is a red herring that leads human beings astray. Instead, he posed, individuals should attempt to find and follow meaning in their lives. Happiness, he suggested, was a biproduct of meaningful living and not a worthy goal in and of itself...
What’s Civil about War?
Back in the days of the Vietnamese War, we liberal Americans used to joke about what we considered the greatest oxymoron of them all. Hang on! You probably already know what that Greek-derived term means. I’ll admit, I used to think it was a fancy way of insulting someone by calling them a stupid dray animal. But in case you don’t, according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th edition) it stands for “a figure of speech or expressed idea in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.” An example would be “a wealthy pauper.” The English word derives from the Greek oxus (sharp) and moros (foolish). Okay, so ours in the 60s was military intelligence. I mean, what could be smart, let alone wise, about a bunch of trained assassins licensed to kill fellow human beings? Have Judeo-Christian countries somehow forgotten the Sixth Commandment, Thou shalt not kill? A case in point here would be all those weapons of mass destruction that Sadam Hussein was supposed to have had. This bit of authorized inside knowledge was used to justify a U.S.-initiated invasion of Iraq that ended up killing per Wikipedia between 268,000 and 295,000 people on both sides, including countless civilians. Compare this outcome with the 2,996 killed in the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. Speaking of Greek, do we detect a little asymmetry here?!
Some 40 years ago I purchased a book called The Concise Dictionary of Twenty-Six Languages in Simultaneous Translations (Avenel,1981), compiled by Peter M. Bergman. Now although my doctoral field was 19th-Century American literature, I started learning languages other than English at age eight. And speaking of eight, I claim that nowadays, at 83, I can get into trouble in 12 languages and back out in eight. Anyway, language learning/using is my hobby and at this point in life, the dike I continue building against memory loss or worse...
What about Becoming?
I don’t often get responses from my readers to my weekly blogs. After my last one on Doing, Having, or Being, however, a reader emailed me, “So what about Becoming?” “Thank you,” I responded. “You’ve just given me the topic for my next blog.” And so here I am again, and, here, dear readers, is my take on Becoming...
To Do, To Have, or To Be?
This, with a wink to Hamlet, is indeed the question. It is also the focus of the German-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s 1976 book To Have or to Be?—a work published four years before Fromm’s death at 80. The book’s description on the Amazon website is quite explicit: “To Have or to Be? is one of the seminal books of the second half of the 20th century. Nothing less than a manifesto for a new social and psychological revolution to save our threatened planet, this book is a summary of the penetrating thought of Eric Fromm. His thesis is that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity. To Have or to Be? is a brilliant program for socioeconomic change.”
In Praise of One-Time Mistakes
Okay, not all one-time mistakes are good. You don’t want your surgeon, for example, making his or hers on you. That possibility is why doctors have malpractice insurance. Still, in general, one-time mistakes can be learning experiences like no other. As a foreign-language learner—right now I’m brushing up on my French and Italian courtesy of DuoLingo.com—I usually remember an idiom in one of those languages best if I incorrectly translate it once. As a perfectionist, I hate making any mistakes. Thus, when I do make one, I’m obsessive about not making it again right away. Somehow my mind goes the extra mile to remember the correct translation, and the next time I usually get it right. But when I do goof up, oy! I’m an unhappy camper, sometimes to the point of uttering a choice unseemly phrase in English. The latter always seem to come to mind instantaneously, and I never seem to screw them up!
Say What? Versus I Say
Mark Twain once said about the United States and Great Britain that we were “two countries separated by a common language.” Even as a little kid I had an ear—and tongue—for different languages and accents. To be sure, I sometimes got into trouble by demonstrating this talent at the wrong times and places. In fact, before going to kindergarten I had already detected that there were people who spoke English differently from how my parents and I did. I had examples near at hand from all four grandparents, my Irish nanny, and our African American housekeeper, not to mention the radio. British accents and a vocabulary that I sometimes could only guess at were an early example...
Being Jewish is a complex thing. I mean, there’s the self-described Jewish people, both the 70% of us in diaspora and the remainder in Israel. As a nation, of course, we comprise most of the citizens of Israel, often thought of as “the Jewish state.” Then there’s Judaism which, like Christianity, comes in a multitude of varieties. At its most strict and prescriptive, there’s Orthodoxy. Then there’s a spectrum of versions, from Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist to the youngest and most diverse form, Jewish Renewal. Finally, there’s the Semitic race, which includes both Jews and Arabs, along with other, smaller groups. So, are we Jews a people, a nation, a religion, a race? At its most universal, we are a people and part of a race. A minority of us comprise a majority of a nation. And in terms of religion, perhaps only half of us are members of a Jewish congregation. The other half, perhaps more, are ethnically Jewish but not religious. Take me. I’m an ethnic Jew, the third generation in America, but as for my religion, I’m Episcopalian. But what unites us all, I believe, is our Jewish culture, and a big part of that is Jewish humor, that capacity to laugh at ourselves and others despite the dozens of nations that have tried to destroy us over the 4,000 years of our existence as a people...
Once upon a time there was this group of warriors from the Highlands of Scotland who somehow found themselves wandering around on the lowlands of Abraham. Their name was MacAbee. You might ask what a bunch of Scotsmen were doing in the Jewish homeland in the 2nd century BCE. Answer:...
Awaiting Our Firmware Download
Recently I became aware of this tech term, firmware. It was in the context of a “recall notice” we got online from Tesla. There was a problem, the notice said, with our Model 3’s windows such that they might open and close without our having played a role in the action. Not to worry, however, the notification continued. Tesla was working on the problem and as soon as they had it sorted, they would send the car—not us!—a firmware [sic!] download to correct it. Meantime, they advised, keep an eye on the car’s windows, So, what, I wondered, was “firmware.” I knew that ancient term “hardware” and had a sense of what software was. But “firmware,” which somehow sounded like a truss or a splint? Enter google.com to the rescue. Firmware, per that electronic wizard, is “… a specific class of computer software that provides the low-level control for a device's specific hardware” (Firmware - Wikipedia). In other words, it is quietly capable of running the whole show...
The Indigo Children
A lot of the New Age ideas that were bandied about in the ‘60s and thereafter were strange, to say the least. Unlike too many of the current conspiracy theories, however, they tended not to be dangerous. Some, to be sure, were just plain crazy. But a few made sense to me. One of the latter is the subject of this week’s blog: The Indigo Children.
Here’s what may be the biggest paradox ever: Life’s primary partner and biggest ally is Death. In a death-crazy yet death-averse culture like ours, that statement may be beyond comprehension. How can death—the final separation of the body from its animating spirit, what French philosopher Henri Bergson (d. 1941) referred to as the élan vitale, be anything but anti-life and therefore bad? This conclusion makes special sense in secularizing societies like ours with no strong belief in an Afterlife or in multiple lives formed according to one’s karma. This is it! One strike and you’re out—forever!..
As I write this blog, the date is November 14, 2022. Just eight days ago, on November 6th, I turned 83. So many of my classmates, both from my boarding high school and college, no longer walk the planet. Less than half of all Americans born in my year, 1939, were still alive in June 2021. So, at this point, I have more good ideas than the energy to follow up on them. Were I in my early 50s versus my early 80s, however, this is one idea I’d try hard to bring into being: a website describing best practices from around the globe in public policy and culture...
My family of origin was Democrat, or at least my dad was, that is, until Ronald Reagan came along. From then on, he voted Republican. My mother never talked about her political views, but I’m guessing she voting the same way my dad did. So, my first real encounter with a Conservative Republican was with my 8th-grade English teacher at my boarding school, Peddie. Mr. Sprout, already elderly at the time, would rant on in class about the terrible tragedy in his view of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In doing so, he would invoke that dreaded epithet, Socialism, a new term for me at the time. He would segue from that to the virtues of good, old-fashioned, all-American conservative values. In between, he taught us boys some of the equally good, old-fashioned values of English grammar and of egregious errors up with which we should not put...