Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Seed on the Dusty Plain

We choose our friends, but not our family, the proverb goes. Neither, I think, do we choose where we were planted.

I have been reading Mark -- mainly because I almost always read Luke and do not like John so much and therefore tend to go a long time unacquainted with Mark -- and I have stopped temporarily at the parable of the good seed. That was on Saturday. On Monday, yesterday, I went along toward the great metropolis where the Wal*Mart has replaced the K-Mart (a friend of mine defines "New South" as "n. the thing that exists just before the Wal*Mart replaces the K-Mart"), and I hit a familiar pothole in the road. Driving a sleek sports car as I do, each pothole is noticed, and I would not wish to ruin my fine suspension with one.

This particular pothole is, as I said, familiar. It is familiar because I hit it regularly. First, I hit it because I am in position to hit it after I dodge a prior hole. Second, though, I hit it because a shadow falls across the road just at that point and obscures the hole. Since I have no depth perception due to an old dueling accident, I use light and shade to determine distance as I drive, and therefore I miss this hole nearly every day that I go on that road.

As I worried about my finely tuned linkages, I absolved the pothole of any responsibility. I realized that, when it comes to blame, there is none. The tree came first (it is a white oak), and the road is the newcomer. The pothole chose to occur in the shade of the tree -- probably literally -- rather than the tree choosing to hide the hole from me.

That led me to consider something. It's hard for trees. Trees have trouble enough without us, and then we add more. Watch a construction site some time, and you will notice that the first act of builders is to blow hell out of every tree. They will then mow, push, level, and then pave. After that, they will pour cement where they want it, build the object desired, and then finally come back in and, at great cost, plant trees that are of a different type, different family, and different but uniform age, to "ornament" the place. (I link there, because some land was given to that university on condition that none of the trees be harmed. The bulldozers blew hell out of every tree, and then they said, "Oops. Do you want the land back now, lady?")

What can a tree do? It doesn't choose its family, nor its genus or species. It doesn't choose its location, either, and in that way it has an even worse time than we do. We can get violent -- most often do -- and take aim at body or mind, or shrink to nothingness, or wander off into the wild to die horribly from some inexorable Universe that will be deaf to our cries. (I wonder if more male geriatrics wander off to their deaths than female? I would hypothesize so.)

A tree is stuck, waiting for fungus, storm, drought, or the axe to drop it.

It's only hope is to hide.

A neighbor across the way had pines growing all around his house. His house had been built according to the usual plan -- meaning that whatever had been there had been blown hell out of and pines had been planted because they grow quickly and drop needles and cones that people like -- and there was a veritable corona of telephone-pole-straight pines all around his house. Then, though, his brother or brother-in-law, who, like him, was on a fixed income, had a pine fall into the house during a storm. After the premium increase, the deductible, and everything else, he was ruined. The neighbor concluded, therefore, that the stupid pines were more stupid trouble than they were worth -- the stupid things. He and his son, therefore, went out to clear them. They hired a local free agent to haul the trees, but he and son did the cutting.

The buzzing and crashing went on all day. When they were done, they were in a little house on a prairie. They were small bubble of brick on a blight and stumps, although they hired men with tractors to pull the stumps up. (Pines are easy that way.) The thing is, he missed one.

He didn't see it. He and his grown son both kept on cutting, and they walked around a tree all day without seeing it. That pine tree had learned the great secret of knowing how to hide.

Some trees are lucky and clever and learn the mystic secret of hiding from us, from pests, from storms. In their dotage, of course, they will forget and be caught, but the trees that evade, the ones that face up to their circumstances and limitations -- these are heroes, I think.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wetness, Holy Innocents, observed

It is snowing here, not far from Florida, on this date. Snowflakes act like tracer rounds for the rain, though -- illuminating the wind, providing clothing for the invisible snaking columns of air. We think they blow on us, when they are simply swerving on their way from ground to sky or sky to ground.

It's hardly a Christmas sweater, or a gang in Christmas sweaters, but it is still an unusual thing in the tropical Gulf of Oil.

The day has a religious feast associated with it. The XM/Sirius music channel has reminded me of the fact that today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents (well, ok, so it's day after tomorrow). Those who, strangely, want to deny the historicity of Jesus (and I mean that it's strange; none of the early opponents of Christianity, who would have had every opportunity, did so; in fact, none of the early historians had any trouble at all) speak of the difficulty of Matthew's account, and yet the story is far more logical than moderns think.

Let's take those Magi. We call them that as if it were a nationality. It's not. It's a job title. You know it better as "magician" or "magus." Get between those two concepts. They were wise men and magic doers. What they really were was Parthians. That means they were Zoroastrians. That means they watched the sky quite a bit. They were monotheists with a religion that still exists.

Here's where things get 'logical.' Prior to the birth of Jesus, there had been multiple efforts at resisting Rome throughout the near east. The only successful one had been Mithridatus. His birth had been attended with a comet. He wore a comet in his crown, in fact. His title was "king of kings." (That, by the way, is a job title, too. It's rather like "commander in chief." It means that he was the king who commanded other kings in a military alliance against Rome.) See The Poison King for a great deal on this (it gets a thumbs up from this reviewer). To the Romans, comets signified disaster. To the Zoroastrians, they signified fire from the skies -- the divine coming to touch the earth -- the birth of a great king or savior.

So, if there was a new star, the Romans would have been either afraid or filled with dread, and they surely wouldn't be eager to write it down with joy. On the other hand, the Parthians, who were in need of a new Mithridatus, would look for which country the star appeared in and go to find the new king of kings.

Herod Antipas was a weird cat. He was halfway Roman but halfway Jewish. He knew that the people didn't like him, that they saw him as a traitor, and he never had an easy rule. If a comet appeared, and if it was in the astrological house of the Jews, he would have been mightily afraid. All the other near eastern kings would be looking for a successor to himself. I.e. there would be not only a rebel inside his kingdom, but one that the other military powers to his east would support.

That's scary.

As for the Romans, they would hardly notice or care. Judea was important for them, but they were petrified of another Mithridatus as well. They were also petrified of another Spartacus. Their tax farmers had increased brutality behind them, and they were readier than ever to ignore a bit of blood.

My point is this: if there was a new star, the rest follows very, very logically, including the slaughter of the innocents. That is all one needs. However, instead of considering history, which includes awareness of culture, politics, and religion, the people who wish to disprove the story of the nativity in the Gospel take their own contemporary empiricist assumptions about meteors and stars and their meaning, their own Romanized culture, and project backward, even as they claim that a lack of evidence is evidence of a lack.

The snow has stopped.

My miracle this Christmas was seeing a great improvement in the one I care for. There will never be "better," but there is a lessening of the "much worse." There are times, indeed, when the world grows very thin.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rhapsody on a Warm Christmas

Most folks don't know what a rhapsody is, except a) a thing by George Gershwin that gets played every day on the local NPR station, or b) a thing on the cell phone for, like, getting music. Well, that's not what a rhapsody is at all. A rhapsody is an ode, but one with no fixed subject or form. It's a hodge podge. It's a gumbo, and since "ode" came to mean "whatever," it's a 'whatever' of 'whatever,' with the only rule being that it not stay on any subject for long.

Speaking of which, I can only abide hearing "Rhapsody in Blue" once a year, and not the twice a day that "classical" radio insists upon. I know the people who donate to the radio station like it. I realize that people who don't know Johannes Brahms from Joe Jonas will hear it and like it and be more likely to stop flipping stations. I get it. If that's the criterion, why not play "that thing... you know... the one from the movie? that one?" Oh, wait: they do.

In case you did not read the last posting, and, if we face facts, after a hiatus of four months and a series of impenetrable pieces, it would be very likely that you did not, let me state it plainly: I do like turkey vultures. I don't have one as a pet, as that would defeat the purpose, but I look upon them as the working class of the animal kingdom. They're the construction crews, the sanitation engineers, the humble.

I can well imagine them having schedules of work to be done, clearing roads and moving carcasses from busy sections of town. They certainly have meetings. They're moderately social birds, amongst themselves, but no one else seems to get near them. In the early morning and late afternoon, I see vast flocks -- real flocks of them swirling in a maelstrom of black over a nearby bank downtown. What they're doing is gaining height on a thermal near the rail road tracks, and the microclimate dictates that as one of the best spots, but I can imagine conversation:
"Alright. It looks like we've got a goat in the field off 86, a deer in the highway feeding 16, and a two dogs in 80. I need three of you to take care of the dogs. Lisa, Carl, Eric, and Joe Bob will get the goat. I'm going to need shifts on the deer. Bring your young ones with you, and be sure to empty your stomach first. This is a big job."

The other reason I like them is that they have no guilt in themselves. They are flying Dalits.

Like other untouchables, they handle corpses. Like other despised groups, they touch ordure. In our American society, they deal with the aftermath of our domestication of food animals, and they deal with the aftermath of our internal combustion engines. They are our sin eaters.

Yesterday, I saw a dead turkey vulture in the road. There was no one to handle its corpse.

There is despair all around this Christmas. No one needs to look for it, and the imagination starved creatures at corporate media have fallen back on their "sadness" and "sadness and redemption" package pieces for the radio and television. --Little girl loses house at Christmas. --Father determined to provide for children this season, but job gone. --Unemployment lines beside jewelry stores. --Diseases cured in time for parents to be reunited when mother invents new recipe and father wins lottery.

I find these stories to be poisonous when they're true. They have in them the lie of the preterite, and they have the worse lie of the ending. These stories end. They wrap up. They start somewhere and end somewhere else. Lives don't.

Of despair this year, I have discovered two flavors, both bitter. One is the gasping, heart pounding powerlessness of poverty. I had known it well already. The other, though, is the draining, inexorable watch of death. Standing and waving one's arms in futility as powers evaporate, as intellect is extinguished, as neither better nor worse occur. I can only think that the two combined could not be born by any person.

Is there any such thing as patience? I have doubts these days.

As two generations now have been exposed to the temporal foreshortening of the web, I am not sure but that patience was hand-in-hand with concentration. The fate of this second was sealed a while back. Perhaps the reason that I encounter curiosity in perhaps one student every two years is that it requires memory and patience to have.

I, though, blame myself for not being patient enough. When one holds a telephone and tries to change channels with it and asks me, then, to come and find the remote control, when it's actually in the other hand....

Maybe I will say something surprising about my teacherly attitude toward the cell phone. I may even quote a student paper without permission in the process. Not today, though: some talentless tart may be caterwauling on the glowing box, and I must hurry to my telephone to watch it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Freedom Is No Mistake

I was walking down the dirt road the other day, spitting tobacco at beetles as I went and wondering when the band that changed everything would finally be available on iTunes, with Mimir, my pet buzzard on my shoulder, when I saw a flier that someone had stuck on the windscreen of my John Deere that I'd left out on the back 400. The flier said,
Do not believe the
You have a

Will it be heaven or HELL?

Come to the FREE WILL Church and hear the truth.

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you FREE."

That certainly was a slap in the jaw, or a pull of the beard. I hopped on my Ducati and told Mimir to wait for me at t'house, and I drove down to that church. There was no one there, so I went off to the manse of the pastor. I had to park the motorcycle up on the road to avoid the mud down by the manse's lot, but I went up to argue with the pastor that those who say that there is no freedom might be mistaken, but they are certainly not liars, as the lie requires a prior foreknowledge of the falsity of the statement being made and a mendacious intent, and that he should immediately disavow and refudiate the flier or amend its language.

He, though, would do no such thing. You can imagine my astonishment, but he went on to argue that the proof of absolute freedom was such that any man (not woman, for women, lacking souls, lack the capacity to morality -- I had to applaud the bravery of his Thomism in that regard) who suggested a lack of freedom was a liar. I shall reproduce his comments.

"Chance, chaos, and entropy are facts. No straight thing, whether a line or a motion, is possible in human life. From our earliest moments of life, we recognize that our world is lapsarian, that our efforts are inadequate, that we either must invent or recognize the ideal world to have satisfaction. No monument wins against time, and nothing set in motion remains, nor anything at rest, either. All is impermanence, and yet impermanence due to chaos, noise, error, want, failure, perversity of nature or crookedness of nurture or amalgamation of composition. We wish for good luck because we need good luck. These truths are so elemental that we assume them and never speak o them. We wish we could wish them away. How, then, can we possibly live in systematized, ordered, and determined worlds when even as simple a matter as boiling water is subject to entropy? No.
"And, supposing that a person said that we are all, indeed, un-free in soul and free in body, then howso shall we have such a thing? In what form might the soul be chained where the body is not? Were creation worthy of God's will if it were all shadow play? This seems unlikely to the point of insanity.
"I might not be able to prove that a man's will has acted freely, but he can himself not deny that it has not been placed in subordination."

I confess that he argued with heat. After he offered me a cordial and the two of us spoke for some time further about the metaphysics of system versus actor, we parted on good terms. I was able to persuade him to change the tone of his fliers in the future, although not to change is view on the fundamentals.

I came back and talked to Mimir about the whole thing. He had been hard at work. He said that there had been a dead raccoon on highway 280 and a fawn on 151, and the crews were backed up for hours clearing away the bodies. Traffic was getting in the way, and his people were going as quickly as they could, but they were starting to run out of capacity. I told him that I always respected the work he did, but there was a time for such recreations and a time for serious work, like philosophy.

"The problem, I believe," Mimir said, "is one of definition. He is struggling with one meaning of 'freedom' against many other definitions of freedom. He battles the Calvinists with Heisenberg and Maxwell, of all things!"

I agreed. Indeed, I suspect that there is a big difference between being free and being disorderly. Freedom requires volition, and chaos requires frustration or agnosticism. It is non-thoughtful, non-affective, non-spirit, non-physical, and it isn't even properly spoken of as a force as much as a thing all forces do. Not being able to be what we want is not the same thing as being free; in fact, it is somewhat the opposite. Our imperfections and imperfectibility may not prove our damnation, but they don't quite make us free.

The Gnostics looked at the flop that is life and decided that we've got to jump up from bodies to pure spiritual sparkiness, where the chaos won't apply and a fresh rule book can be written by those in the know. That's the inverse of the Pentecost, where the spirit comes down and enflames the flesh, flashing out and bringing the perfect down to the imperfect through revelation and inspiration. However, neither one of them can answer the question of who gets to go or gets gone to. Neither one of them can answer the question of whether the people were free to hear or foredoomed.

We can all agree, indeed, that we're inadequate, that chaos happens, but we can't agree beyond that because, quite frankly, we can't see beyond that. Anyone who says otherwise is guessing, and it's just awful to go around calling people names on the basis of a guess.