Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Nature Abhors the Vaccuum

[No one need bother me about the spelling of "vacuum/vaccum/vaccuum," as the word has three legitimate spellings. I go for the one with the most letters, of course.]

Aristotle was the one who said that nature abhors a vaccuum. The personification in the statement is interesting, because, as we now understand vaccuums, it is enough to say the noun to imply the activity. Vaccuums are absences, and thus all presences rush toward them. There is no need for any one or any thing to be horrified or angry.

When Christians imputed a directly intentional and affective value to forces in nature, Aristotle's statement had more profound rational and cosmological ramifications than a simple induction. First, his statement affirmed the plenum. (Contra the prior link, it was not "Descartes" who had the plenum. It was everyone. It was Newton, too. I hate scientists with heroes and villains stories to tell.) This cosmological outlook did not hold that the universe is varied and rich, but that it is so rich that there are no discernible gaps between orders and classes of living and non-living things. Creation is so full that there are infinite steps of quality and complexity between ranks and infinite ranks overall along Jacob's ladder. (Jacob's ladder, meanwhile, is not merely a metaphor for a vision Jacob had (Jacob sees angels of the Lord going up and coming down from heaven, and then that graduated ranking is described by means of a figure of speech, "ladder"), but a vision of the order of the universe (the universe is composed of moving ranks and graduations reaching from Heaven to earth) that is eternal and may be understood by multiple figures of speech.)

The plenum itself reflected God. This was not code, but rather nature. While the enlightened soul and those in a state of grace might contemplate God's love in the plenitude of creation or by imagining and constructing with art a microcosm/macrocosm, whereby the whole perceptible and spiritually experienced universe was, like a vast fractal, infinitely reproducing and consistent, the intent behind all things was love, being, and essence rather than a message. God is God, and the infinitely full universe might give intellectual delight or emotional solace, but the fullness was not there for a statement, but simply because of God's nature and creation.

The second effect of Aristotle's statement for Christians in the renaissance was that some popes (Leo X on, basically) grew so famously pleased with the coherence of the cosmology of the plenum that they made a Scribblerian mistake. Martin Scribblerus, hero of The Memoirs of Martinus Scribblerus, is a well read fool, and he consistently insists that whatever is logical according to deduction is true, no matter what evidence or reality says. So, too, these popes took a bold and brave stand against the vaccuum. Arguing against the real in favor of the logical is a losing proposition, but only in the end. Nobody likes to give up on logic just because some smart-Alec claims that Archimedes made a vaccuum pump.

It's grimly amusing that fractals these days make Fibonacci numbers look more and more like justification for the old faith in the plenum, but there's no irony in it. In the event, zero had enough of a reality to demonstrate, and soon scientists and mine owners began evacuating all over Europe. Volta guns and light bulbs would appear apace.

There was another kind of vaccuum that inventors played with. Boil your cabbage in a tin pot, and then seal it shut with solder. The molecules in the air will be very far apart, and, as the cabbage slurry cools, the air will compress. The can of cabbage can be sold to Napoleon, and he can take it to Russia, where it will be somewhat fresh three months after the cooking.

Canning started with Napoleon's army -- although they really began with bottles -- and that meant a need to find ways of holding seals and temperature. The Thermos bottle was the German patenting of a Scottish invention, and our Apollo rockets, like some of our missiles, are just grand Thermos bottles at heart (and you thought "Thermos" was an English word? Did you also think Robert Goddard invented rocketry?). Now we even offer to have super-cooled electrical transmission lines, and people propose liquid nitrogen in the field.

We never have found nothing, by the way, nor might we. A simple vaccuum of air is easy, and the pope could have kept his seat cushions untussled. A zero, though, is imperceptible by definition, and I agree with Kant that it's really a foul ball in intellect.

Loss, cooling, and vacuum seals are another matter. Them I believe in.

Before Christmas, during one of the freestyle bits of the liturgy, when the priest fills in the blanks ("May we, along with _____ and all your saints, be in your eternal kingdom"), he mentioned Saint Joseph, as he rightly would and should. Back in 2001, I heard a deaconess at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan talk about Joseph. She talked about his role as the patron of adoptive fathers, about the acceptance and humility he had. He did not reject Mary, and he went as a refugee to Egypt to protect her and the child that was not his. I have never since been able to approach Christmas without thinking about Joseph, or without why he stands out so.

In 1999, the children left for Rhode Island. I can't criticize. There are many gripes to gripe, but there is no point. When they left, I lost a deeper part of myself, a deeper connection, than a limb. I have a missing place where two children were, and it is permanent. That cavern is hollow, and there is no way to fill it. There isn't a way to reconnect, either, because I didn't lose friends. By 2003, I didn't mourn every day, but the stone was formed. I was a drum.

My mother's death is surprising. There are practical manifestations of such a loss. When the branch from which the leaves hang is gone, the leaves have no connection to one another anymore. Without children and wife to be interconnected, I am untied from the large mass that was family. Each holiday, therefore, sounds out against the hollows where once there was a messy complication of family.

Aside from that, when I am not working every day, I dream of her death's fact four nights a week, more or less. It might be dreaming of a tree in the backyard that is no longer the back yard. It might be neighbors casting paving stones at birds and killing the pileated woodpeckers. It may be having to drive my mother to see the family. It may show up in a dozen different disguises, but it's the same event, the same fact, the same concavity.

I wish to finish this essay soon, so that it will be nominally in 2013, because 2013 is its subject.

I'm lying. The subject of this essay is, of course, the surprising vaccuum. I have not changed, as I am as baffled by career as ever. I am as honest and friendly as before. At the same time, it is shocking that some things, some events, are not plastic, that some clippings and removals are permanent; they leave their profiles in consistent places that will never more be regained. When I am alone, when I hear my own thoughts, I don't regret anymore being alone. Instead, I regret the fact that there is no use in arguing with fact, that there is no use in complaining that things do not work out justly, and I have these resonating losses, this vaccuum seal, that moors me in zero.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


I can't stand talking about grace, because it gives me a headache. The problem is, we shouldn't be speaking of "grace" as a noun at all, because the moment we do, the word suffers a syntactic infection from other nouns, and then there are flavors of grace, stripes of grace, and amounts of grace. That said, I can no more avoid the nominal form of the word than anyone else.
But a greater inconvenience it bred, that every later endeavoured to be certain degrees more removed from conformity with the Church of Rome, than the rest before had been; whereupon grew marvelous great dissimilitudes, and by reason thereof, jealousies, heartburnings, jars and discords among them” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I, 2.2).
"Grace" as a word just denotes "gift." It is, in fact, what Advent is about -- a gift being given to humanity. The word "grace" shows up in "gratias" (for free) in Latin (which becomes gratis in UK/US parlance -- "no charge"), "gracias" in Spanish, and "grazie" in Italian. (The Romans used "gratis" for "thanks" in the same way that Spanish uses "de nada" -- "no problem/charge/burden" -- or English says "no big deal." Spanish and Italian derived their words from Latin.)

Celebrating Christmas is strange. In a churchly setting, there is the mass of Christ -- the church service with eucharist/communion -- held to honor the feast of the birth of Jesus, but that is a single day of obligation. It doesn't necessitate, or bear, a great deal of wittering and frittering. On the other hand, Advent is the liturgical season leading up to the feast of Christ, and that does have pageantry and a series of themes. The traditional theme, and the one you will hear in your lectionary readings, is the fulfillment of prophecy, the kairos, or rightness and fullness of time.

The more Protestant side of the celebration is the theme of grace. Advent shows God giving a gift. Jesus's birth as man is neither obligatory nor deserved. It is something given by God for God's will. Man was dead set against the birth and the message.

You cannot ask for a freely given gift, and you cannot earn a gift. If you ask for it, or earn it, it is not a gift. Therefore, while Paul ends some of his epistles with, "May the ... grace of our Lord" be with the congregation, it's a strange idea. We have to assume that Paul is hoping only and not actually petitioning. In the Book of Common Prayer used by all in the Anglican communion, parishioners ask God for grace for repentance after confession.

Salvation had been possible before the incarnation, but only for the Chosen people, and only by the law. God gave a superabundant gift in being born and breaking the first major falling of man in the process. (When man fell, the first great consequence was being divorced from the presence of God. Being unable to speak directly to God and to know that there is a certain moral universe is the profound fall of the soul and undergirds all else.) God gave a second gift on top of that by giving salvation to any and all who would but follow the Christ. Men still had and have a choice, and they could -- as most did -- continue to insist that the messiah had to be a Davidic king who would conquer Rome and set up material wealth for Judea/Israel. Third, of course, in the death and resurrection, Jesus gave a gift of eternal life and the Kingdom of the spirit rather than the law. He sent thereafter the paraclete, or Holy Spirit. Since then, nothing has fundamentally changed or needed to change: through the comforter, we have access to God; we still must choose the Christ; gentiles and Jews alike are called.

This is grace. Man did not earn it. Man did not even know how to ask for it. What was given was given by God for God's will.

This is not how I hear people use the word "grace." I hear it, instead, used as "state of grace" and mumblejumble grace for salvation. I hear the word "grace" used to talk about a sort of rocket pack or Flubber for the soul. What's worse is that all of this comes out of the most perverse need to justify assumptions rather than observation.

One line goes like this: If men are born with a sin upon them, then men are born fit for Hell. If they are fit for Hell, then they are depraved. If they are depraved, then they are depraved through and through. If they are depraved through and through, then they can't choose to accept the Gospel and believe on their own. Instead, "grace" has to do it. Because grace, and grace alone, is responsible for the conversion of the depraved sinner to the saved elect, it is irresistible and total. What's more, it is "abounding" and "abiding," and that means that, having been the rocket pack that makes the person seek God, hear God, and accept God, it sticks around to steer.

The other line says, If men are born with sin upon them, then they are born erring. If they err by nature, they cannot see the good from the evil reliably. Their conscience now, their intellect then, and their bodies another time will alternately fail. Therefore, the seeker needs help -- a bit of extra bounce to get above human capacities -- but the seeker must then be peak human to decide on salvation. This grace is flubber, and it sticks around, too, but it is a special force that God brings to bear only when the human is in most danger of being lost.

The first of these theologies leads to abuses whereby people argue that their salvation is permanent, no matter what they do. As Fielding's Parson Adams says, they'll meet their Savior and say that, though they never acted on any of his commandments, they believed 'em all. The second one leads to further qualification and quantification of the types of human and supernatural flickering and sparking. Both lead to folks being the judge of their own grace and, if possible, other people's.

I lean far more toward the grace that resolves to the human soul's free will, but I mainly lean away from any discussion of "grace" as a thing. The arrogance involved in saying, from this example in the Bible or that one, that God affects a turning heart by doing exactly this for each and every heart is staggering. What Job went through is not what Mary went through, and what Peter went through is not what Thomas went through. For people to argue what "must" be the case with God's operation in the Holy Spirit is shocking.

We should, instead, be ashamed that we don't know how to respond to a gift. It is with gratitude and celebration.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

What Changes

Brought to you in GLORIOUS

The utterly inexplicable Stand by Me opens with gang #2 mesmerized and propelled into action by the question, "Hey! Want to see a dead body?" Gang #1 has claimed the corpse, they discover after their Odyssey. I would like to reiterate, here and now, my initial reaction to the movie, since no amount of pay could have moved me to read the book: Who the hell would want to go see a corpse?

Oh, sure, might as well ask, "Who the Hell would read a Stephen King novel," since the questions are equivalent. After all, what is the question except a promise that, some pages ahead, King is going to describe a corpse? In that regard, he is providing pornography for virgins. If he gets it right, the readers who know he did will not get any reward except a trip to a place in memory that cannot bring any joy, and, if he gets it wrong, his readers by and large will be none the wiser. He is not, generally speaking, describing a corpse as much as he is describing what pathology photos look like or what a corpse feels like to an objectifying gaze. Thus, the virgin gets the joy of self-fulfillment or self-abhorrence, but no real experience has changed hands.

The little blighters of the story are supposed to Change and Learn, and the experience Refines the character from the dross, revealing, like Buonarroti's marble chips, the prisoner within. The thing is, King missed everything. I know, or suspect (I cannot really speak to the man's state of mind, only the narrative), because of what has changed in me.

You see, we think of the dead and living, and we fear thinking of dying, but Death. . . death the thing, the moment, the extinguishing, is something we cannot think of. For centuries, poetry has spoken of the pale rider, the midnight visitor, the hungry stranger, the guttering wind, and we have mistaken these as parables. They are not. They are as literal as our minds can accept of death itself.

At the time of her death, my mother and I had nothing unsaid. We were sympathetic to an enviable degree. There were still times, of course, when she would refuse to say and I could not intuit, but our feelings were open, and I had no apologies to give or accept. This does not, of course, take even an atom off of the scales (on my eyes or that I eye) whereby guilt is measured. It was my job to keep her alive, to swat away medical mistakes, to hear all the doctors and translate into English, to call in the family when deathly ill turned to moribund but then to be wrong. I knew that I couldn't win, but I also knew that losing, as I had to, was going to be bad -- very bad. When, therefore, my mother's death did not cripple me, I knew that this was just a sign that what was coming was going to be a wave spawned from a deeper shock -- slower to arrive and higher when it arrived. 

I tread water furiously as she died. I fairly ran from the deathbed. I told myself a true lie -- that I was giving up my place to her sister and to the rest of the family. I had nothing to say to her, nothing to hear, for we had spoken often of our love, and my own prickliness was something she was finally understanding. (I confess: she still could not tell my "exasperated" and "sad" faces from "angry" faces. When your own Mama thinks you're pissed off all the time, the problem might be in the face. (Then again, I've never been too in love with this one. (A very short line of ex-girlfriends can endorse the sentiment, by the way.)))

In truth, more was happening. (I cannot, by Goggle, find the true source of the definition of a swan as "Grace and calm above; furious paddling below." I was told it by an absent friend.) I was trying to avoid the evidence. If my mother was going to die, I didn't want to see it. I simply didn't need to, I thought. Let it be a fact, as abstract as my own death. Let it be a case of here and then gone. Let me drive in to the funeral and comment on the coffin. That's the modern thing, after all.

As I'm sure you know, I was there at the death. I arrived fifteen minutes after the actual death, but it's not long enough that the stranger was not still in the air. The skin's color changes in a flash, and the full relaxation of the face into a droop did not suggest rest, to me. My mother's life force was five times that of anyone else I've known. It was furious, and she barely had any flesh. Without animation, the corpse was and is a negative affirmed. It wasn't loss: it was lostness.

Prior to my mother's death, I had put two dogs to sleep in my arms, and the swooping in of death in those circumstances was frighteningly sad. This is similar, because now there is a body that bears only a resemblance to a being whom you love passionately and fully, but this is worse, because the body fights. Even as the hospice personnel were making it "easy," there was nothing easy at all. If I were to have an angelus that said, "All was well at all that time," it would not change the effect on me, because what struck deeply was the core of the core -- life itself versus ceasing. 

Prior to this grief, I would sing odes to death (mine only) daily. I considered it rather normal. After all, I knew that I was praising rest, not death, really, and, when I last came near to genuineness, I had shuffled away from suicide as being an insufficient improvement over living. Nevertheless, I had, and still actually have, little relish for the days. I have a mighty slate board in my mind of wins and losses, and the latter have been etched, while the former keep getting erased or forgotten. Every month, my poverty runs me against abject failure as an adult, and without feeling qualified as an adult, asserting my skills as anything else are unlikely.

That has stopped now. Now, I think that I want to live. I don't have a good reason for it. I won't even say, "I'll quit when the stupid people do." After all, they replace themselves, and more. I can only say that we should know Death. We should know the unreasoning enemy who bears us no malice. Death is behovely. We are the ones who fight it with more than just our will.

Tolstoy wondered what value any of his work had, in the face of death. The Death of Ivan Ilych is one explanation, but it's not Tolstoy's own. No, that story is not about meaning, but about meaningfulness during life. It is about one very, very narrow question: "What are you living for?" The contemporary Kierkegaard would say,
"And when the hourglass has run out, the hourglass of temporality, when the noise of secular life has grown silent and its restless or ineffectual activism has come to an end, when everything around you is still, as it is in eternity, then eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions about only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not." -- The Sickness Unto Death
Despair is any state wherein the infinite (soul) and finite (mind and body) and the barrier between them (self) are unaware of their own heterogeneity. (It works out much more simply and profoundly than it seems, but you can do that on your own.) Tolstoy was right, though, that we will never get out of despair if we never see death.

I am miserable (sum quod eris) (non posse non peccare) ("I am a man -- reason enough to be miserable" (Menander's Epitrepontes, I think, because it isn't Dyskolos), but to even feel that requires the flame. I have changed from my experience with dying, but not heroically. I am grieving, and not myself. Instead, I am, I think, far, far sadder than I was, because I have seen the inescapability of the flesh, the way that the rock refuses to let go of its figure, and I have heard the groans that must accompany the liberation.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pain and Suffering (the usual)

"Probitas laudatur et alget."--Juvenal Satires I 74
Virtue is praised, and it starves.

I've been in a dark, dark place for a while. Last Wednesday, before I found out that I had $88 to last until September 30th, I was faced with a choice: do I tell my first year students about 9/11 or not? If I do, then I'll have to go there. If I do not, then they may have no idea that their entire world was created out of an act of instinct rather than thought. As I have before, I chose to go. My thinking is that I may be the only person who lived through the two months that were "9/11" in New York City that these people will ever meet, and, if I do not tell them, they will never know.

I began, therefore, with the day. I have written about it before -- how the sky was more perfectly china plate blue than any sky I have ever seen in any place, how the temperature was the sort of chill that teases at one's senses like a lover, enticing and exhilarating at the same time, how the air was so clear that it was possible to see all the way from 90th street to the end of the island, how sparkles appeared on the painted steel lines, how sky scrapers popped one by one across the edge of the window frame on the #6 train. It was a day when even I wanted to play hookey, and I was a) new on the job, b) never skip. (I've taught with high fevers, with tubes running into my bile duct, and once while hungover.) I told them how a full house in the WTC would have meant up to 40,000 dead, so God (or random meterology) saved a lot of lives, because a whole ton of folks went in late.

I told them how, at 10:30, I went on my religious pilgrimage to the bodega for a bowtie donut and a cup of coffee. "You guys will learn that I am very religious," I said, "about lunch." I told them that I gazed down the vast hill and saw a snuffed candle and didn't know what I was seeing. I told them how we knew that we had orphans in front of us, that we were teaching children who had no parents, but we had to be cheerful and normal. Teachers whose own children worked in the towers had to show no signs of concern.

Then I told them about the young woman. I said that she was very attractive, and they seemed puzzled, so I had to add, "I'm a heterosexual man. I'm going to notice. You may think I'm old, but I'm not dead." I told them that she confirmed that people had jumped from the towers. She was filthy, and on 9/11 I silently upbraided her for it in my mind. I now know that it was the 120 mph dust cloud that made her dirty. She had said to me and another stranger, "I was in Liberty Plaza. I was where the bodies landed." I mentioned to the students that, all her life, she would have to deal with seeing people alive, falling, and then, in a fraction of a second, dead.

"What a jovial and a merry world would this be, may it please your worships,
but for that inextricable labyrinth of debts, cares, woes, want, grief,
discontent, melancholy, large jointures, impositions, and lies!"--Sterne
The people who saw 9/11 on their televisions received a different thing. They felt pain. We humans have only had movies and television a very, very short while, and we neither evolved nor were made with these technologies. If you see or hear a person get injured, you immediately wish to respond. This is human. Despite those people who say that we are all indifferent to one another and out to line our own pockets (shouldn't someone who says that be placed on a malarial island somewhere?), the fact is that we're pretty social. The sound of babies crying is used as a torture. We can't watch or hear another person get hurt without wanting to react to it, to make things better.

Out in America, and perhaps the world, people saw the planes hit the towers, heard the firemen calling for help, saw the towers fall, and then saw it all again and again and again. However, they could do nothing . . . nothing at all, to help. There was no "donate money here" button on the screen.

Television presenters are accustomed to narratives, to stories, and they told 9/11 through a narrative structure. Before the afternoon had come, they were saying who did it and going on to "Why do they hate us?" By the next day, the television news had a complete arc: "They hate us because of our freedom, and they struck us to take our freedom, and now the sleeping giant will get them for what they did."

When you feel pain and cannot respond, pain leads to frustration, and frustration leads to anger. People lined up to enlist in the armed forces. They were angry. W. Bush played on that anger. He might even have genuinely felt it for all I know. The fact is that watching a huge amount of pain delivered and being unable to anything to, about, or for the situation is going to make anyone angry. This is extremely potent stuff for the amygdala of anyone.

In New York City, however, we did not see it. Even the people who were at Liberty Plaza could not have seen it without incredibly bad luck. Had they seen one impact, they'd not have seen the other. Had they seen both, they'd not be standing there to see the collapses. Had they seen the collapses, they'd not have seen the ash and debris cloud. Instead, everyone heard the part that directly affected the individual. The people in New York City knew less about what was going on than the least attentive viewer in Hawaii.

Whatever we saw, heard, or felt, we responded. We had no choice but to respond. If we wished to, we could go down to the pile and volunteer, too. Many civilians volunteered on the first and second day. Even people in the outer boroughs, though, had to respond to the attack, because all had to get food. No trucks were allowed across the river. We had to get transportation. We had to find out if the people we knew were lost or had lost people.

Also, 9/11 never stopped for us. It played all night, each morning, all day, every day. The ash floated down for days. The smoke blew for over a month.

New Yorkers had an a) unrelenting, b) unexplainable, c) irreducible, d) meaningless and constant suffering. Pain makes you act. If a person has pain and cannot remedy it, the person feels anger. Suffering is otherwise. Suffering will not listen to anyone saying, "They hate us because of our freedoms." Aside from that statement being irrational, the statement is entirely non-ameliorative. No one and no thing is made better by understanding that someone hates us for freedom. If the fires burn today and will tomorrow, it does not matter. Furthermore, there is no "make them pay for this." Not only did "the evil men who did this" already "pay" for what they did (they were in the pile), but the fire would burn tomorrow just the same, whether some Afghanistani village were blown up or not.

Suffering is knowing that the air is harmful and that it will be that way for a month. It is seeing ash-covered bicycles being discovered long after the event. It is men with submachine guns suddenly showing up in the subway station to "reassure" us! Suffering teaches no lessons. Suffering has no meaning. Suffering is not sent or received.

Job is the greatest book about suffering ever written. Job does not learn anything, precisely. However, Job grows as a soul in the course of his suffering. You and I are not Job. At the apogee of his growth, Job is able to say, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." He is not happy with the giving or the taking, but rather saying that the power is God's and that God remains good irrespective of which act is involved or how it affects us. He is not, I think, saying what Leibnitz says -- that what is painful or bad to a human is good in the grand scheme of things -- but rather that however giving or taking treats the happiness of a person is incapable of lessening God's glory and goodness.

To arrive at a conclusion like that and not be a quietist or defeatist, to keep insisting that he will not confess a false sin, nor lose faith, Job's soul is truly great. There is no lesson, though. Had Job not reached that wisdom, the suffering would have been the same, and coming to the understanding doesn't make the boils drop off.

If you are punched in the arm, you will want to match aggression for aggression, but if you suffer, you won't think that more suffering will help. I think about a bomb or missile that blows up a building and kills four or five innocents but also kills the most lethal terrorist. The village will neither know nor care about the military value of killing this aggressor, but it will know suffering, as it has to have funerals, tend to orphaned children, live with seeing that flash of light and the flicker between life and death. It will have to repair a building, constantly aware that here was where this or that man died. This is why it was hard for those of us who went through 9/11 to agree with the Bush administration's need to go "get" the bad guys.

On the other hand, for those who felt the pain and frustration and, honestly, impotence, of seeing that much pain without redress, a vast act of aggression was on the cards. The nation's instinct was pushing, and that allowed for politicians with dark ambitions and black hearts to get passed unthinkable laws and to reverse America's position on human rights without a discussion, much less a vote, even less a judicial review.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How Bill O'Reilly Can Be Accidentally Correct

Well, Bill O'Reilly is going to have a heck of a time being correct on purpose. He made an argument, a very smug one, on the absolute proof of the existence of God. In case you missed it, it happened a while ago that O'Reilly said,
O'REILLY: See, the water, the tide comes in and it goes out, Mr. Silverman. It always comes in, and always goes out. You can't explain that.
His statement was stupid, and it still is. In fact, it is a bottomless stupidity, because it requires Mr. O'Reilly to not merely not know something that most of us know, but to actually forget things that he almost surely learned.

What causes the tides? The moon. The moon is large enough to attract rocks, to attract water, to pull on everything, even making the Earth bulge just a wee bit. Effectively, as we go from day to night, as the moon goes from over the water to opposite the water, a huge wave develops from the center of the ocean rising, then falling. Voila! The tides come in and go out. 

However, O'Reilly thought that the tides were mysterious, proof, in their reliability, of God. Nothing so vast could be so precise and so regular, it seemed to him, without the omnipotent being attentive to it. Interestingly, another argument of ignorance for God is that something is too unreliable or small to be anything but evidence of God. Thereby people will argue that a cancer in remission or a car accident must establish a divine intervention (randomness mandating a controlling intelligence) and that the modern tide tables' precision proves that God is being a global harbormaster.

I know that there is a God, but I would not offer the sort of argument that either Bill O'Reilly did -- where the vastness of anything proves it or the bewilderment of chance demands it -- and the idea of holding up such an argument as if it were self-proven is sadly funny. However, Bill O'Reilly, as I said, got accidentally correct. The first place was by showing, rather than knowing or telling, the process of his need.

It's not my place to judge anyone except students who pay me, and then I only judge their writing. I do not know the depth or complexity of Bill O'Reilly's faith, and I hope that it is deeper than he showed in that anecdote. What he showed, though, was a faith born out of incomprehension rather than mysticism and an assumption that Authority is always in control of all large actions. A person touched by that need will carry with him an assumption that "the government" is in control, that a bad meal at a restaurant was the result of "the staff" persecuting him, etc.

O'Reilly's attitude toward tides is not fundamentalist Christian. We can glance back a couple of centuries and see how actual puritains viewed the inexplicably large. See Daniel Defoe's The Storm as one grand example. At that time, no one knew how the winds worked, really, although they were getting close, and you can see that Defoe ascribes divine power to a place beyond the physical but saw in individual providence of survival or perishing as tinged with God's power. Defoe, unlike some today, had the brains to realize that bad events did not equal a scourge. (See also his A Journal of the Plague Year.)

O'Reilly's "proof," that tides are too big to exist without some Authority in charge, is a true statement about a mind set, a psychology. For some people, all things incomprehensible are also under authority. The atomic bombs are well regulated, the NSA spying is too big to understand and thus a self-aware and self-controlled entity. 

The other way O'Reilly was accidentally accurate is that, in the most technical sense, we really don't know what causes the tides.
  1. The moon's mass is sufficient to attract the oceans, which are 70% of the earth's surface (0.02% of the mass of the planet).
  2. Time lapses with cameras on a Foucault's pendulum show that stones on a mountain side rise and fall with the moon.
  3. #2 is probably wrong on the how they compensate with the cameras.
  4. In physics, gravity is the weak force that all particles of matter have attracting to other particles of matter.
So, each bit of matter wants to be near all other matter.
Very well. How?

The truth is that the simplest, most logical explanation for the tides is the gravitational effect of the moon. All persons of sense would accept that answer. Certainly, that's my answer. However, Isaac Newton, when he was working with gravity, couldn't explain how it reached out. He had to resort to spirits, in effect, and "fluxions" to get things attracted. No one can see a "gravitron" or any strings pulling pieces of matter together. We universally recognize the force as present, but it isn't even like a magnet with iron filings.

Bill O'Reilly's explanation is no explanation for the existence of God, although it does give us insight into a paranoid personality complex. Further, if he were to be correct, on the basis that no one can adequately explain gravity, he would exchange one type of indeterminacy (perfect regularity, but no visible cause) for another (perfect agency, but no visible means).

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Me and My Brain

My mother died at the end of March, during Holy Week. Since then, I have discovered that, just as no one in my family knows me (and I'm easy to know -- I've left a pretty wide swathe across the Internet), so I don't really know them, either. Alike, we know where people were, and we do not know what time has done, or what they have done during the battle with time.

I knew my brother as a man of slogans, bluster, intimidation, and basic goodness. Hard times had not done good things to that kernel. I have become, since they knew me, maybe lazier.

First, I don't argue with dumb people anymore. Well, I very, very rarely do. I'm far more apt to explain something once and say, "I can see that you're not trying to understand" and then let them go hang. This is a function of security in my opinions. I now know that they're not weak, so I can be more certain that the person disagreeing and wheeling out anecdotal evidence and "This one time" proofs is self-deluding.

Second, I don't have much in the way of hopes. Quite a while ago, I scaled those back to simply no longer being a host for parasites and staying out of the elements. Being free of parasites is important, but it's not easy to achieve these days. You get a cell phone or some cool new service like Netflix, and the next thing you know it hatches out into a parasite that eats your bread before you can.

Third, I expect disaster. I have learned not to expect it, expect it, but I have seen arbitrary firings and layoffs, and I have seen nepotistic promotions and replacements far too often to hope for a meritocracy in any sense where my merits might count -- provided I even had any.

So, about that being lazier, I think I can explain.

Oncet, I'd blame all my bad features on birth defects. Finally, I realized that that was stupid and counter-productive.

Let us suppose that the psychoanalysts of the Tavistock school are correct and children who are hospitalized frequently and for long periods of time are liable to depression. So? Let us suppose that any boy disqualified from sports will have some maladjustments in social skills. So? All of the things that might have been true could be interesting explanations of past phenomena, but they bore no relationship on any present tense. I.e. you know why you felt or were more likely to feel a particular way, so bully for you. Now, though, you make yourself.

After that, I even got free of the physical complaints. I got all better, thanks to medicine. Hooray.

[Essayists always have digressions. This is supposed to look like one.] I always knew that my feet hurt. . . a lot. They hurt much more than anyone else's. They hurt when I was twenty-two, and twenty-five, and thirty, and forty, and forty-five. In other words, they have been constantly painful, every day. I can wear rubber sneakers or hard soled shoes, and my feet hurt. I can get Dr. Scholes's most expensive orthotics, and my feet hurt. I can even get a foot rub from a pretty girl, and my feet hurt.

A neurologist the other month, when talking to me about my spinal arthritis, said, "Oh, that? That's probably neuropathy." I began to protest that I was not some slovenly diabetic, and he explained that all the radioactive tracers and compounds I had gotten in my veins for all those years tended to settle in the extremities and kill nerves. In other words, it was medicine killing nerves in my feet, and thus there was nothing to do for it.

I have also always gotten tired more quickly than other people. I hear the same thing in response to this as I heard about the feet: "Lose some weight." Ok. I have. I'm just as tired. "Lose some more weight." Alright. I have no objection to that, but I rather suspect it won't have the magical properties being touted. In fact, now that I think back, "Dyspnea" is a side effect of every medicine I take and a primary symptom of what I grew up with. Also, the warranty I got on my last surgeries said, "Normal lifespan," not normal life.

I may, eventually, be able to forgive myself for how tired I get. I will never be able to convince anyone else, though, that I'm not getting lazier as the days go by.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Where's My Montage?

Cinema tries to imitate life, both as it occurs and as it is perceived. When it imitates the perception of life, it's expressionist, and some expressionist marvels have been so true, so accurate to our perceptions, that they've been repeated to the point of cliche.

You know what I'm talking about, even if the terms are unfamiliar. The person in an accident on screen has everything go into slow motion. Real time doesn't do that, but we experience time that way sometimes during traumas. Some director decides, during a climatic scene, to have a single flower in a brilliant color to indicate the real way that human perceptions work, where a detail that seems irrelevant may stand out more to a participant than the materially important events.

Well, how about the early parts of "The Graduate?" You know what I'm talking about. Dustin Hoffman puts on his new SCUBA gear and walks into a party of people speaking gibberish to him and sinks to the bottom of the swimming pool. The replica of his tropical fish tank and his private metaphor (being on view, being an object), as well as the director's (being cut off, being unintelligible, having dialog streams that belong to different languages/species) is perfect. You loved it. I loved it. After all, we were always Dustin Hoffman's character, because we were the camera.

Then came the fast motion montage. You know this, too. The framing character is impassive, stunned, catatonic, and the rest of the scene is filled with a stop-motion or slow-film-stock film of people running at sixteen times normal speed and interacting. They're all doing things, while the character (you) is out of it (out of time). The point of view character has declared a separate peace.

In the days of rock videos, the technique was a cliche, if only because the feeling was a cliche. It's a large part of what adolescence and young adulthood is: being overwhelmed, like The Graduate, and incapable.

However, the heart of it, of the humanity that affirms the cinematic gesture, that makes us resonate, is in much graver circumstances than the prom or graduation. The heart of it is the inconsolable and unreasonable. The heart of it is birth and death. The lie of it is that the point of view character who becomes a cork in the maelstrom does not end up safe and saved, but farther at sea, with dilemmas that cannot be reconciled.

In short, it is a cinematic lie. It is an expressionistic truth that is a living falsehood.

Nevertheless, I sure as hell wish I could have one right now. My mother is in hospice care for her last days, and her death is all going to be on me. All the decisions are mine, and all the financial burden will land here, but, more to the point, her death will explode my life, because my life for seven years has been devoted, first of all, to looking after her. I always figured that, after that did not really matter: my job would be done. It sure would be good if the montage were true, and not mimetic.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Crude Matter

"The Curious Joy of the Flame" Copyright & stuff to me
Each place shows hard times in its own way. Only the poor neighborhoods demonstrate the change of fortunes immediately, and eastern Baltimore went from doors to plywood masks over the wounded facades of row houses in 2002-4 as the Inner Harbor prosperity turned out to be another Baltimore County extension. Wealthy places show that hard times have come by admitting low end shopping into their world rather than by diminishing the opulence. The middle does as the middle does -- it slowly slides back and forth between fewer and more loan offices, gold buyers, gold bugs, recycling centers, and Fiat dealers.

Rural America is not very much like suburban America. It has grown like it in speech and in many sexual mores and outlooks, but the society of the small town is generally quite different from the lack of a society found in a suburb or the duress society of an urban core. Land and ownership of major businesses keep the top stratum of a rural town where it is. I could tell hard times had come when the drive from home to work was suddenly a drive through a clear cutting camp.

The SUV's don't disappear, nor the Lexis cars. The trees do, though, as rural towns are land based, and people will believe that the trees on their land can give emergency money during a disaster. In 2010, I saw an entire region sell trees. The perspective of the world got much shorter all of a sudden. I'm no fan of this thinking, but I'm no fan of the pine tree -- which is the most common citizen taken from the soil (Roy Barnes ran for governor of Georgia last time saying that Georgia was the "Saudi Arabia of pine trees"). My opposition, though, is not simply aesthetic.

In North Carolina, the botanical garden is pretty cool. They have all the pwetty flowers, but the real botanical garden is along a series of trails that go miles through the woods and rise in elevation by a couple of hundred feet. Along the way, there are plaques marking out the zones the trail is emulating and illustrating the plants of the state present there. That's how a state botanical garden ought to do it, I think. It was there that I was walking and came to a mature tree fallen over a creek, and it had a plaque.

The botanical garden explained that this mature tree fell over because of run-off. 1. People put in parking lots and roads that do not absorb rain water. 2. The rain water hits local streams in vaster amounts and at greater speeds. 3. This stream, way back in the woods, is fed by those streams running behind subdivisions of houses. 4. The water is running fast and digs out the dirt underneath the tree. 5. A tree that had been growing comfortably for 120 years falls over.

1999, outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina
My employer faced a briefcase nuke of debt. When it had needed a grant, it had gotten a loan, and the interest on that loan had consumed all of its proceeds and then some. It sold a vast lot of land that fronted the highway in 2011, and its trees of value were gone quickly, then the rest were burned before bulldozers went to work on the soil.

These last few months, I've been grimmer and less operatic in my morbidity. This is because all of the talk of lingering shadows has been closer.

My mother's condition is puzzling. She will not initiate any actions. She will sit or lie and stare, with a mind fully active. She is not vacant, and any conversation with her reveals how vivacious she is, but she won't stand up, won't walk, won't move around anywhere. As for whether or not she is confused, that is a question of which six hour period you speak to her in. One segment is good, and another is bad, and another is acceptable but trending good or bad. This means, for me, that I have to be extraordinarily involved in ways that I had and do and will dread.

Yesterday, a colleague of mine died of liver cancer.

Also, as I was coming home and praying that my car's wheels stayed on, I passed a horrible wreck, where a tan sedan had its top smashed in and torn off sideways. A large -- very large -- tree from the lot the employer had sold was down across the roadway, too. I prayed for the ambulance workers that they have skill and success, and I prayed for those involved, that their lives might be spared.

Two college freshmen had been in that tan car, and the tree had fallen on them as they were going 40 mph or thereabouts. They were both killed at the scene.

Death mocks the young. It turns the sententious old men's voices to cruelty. Those who had said, Think of your future, and Plan for your life after college, are moved from the wise to the vicious, and those who said, Listen to the voice, for you have been called here must choke. The death of young men is vinegar and ash. They die in the high tide of life, when passions are stronger than reason or body, when the heart's truths can't be contained.

The middle aged death is the explosion of worlds. My colleague's wife becomes a widow, which is no thing to marry. The children, below ten years, have to hear echoes of God's purpose and not understand that death is not a judgment, not an evil, not a sentence carried out on this person or that. They have to know that love is undimmed and undiminished by death, and that death can quiet the body, but it cannot remove a father, truly. All changes, and bills mount, and the future looks to have been written in black on black, night in night, because of the jeering interruption of death, which said "No" to plans.

Death to the old is no better, for it sounds the bell. As one friend goes or another, or as one acquaintance or another goes, the generation and all the world a person has known announces that it is passed and that you, you too, belong in that quiet. The constant funerals become death's repeated tattoo: "Isn't it time for you, too?" Then one sits waiting -- fully alert and hoping for a catastrophic blow that will spare the dribbled out life of the thousand indignities.

I am taking a break from talking about suicide and gloom, myself. Instead, let's look over at those fields. The reason the trees are worth keeping is the vast roots. They make a city underneath the surface. They are interlaced fingers of roots clasping hands. When death comes to them, it comes, but it should not be because we took the soil from beneath the roots. It should not be because rain, the life giver, has cut through our breast.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Normal Town

I used to live in Normaltown. In fact, I lived on Normal Avenue, in a house that dated from the 19th century and was owned by a woman whose avarice was the only quality that exceeded her vanity. She bilked me out of about a thousand dollars in rent, in the end, and I endured much there. Normaltown meant having half the floor devoted to a woman who got her 12 year old son only when his father was in prison, so I kept hoping that he would go straight. This child loved to roll a skateboard across the wooden porch in front to make my dog bark, and he would pound on my front window, when he thought I wasn't home, to torture my dog. It meant a cranky man upstairs who could only have downward thrusting sex with his old lady.

We should not dwell too often among the normal, for they are a nasty group, as I learned. They were, however, peppered with generations that sported faces of normality past. There was a grandmother nearby who was called Goody. Her grandchildren were famous, and she was sweet -- adopting neighborhood strays. I cannot imagine her having to confront the blind, indifferent killer of AIDS when it struck down one of her beloveds, and I do not wish to.

The letter carrier violated the Sabbath?
 My colleagues there, in Athens, were pretty normal, too. They were a collation rather than collection of hipsters and haircuts that could be cowed fairly easily, but they drove down knowledge as if it were a secret lover or a conquest. Honestly, I had a feeling that at any moment one of them would give another a swirlie. Nevertheless, they had wit enough, betimes, especially in service to cruelty. They were, as I say, collated, as they were each indexed, marked at the corners and arrayed orthogonally. Each had feet planted against the root of the middle class, and the attitudes and angles each particular one assumed from that base simply made a fuzzy orange.

Beside a cliff made of kudzu, or an ocean wave of kudzu stopped for a moment while you're looking, only to crash over house, road, car, and stream as soon as you look away, inflicts a sort of reality on the landscape. REM's first album had come out, and people around the country were wondering what the vines on the back of "Murmur" were. Whatever the intention of the band or art director on the album, the effect I got of the design was that there was a suffocation in the South. All during that time, I agreed with the theme. It was a very Harry Crews point of view -- this idea that something essential, or essentially wicked, was being starved of breath beneath what was quaintly termed southern culture. It was fashionable to wonder what southern culture would be in a few years, too, since we were already hip to the K-Marting of our land and the malls of the city. I regard such talk as blather now.

What I was feeling, anyway, was intimidation. The bigness of the inexorable is always present. It is never easy to shake, either. If the kudzu doesn't shake your confidence, then the river might. The small thing that, unattended, takes on its own way and dwarfs all your work is real in a way that eternal law is real.

I was also feeling the smallness of Normaltown. The expectation that of course you would scam your renters, if you could was normal. I knew it then, and the years have simply increased the font. In the Bronx, the buffet steakhouses had plaques up with lists of rules about how far away people had to stand from one another, how many pockets could be on their coats, etc., all because a buffet was of course a thing to scam. The phone company has online bill paying, of course so that they could close all their regional offices and make the mailed-in bills due at offices as far from the customer as possible so as to increase late fees. They made the online bill pay instructions small and hard to follow of course to trip up older customers because it's normal to maximize "profits" in late fees.

What's WRONG with me, if I don't learn to rip off every company I can? I should sign up for the free six months and then change to the next company after that. It's normal.

I am not better than the normal. In fact, their cars are not broken and dangerous. They do not worry about surviving until tomorrow for the paycheck as much as I do. I may be too smart to have an adjustable rate mortgage, but I also have no mortgage at all. My decade of not having to worry about every day's totals has never come, and it never will, because I do not have the normal preoccupation every day of finding a way to screw up and over. It is not normal to wake up and hear grinding from a disappeared ball joint.

I do not like Normaltown and its mania. When we were short of money recently, I sold my 24k gold class ring. I needed $100, and so I asked for it. The pawn broker agreed in a flash. Gold fixed at $1,800 an ounce. How weird was I being? Well, to even blame myself for not having gotten the maximum is to admit that I was seeking a profit, that I was buying and selling and that the trafficking in misery and memory is legitimate. I do not. I do not accept that normal.

I wish, before I had moved away, that I had planted kudzu in the backyard.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

What I am learning

"The greatest pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him, and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too." -- Samuel Butler (of Erewhon).
I missed church again today, and I was going to write about my new literary revelation, which is that no age deserves to say that it has poetry of any sort until it can approach what has already been written in Job 14:18-22:
"But the mountain falls and crumbles away,
and the rock is removed from its place;
the waters wear away the stones;
the torrents wash away the soil of the earth;
so you destroy the hope of mortals;
You prevail forever against them, and they pass away;
you change their countenance, and send them away.
Their children come to honor, and they do not know it;
they are brought low, and it goes unnoticed.
They feel only the pain of their own bodies;
and mourn only for themselves." (RSV)
When anyone gets blinkin' near that, then there is poetry. Until then, everyone needs to shut up the shop and wait patiently, reading.

I'm not going to say that, though. I'm also not going to go into renewed raptures about "books that changed my life" and tell you all to buy a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds, especially since Dalkey Archive Press seems to be run by a bunch of jackanapes, and getting an old copy is dodgy and a foreign copy is expensive.

No. Instead, I'm going to take back something really depressing I wrote before. In "Where Do Babies Come From," I wrote about how youth signs to age, how the old "hear the mermaids singing" with despair. It's one of my less read posts, but it's one of the more maudlin ones. I was non-plussed by the commercials made by the director of "The Immortals." They weren't homoerotic as much as. . . queerly erotic. . . in that they weren't aimed at getting young people hot and bothered about being young people. I wrote:
"The youth of beauty, and the beauty of youth, demand those who lost years to watch and demand them to seek out the joy of their own vital pulse, the concerns of the overhang and undertow that remove their exceptions, and who can blame either party? The one who missed and misses longed and longs and surfaces briefly in the filling of senses, and the one in potential is compelled and curtailed, devoted and dovetailed by and in time. Nature could allow no exception, and will complies."
"We, like the commercial, long for what is lost, and we will buy some jeans. We will need some help, perhaps, need a supply, but we will avoid that longing and shovel dirt into the hole."

I take nothing back, but I should point out that a hidden caveat is necessary: these statements are true for the fragmented. J. Alfred Prufrock, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, L'Etranger, the Misfit -- these folks, when they get to the old age home, slaver pointlessly and go back to their rooms for the knotted rope. (You guys noticed that I'm not linking my allusions anymore? I have. I wonder why that is? Probably lazy rather than stuck up.)

Oh, I shouldn't be exclusionary: we would find Mrs. Haversham, Catherine, and Cordelia at the home, too, although with less grim resolutions or loud complaints, probably. We men whine worst.

Every dog I have had has taught me something. I am convinced that each is an angelos, even if none are particularly angelic. Well, Macheath was. Macheath was the best behaved, most worried and conscientious creature I have ever met on any number of legs. She showed me what duty means and set before me a bar that I shall never meet. As I was missing church, I went to go walk the dog and pray aimlessly (both of the actions).

Let me tell you what Rambolina is teaching me.
Other than that you can have a trepanning scar in the top of your head and show no ill effects, except an inability to house train, she's showing me that a ball really, truly, cannot move if no one is there to throw it.

While we were out, she began scanning the tree tops for squirrels. Now, we all know how dogs feel about squirrels, and rabbits, and mice, and shiny bugs, and turtles, but Stella actually watches them up in the trees. She then began to try to climb a tree to get at a noisy squirrel. After she had wrapped herself around the trunk a couple of times, she looked over at me and as much as said, "Now, please undo this."

That longing, that "call of surfeit to loss," is only a sharp pain, a knife in the joints, for we who are broken away. In a family, even with a puppy, the youth's surfeit shares and supplies the old. It is a sweet drug that tempers the melancholy and lifts the gravity soaked mind. It is what is meant to be, as the old remain the cushion against which the young can always punch and declaim, and the young offer strength against the eroding wind and water.

That's my Sunday school lesson for the day.