Credidero #4: Absurdity

My father was born and raised in Albemarle, a North Carolina Piedmont mill and rail town near the Uwharrie Mountains. He left there after college to embark on a long and successful Marine Corps career, living and traveling around the world, but his parents stayed on in the same house on Melchor Drive until they died, Papas before Grannies, both passing when I was in my twenties.

While I never lived in Albemarle, I had two decades’ worth of grandparent visits there, with many fond memories still held dear of those mostly gentle days. Until I developed teenage cynicism and ennui, one of my favorite things about going to Albemarle was hunkering down in a comfy chair to read my grandmothers’ copy of The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. I have that battered copy of the book to this day, as my aunt gave it to me after my grandmother died, knowing that no one else had ever read or loved it as much as I did.

(Amusing [to me] side note: The book was given to my grandmother by her friend, who everyone called “Miz Doby,” in June, 1966. I opened it today and looked at the front-piece inscription and smiled to realize that I still do not know what Miz Doby’s first name was, since she just signed it “E. Doby.” They were both elementary school teachers, so presumably the book was originally intended for my grandmother’s students, before I laid claim to it).

As is often the case with big hard-covers that are regularly handled by children, the spine of the book is cracked, there are stains throughout it, and it’s clear to see where the most-loved, most-read pages were, as they’ve been bent back, breaking the glue that held the pages to the spine. If I just set the Untermeyer book on its spine and let it fall open as it will, it drops to pages 208 and 209, containing Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and “Humpty Dumpty’s Recitation.” If I flip to other broken-open pages, I see these poems:

  • “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” and “Calico Pie” by Edward Lear.
  • “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash
  • “Old Mother Hubbard” by Sarah Catherine Martin
  • “The Butterfly’s Ball” by William Roscoe
  • “How To Know The Wild Animals” by Carolyn Wells
  • “Poor Old Lady, She Swallowed a Fly” by Unknown

Some of these poets and some of the poems are better known than the others, but they all do share one prominent recurring similarity: they are all nonsense verses, rhythmically engaging to the ear, deeply earnest in laying out terrific tales without any meaningful anchors in the real world whatsoever. They and others like them could readily be described as “absurdities,” which my desktop dictionary defines as “things that are extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously.”

I can still recite “Jabberwocky” by heart half a century on, and my early love of the absurd has pervasively infused both the inputs into my intellectual development, and the outputs of my own creative work, throughout my entire life, and likely through however many years I have remaining before me.  Indulge me three examples on the output side, please: these are short poems that I wrote when I was in my 30s or 40s, clearly related to, and likely inspired by, the doggerel, wordplay, and rhythmic whimsy of those gentler children’s poems in the Untermeyer collection:

“Tales of Brave Ulysses S. Vanderbilt, Jr.”

I don’t know how to make this damn thing go
James Monroe won it in the hammer throw
Won it very long ago
Won it in the hammer throw

Time goes by while we’re learning how to fly
William Bligh dreamed of sour rhubarb pie
Dreamed it with his inner eye
Dreamed of sour rhubarb pie

On the sea, Bligh and Monroe sail with me
One degree south of Nashville, Tennessee
South of Rome and Galilee
South of Nashville, Tennessee

Home at last, feeling like an age has past
Thomas Nast drew us through his looking glass
Drew us as we crossed the pass
Drew us through his looking glass

I don’t know how to make this damn thing go
Even so, sell it quick to Holy Joe
Sell it painted red Bordeaux
Sell it quick to Holy Joe

Sell it with a piping crow
Sell it for a load of dough
Sell it at the minstrel show
Sell it, man, and then let’s go

“Field Agents”

“Let him out, he’s coming now, he’s alone,”
(I can not tolerate the taste of this megaphone).
Deep in the coop, the fox, he sees that some hens have flown,
his cover’s blown, (tympanic bone, Rosetta stone).

And then the hawk drops down from his perch on high,
(spearing the fox through, he lets out a little cry),
Justice is quick here, we stand and we watch him die,
I dunno why (fluorescent dye, blueberry pie).

We pull the poor poultry out from the killing floor
(some of the pups get sick there in the feath’ry gore),
out on the lawn, we stack them up and note the score:
it’s twenty-four (esprit de corps, espectador).

Back in the barn, now, safe in our little stalls
(I watch those damn bugs climbing around the walls),
We sleep and eat hay, waiting ’til duty calls,
as the time crawls (Niagara Falls, no one recalls).

“Natural History”

The ammonites farmed with diazinon
to kill eurypterids beneath the soil.
Which perished there in darkness ‘neath the lawn,
but rose in eighty million years as oil,
which dinosaurs refined for natural gas
to cook their giant land sloths on steel spits.
As sloths were butchered, forests made of grass
rose from the plains to hide the black tar pits,
where trilobites would swim to lay their eggs.
Their larvae flew and bit the mastodons,
while tiny primates scampered round their legs,
feeding on the fresh diazinon.
At night, the primates fidget as they dream
of interstellar rockets powered by steam.

What do these, or the many other poems like them that I have written over the years, mean? Damned if I know. But damned if I also don’t think that they provide better insights into my own psyche and mental processes than the more lucid prose I write professionally and for pleasure. My brain’s a messy thing, and there’s a lot of stuff going  on inside it that doesn’t make a bit of sense, but which nevertheless consumes a fair amount of internal attention and firepower. These absurd little nuggets spill out of my brain easily and frequently, and I enjoy extracting and preserving them. They seem to reflect a particular lens through which I often view the world: it’s astigmatic, has finger-prints on it, is lightly coated with something greasy and opaque that can be rubbed around but not removed, and there are spider cracks latticed throughout its wobbly concave surfaces.

So many of my tastes in the various arts align closely and clearly with this warped view of the world, as though my internal center of absurdity vibrates in recognition and appreciation when presented with similarly incongruous external stimuli. Examples: I have been drawn to surrealist paintings since early childhood, I regularly read books in which language and mood are far more important than linear plot or narrative, and I once did a little feature on the films that move me most, titled: My Favorite Movies That Don’t Make Any Sense At All.

I must admit that since rolling the online dice three weeks ago to decide which of my Credidero topics I would cover this month, I have had to repeatedly tamp down the very strong urge, prompted by the word “absurdity,” to merrily write 3,000+ words of absolutely meaningless gibberish wordplay and call it “done,” rather than actually considering what “absurdity” really means, and processing what I really think and believe about it. And that initial, innate reaction to just be absurd, as I do, has made this a more challenging topic for me to write about than ones that have come before it. Whenever I thought about how to frame the narrative, I always found myself in some sort of “eyeball looking at itself” scenario, an impossible infinite do-loop of self-reflection where I know the mirror and the object reflected within it are both irregularly warped and pointed in different directions, and I don’t (and can’t) quite know what the true image is.

I must also admit that this isn’t the first time I’ve reflected on such matters, even without the formal structure of a public writing project. I have long found that the easiest way to break out of a wobbly self-reflective do-loop has been to create and export a new loop, so I can look at it from the outside, not the inside. When I read the poems reproduced above today (and there are a lot like them in my collection), they strike me as relics of just that type of act or urge: I wrote them as absurdities, I see them as absurdities now, I embrace those absurdities, I know that I created those absurdities, I know that the act of creating them was absurd, and that any attempt to explain them would be equally absurd.

But at least those bits of absurdity now reside outside of me, self-contained and complete, where I can see them more clearly, rather than having them whirring on blurry spindles within me, occasionally shooting off sparks that ignite other bits of weird kindling lodged along the exposed and frayed wiring of a gazillion neurons packed inside my skull. They mean nothing to me objectively, but they mean everything to me subjectively, because they’re so closely aligned with the ways that I think, and what I think about, and how I view the world around me — or at least how I view some world around me, even if it’s not the one I actually live in.

Pretty absurd, huh?

When I do try to order my thoughts on this topic in ways that can be meaningfully communicated to others, I’m struck by the fact that many of the poems in Untermeyer’s great poetry collection for young people are just as absurd as mine are, and just as absurd as the playground chants that kids around the world somehow seem to learn by osmosis, or the songs we sing to little ones, or the goofy talking animal imagery of countless children’s films and television shows. Utterly absurd! All of it, and all of them! But they love it, don’t they, and we seem to love giving it to them, don’t we? When we describe the whimsy of those ridiculous art forms as “absurd,” we imbue the word with fun, and frolic, and laughter and light. Look at the smiles! Look at them! Joy!

Then minutes later, we turn from our young ones, and we check our Twitter feeds or pick up news magazines or turn on our televisions and are confronted with words, actions, or events precipitated by political figures with whom we disagree, and we may scowlingly brand their actions or activities as “absurd” with vehemence, and bitterness, and anger, and darkness in our hearts. Absurdity is somehow colored in different hues when it manifests itself in real-world ways outside of the acts of the creative class, or outside of the bubble of childhood. And rightly so, as is most profoundly illustrated in our current political clime, where elected or appointed public figures routinely engage in acts or spew forth words that are (to again quote the dictionary) “extremely unreasonable, so as to be foolish or not taken seriously.” 

It is to our own peril, unfortunately, when we don’t take such manifestations of public, political absurdity seriously. Talking animals don’t kill people. Absurd public policies do. Nonce and portmanteau words don’t break people’s souls. Propaganda and hate speech do.  Surrealistic imagery does not poison minds. Unrealistic demagoguery does. Absurd fantasy stories about non-scientific worlds do not destroy the real world. Absurd fantasy policies anchored in non-scientific worldviews do — and there is only one real world within which they function and do harm, no matter how fabulously untethered their sources may be.

People with severe mental illness may act publicly in absurd ways, and we sympathetically view that as a part of their pathology. But what are we to make of people without such pathologies who consciously, actively engage in absurd behaviors specifically designed to remove value and meaning from the lives of others? I’d move them from the absurd pile to the evil pile, frankly. And we’d all be better off were we to rid ourselves of their noxious influences, which is why the fact that 50%+ of our country-folk don’t bother to vote at all is, in itself, utterly absurd.

There’s a vast repository of philosophical thought and writing (from Camus and  Kierkegaard, most prominently) dedicated to understanding absurdity and the ways in which it manifests itself in our lives, and how we are supposed to respond to or function in its grip. Not surprisingly, the philosophy of absurdism is built on the same “dark” theoretical frameworks as existentialism and nihilism, where there is a fundamental conflict between our desire to imbue our lives with value and meaning, and our inability to find such objective worth within an irrational universe that has no meaning, but just is. Once again, the nonsense that is charming when fictionalized for children is often appalling when framed as the architecture within which adult humans function. Why try, when in the end we all die, and we will never know why?

It’s easy for me to embrace and understand my own sense of inner absurdity as an adjunct to the whimsical absurdity of youth, but not so easy to reconcile my inner landscape with the often awful external vistas associated with public, political, and philosophical absurdity. Can I love one and hate the other, or is that in itself an absurd mental position? Is there meaning to be found between those poles, or is life just a pointless, endless Sisyphean push up a hill until the rock crushes us for the last time?

I took a stab at framing my thoughts on why we are what we are some years back, and, of course, I framed it as an absurdist piece called “Seawater Sack Guy Speaks.” If pressed about the article and what it says or means, or why I wrote it, I’ll usually frame it as something more akin to the absurd whimsy of youth, ha ha ha, but if I’m honest here, it’s really a bit more than that, and there’s more objective truth about what I believe, or what I will have believed (credidero) within it than there are in most of my absurd writings. It begins thusly . . .

There’s an explanation for why we exist in the form we do, and I know what it is.

We are all about moving little pieces of the ocean from one place to the other. That’s all we are: sacks of seawater that can convert solar energy into locomotive force, so that we can move our little pieces of the ocean around. Unlike most seawater sacks, though, we are conscious of our selves, and this consciousness leads us to question our primary universal role as movers of hydrogen, oxygen, salts and minerals.

Consciousness is an electrochemical process that our particular strain of seawater sacks have evolved. No better or worse or different than a tail, a gall bladder, or an appendix. Because we don’t understand how this electrochemical process works, we use the very same electrochemical process to create mystical, non-biological explanations for its workings.

And it ends with this . . .

I’m not going to be carrying any metaphysical seawater around any metaphysical heaven or hell when my sack breaks down and releases all its atoms, so I figure I should use every bit of the consciousness I’ve evolved, here and now, to enjoy my fleeting, warm, moist moment in the Sun. This is not to say that I’ve a problem with other sacks of seawater whose enjoyment of their own fleeting, warm, moist moments in the Sun involves the belief in something different. If such chemical processes provide them joy or comfort (or at least the chemical processes that cause their seawater to produce such sensations), then such is their right, and who am I to force my chemistry upon them?

I take joy and comfort from just being conscious, and consider that scientifically miraculous enough.

Is that absurd? Yes. Is it a “good” or the “bad” manifestation of absurdity? I think the former, but I know some would say that if I shared it with a child, I’d inflict harm, and some would say that walking around as an adult thinking such thoughts could readily slot me into the pathological spectrum of absurd beliefs and behaviors. And they may be right. I am absurd, I admit it, inside and out — but I am not a philosophical absurdist. I do believe we can glean meaning and value in an unfeeling, unthinking, and unknowing universe. And I do not believe that a fundamental conflict between the quest for meaning and the universe’s indifference to it drives my own inner absurdity.

When I start thinking about these Credidero articles each month, one of the first things I do is to look at the etymology of the word to be considered. “Absurdity” surprised me in its roots: it is a Late Middle English word derived from the Latin absurdum, meaning “out of tune.” That elicited a “huh!” moment from me, as I am also actively, eagerly drawn to “out of tune” music: the first time I ever read about Arnold Schoenberg’s dissonant 12-tone music, I had to hear it; the first time I ever read about the tritone (“The Devil’s Interval”), I had to find a piano so I could play it; my listening library of thousands of songs contains a high percentage of music in which standard, pleasing Western melodic structures are in short supply. I didn’t realize it, but apparently my musical tastes are absurd too. At least I am consistent.

When I considered the concept of internal and external absurdity as a form of musical expression, I was immediately reminded of a wonderful, favorite song by Karl Bartos (ex-Kraftwerk), called “The Tuning of the World.” In it, Bartos writes about wishing that he could believe in God after seeing a haunting Laurie Anderson concert, noting:

I connect to the sound inside my mind
Closer I can‘t get to the divine
I wish I could believe in God
Life would be just safe and sound
I‘d build my house on solid ground
It‘s rather hard to understand
Why some believe and others can‘t
Who rules the tuning of the world?

I don’t know the answer to Karl’s final question there, for Karl, but to whoever rules the tuning of my own world, I am thankful that you left things in a state of wonky intonation with a lot of busted keys and clammed notes and buzzing frets, since I honestly like it better that way, absurdly enough.

Note: This is part one of a planned twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this third article complete, I roll the dice again . . .. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Twelve: “Inhumanity.”

Caution: This book may detune your world.

 

 

 

Credidero #3: Security

We’re in the midst of a household move right now (from ORD to DSM), which means I’m peeking into those types of deep storage boxes that haven’t been opened since the last time we moved, pondering whether to purge them or carry their contents onward.

In one box, I found an old plastic bag contained four truly ratty, soiled and tattered stuffed animals that my mother must have sent to me at some point when she herself was moving: my childhood “friends” Sister, Rabbit, Bear and Clown. Sister was a hairless kitten (now with only one eye, and originally furry), and you can probably guess what Rabbit, Bear and Clown were. (I guess my creativity with names came later in my childhood development than they did). The fact that I still have those stuffed animals (compounded with the fact that I put them back in the box, carefully) is a powerful, lasting testament to the simple, yet profound, role they played as childhood comfort objects, providing me with a sense of security at a time in my development when I had absolutely no real idea as to all of things there were in life that could cause me harm.

English psychologist Donald Woods Winnicott explored and wrote about the ways in which most children develop security bonds with what he labeled “transitional objects,” which help ease a child as it loses the perceived “subjective omnipotence” of a mother-to-child bond and develops a relationship with an objective reality where the mother, and the child, and objects in the world around them are not a unity. Winnicott further theorized that transitional objects enable children to experience a fantasized bond with their mothers when the latter are apart from them for increasingly long periods of time, and that the Binkies, the Teddies, and all of the other much loved surrogates serve as keys to alleviating anxiety at the very time when children first begin to encounter the complexity and scariness of the real world around them.

Oh, to imagine if security was that simple for us all today as adults! By definition, security is “freedom from, or resilience against, potential harm (or other unwanted coercive change) caused by others,” and the various realms of security that we all contend with or read about regularly — communications security, data security, airport security, food security, home security, national security, homeland security, environmental security, transportation security, to name but a few — make it screamingly clear as to just how many things, people, concepts, and forces out there are either willfully committed to or passively engaged in trying to cause us harm, collectively and individually. We take so many steps, at such great cost, to create warnings, to protect ourselves, and to deter others, where once a good snuggle sufficed to get the job done — at least in our heads, anyway.

But then, on some level, security really is all about what goes on in our heads, given that humans’ abilities to accurately discern, react and respond to risks are notably, provably wonky. We fear sharks, lightning strikes, and plane crashes more than we fear bathtubs, cars, and the things in our medicine cabinets, though more of us are killed by the latter list each year than by the former. Given this fact, there’s an argument to be made that the vast majority of the security steps that we take aren’t actually much different than our childhood transitional objects: we chain and padlock doors at night and feel better doing so, when a rock through a window is a still a perfectly easy ingress approach for anyone seriously committed to harming us or our property. We go through all sorts of security rituals throughout the course of the day, and they comfort us, but does anybody really, truly believe that taking our shoes off at the airport makes our flight experiences any safer? Or is that ritual just a big imaginary virtual teddy bear designed primarily to soothe transportation patrons and providers alike?

That element of “first, assuage concern” is deeply embedded in the very etymological history of the word “security,” which entered the English language in the 16th Century via the Latin “securus,” combining precursor words for “freedom” (se: without) and “anxiety” (cura: care). That’s kind of daunting to consider, especially for a person (like me) wrestles regularly with anxiety as a constant part of my basic biochemical and psychological composition. If security really means nothing more than “freedom from anxiety,” then ipso facto, I’m almost never secure, or at least not when I’m awake! (And as bad of a sleeper as I am, probably not when I am asleep either).

As I ponder that conundrum, I have to note that the very act of being in the middle of a household move provides strong fuel for feeling less than fully secure: most of our belongings — all the grown-up comfort items with which we surround ourselves — were picked up and taken away on a truck two days ago, and I won’t see them again until next week, hopefully all together still, hopefully intact. Then there’s that transitional period of time of sorting things, placing things, hanging things, moving things, figuring out what goes where, and why, and when, that comes with any move, as we rebuild nests, often hoping to create something that’s at least structurally similar to the nests we’ve left behind. Where will I sit to work at the computer? Where will I eat? Where will we watch TV together? Which cabinet did I put the Ziplock Bags in? (Note: I always feel better knowing where the Ziplocks are . . . they are up there with Duct Tape, WD-40 and Windex when it comes to knowing you’ve got the right tools for whatever jobs need to be done, right now).

I have moved enough over the years (27 times, I think) to know that at some point a few weeks or months in, some little switch in the brain pops from one position to the other, and the new nest acquires that crucial sense of place where I feel that it’s right, and it’s comfortable, and it’s home — with all of the ancillary feelings of security that come along with that distinction to follow. There’s still plenty of things to worry and be anxious about, of course, but at least I’ll know where the sofa and the blankets are so I can bundle up and ponder them comfortably without concern for the very physical infrastructure associated with my housing and possessions. And, of course, Marcia and I will be both there in the new nest most of the time (that’s why we’re moving, after three years of frequent separations), and there’s truly no stronger anchor for security than close, regular proximity to those who love and care for us the most. Honestly, at this stage in my life, my favorite part of most days is getting in bed together and holding hands and talking about whatever and saying “I love you” before we go to sleep. That ritual feels wholly secure no matter where it happens (we travel a lot, so we sleep in a lot of different beds), and that’s the deepest core of my sense of safety and comfort and stability as an adult, regardless of what the next day brings.

Which, of course, it always does. While the new home paradigm will be an improvement, I’ll be working remotely three out of four weeks, and that’s a new situation that will take some time to adapt to, and to develop or learn new security rituals. My physical office has its own sense of place for me, too, as does being with my staff in person, and not just via phone or video conference. The organization itself is and will remain secure in the ways that such things are judged, but my place within it is changing, which is cause for some anxiety, which leads to some feelings of insecurity about how things are going to work for me, and around me. I’m not sure, exactly, what sort of virtual stuffed animal will be required in this case, but I know it’s out there, in some form or another. I’ll know it when I hug it, hopefully.

Then the circle spins outward from home and work, in some cases toward the comforting, in some cases toward the scary. We’re financially secure as a family, thankfully, and we have good health care coverage, and are generally healthy for our ages, so those things don’t trouble or worry too much, and I know what I need to do if they do ever move to the front burner of security concerns. Having spent my life with the name “John Smith” and all of the confusion that can cause (e.g. after September 11th, I was routinely escorted away from my family by armed airport personnel for “secondary screening,” since apparently terrorists are also not very creative when it comes to fabricating fake identities), I’ve always been close to paranoid when it comes to computer and information and personal ID security, so I actually probably feel better about that stuff than most people do, since I so assiduously work to protect myself in that regard, having already learned those lessons many years ago. My rituals may be nothing more than rituals, but they push away the “cura” and that’s all I ask for or expect, most of the time.

Having a possibly senile sociopath at the head of our Federal government certainly doesn’t provide me with any good sense of comfort when it comes to national security, and I’ve chosen to largely withdraw from the constant bombardment of reminders of that fact that’s become part and parcel of the modern social media experience. I don’t wish to spend my time being yelled at, even when I agree with people, and that’s the lion’s share of virtual discourse in the public sector at this point, so I reject that, depending instead on a small, carefully curated list of trusted sources who can amicably share discomforting facts with me in a measured fashion that helps to sort things that are legitimate threads to our collective well-being from those that are just hateful noise. The Economist and Electoral Vote are good security blankets from that standpoint: proven, dependable, honest, and familiar. Always happy to curl up with them.

I’m just about finished with a book that discusses at graphic length what’s likely to be the greatest existential threat to me, mine, and ours in the decades (hopefully) that remain in my life: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. I heartily commend it to you, and hope that it might be widely read, and eventually be as widely influential as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which clearly laid out in terse prose what was obvious in front of us at the time, but which we did not wish to address — until we did. Virtually every other form and facet of physical, philosophical, emotional, and structural security surrounding us today has the potential to be irrevocably altered and destabilized in the years ahead by the myriad challenges that a rapidly changing planet is going to place before us, as individuals, as nations, as a species, and as one of many potentially fragile life-forms clinging desperately to the only ball of dirt, rock and water we have and know.

There’s no security blanket, ritual, or teddy bear large enough to hug away the highly tangible security threats that could come from environmental change, and yet their very enormity means that the vast majority of us don’t feel any real, palpable anxiety about them, because they are almost beyond our capabilities to comprehend in any meaningful fashion — never mind having ability to negate or control them. Ironically, if there’s a terminal fallacy embodied in the etymological definition of security as “freedom from anxiety,” that’s probably it: the correlation between that which should cause us anxiety and that which does cause us anxiety is nowhere near as strong as it should be if we are, as individuals and collectively, are to actually create meaningful security barriers from that which can credibly do us harm. We’re not anxious enough when we should be, and we’re too anxious when we don’t need to be, and so our comforting rituals and objects are ultimately just props to support our subjective views of an objective world with no shortage of killer threats swirling around us, literally and figuratively.

Maybe that’s what makes us weirdly, beautifully, stupidly human though, as we create art, and fall in love, and build homes, and work jobs, and write poetry, and look at stars, and continue to find meaning, comfort and joy in the face of the unrelenting entropic forces constantly working to grind us up onto our constituent chemical elements. Oddly enough, despite my innate anxious disposition, I actually do take deep comfort from the idea that no matter what barriers and borders I build around myself, ultimately I’m a small part of a big thing beyond my comprehending, and the best I can do within it is to chase those moments of beauty, and to find those fear-free spaces, however fleeting they might be, and to love and appreciate what I have, when I have it, with others who love and appreciate me. I don’t, and can’t, always practice what I preach in that regard, but I do try, and it feels good to do so, as perhaps the simplest expression of selfish hedonism available to me.

On one hand, I know that the more I focus on those little things, the less I’m doing to respond to those big things, and that’s perhaps a bad trade-off if I take a long-term, macro, evolutionary view of things. (Though on that front, I’ve already spawned and am medically no longer capable of doing so, so from an evolutionary standpoint, I’m already surplus to the Great God DNA’s purposes at this point anyway). But on the other hand, I know that freedom from anxiety feels like a worthy pursuit, and if more of us experienced such freedom, more often, we’d likely be kinder and gentler and more apt to cooperate and collaborate on the structural issues that shape human experience today, including the big scary beast of global climate change and all of its attendant horrors.

“Think Globally, Act Locally” the bumper stickers exhort us, and maybe that’s a good rubric, even though it only works if everyone follows it, and we know that the vast majority of the rapidly developing world’s citizens, flush with the first fruits of middle class consumer experience, are not going to collectively deny themselves the pleasures that we have already experienced, just because they came to them later. On a macro basis, global security in all of its myriad facets is going to get far worse, for a long, long time, in ways we can’t even conceive of today, before it even begins to get better — if it ever can do so, without us first being wiped from the lithosphere like mold from a grapefruit. No matter what the bumper stickers say, there’s nothing I, myself, can do to change that. Nor can you. Nor can even a Democratic U.S. Federal administration fully committed to the most ambitious Green New Deal imaginable, because China, India, Brazil, Russia and countless other nations will not be practicing parties to it, no matter what their leaders’ signatures say on various international accords. It’s an all-or-nothing game ultimately, and the vast majority of players will perish on its board before we actually figure out the rules.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to play that game. We should. We must. If for no other reason than to give ourselves the big security blanket that makes us collectively feel that we are in control of uncontrollable forces. It’s collective madness for us not to, and when we become mad collectively, we foment madness individually, with anomie and ennui and atrophy and atomization dissolving the bonds that tie us and shredding the structures that secure us, tenuously, in the nests of our own making. Recycling our plastic bottles and riding our bikes may not make any more real difference to anything than taking our shoes off as we pass through airport security, but the rituals are important in their own rights, and the security, however ill-founded, they provide to us as individuals is deeply meaningful to our experience as feeling, knowing human animals. Maybe, just maybe, if our brains are less filled with the little security anxieties, we might adapt our perceptions of the objective world a bit, so that we may begin to more accurately gauge and respond to those big security threats.

Ultimately, in our time, that “se cura” model of a life without anxiety has to be a myth, an idealized form of heaven on earth, where soon we will be done with the troubles of the world, even as we still live in that world. My brain may be therapeutically broken in the ways that it processes anxiety, but I don’t believe that even the healthiest brains can truly build such elaborate security measures around them to completely preclude them from anxiety either, except perhaps when they are in a state of complete obliteration from chemical or other depressives. Anxiety might even be a form of psychological friction, endemic to the very act of objects/concepts interacting with other objects/concepts and creating heat and energy, without which work cannot be done, physically speaking. Better to harness that heat and deploy it in positive pursuits, rather than denying its very existence, or denigrating those who experience and express it.

Our security rituals and transitional objects might be more meaningful and impactful if they were rooted less in a “se cura” model and more in a “cum minima cura” — with a little anxiety, so we remain mindful, but not paralyzed, attuned, but not hyper-aware, engaged, but not overcome. “Cuminamacurity” isn’t as elegant a word as “Security” in English, but it might be more meaningful one, and a more realistic one for our collective psyches, as we prepare as a species to face challenges and risks that might be collectively greater than any yet put before us.

The little moments remain precious, the little touches remain important, the little objects remain iconic, the little steps remain productive, and on a personal basis, I will pursue and appreciate them as I always have, and they will anchor me, daily, in their comfortable familiarity and emotional warmth. That said, they should not, must not, render me numb to the realities of the world around me, and the real — not imaginary — threats to me and mine, and you and yours, that await there. We must feel at least “cum minima cura” about those realities, to create the friction and heat needed to prepare us to do more than hug fantasias when we’re required to do so by events beyond our individual control. Perhaps that collective sense of edge and unease will serve as the fulcrum upon which change is finally levered, and perhaps that’s the greatest little step than any of can truly take toward building a more secure world for the maximum number of its residents, human or otherwise.

As good as it feels to hug our transitional objects, and as often I’m going to continue to do so, I think I’m also going to try to hug my own anxieties every now and again, if for no other reason than to look at them, understand them a bit better, and maybe decide that they might actually be trying to tell me something that I shouldn’t be hugging away at all.

Note: This is part one of a planned twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this third article complete, I roll the dice again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Nine: “Absurdity.”

There’s always a bigger cannonball coming, sooner or later . . .

 

Credidero #2: Curiosity

The late, great Douglas Adams doesn’t get the same level of credit that some other science fiction writers receive for describing future technologies that actually come to pass (probably because he was too funny to be taken seriously), but there’s no question that his fictional depiction of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is now every bit as a real and transformative as, say, Arthur C. Clarke’s prescient descriptions of communications satellites, or Jules Verne’s submarines, or H.G. Wells’ “land ironclads” (tanks) or John Brunner’s on-demand satellite TV, or Martin Caidin’s cybernetic prostheses, or countless other hard sci-fi speculative predictions.

First revealed to the world via a radio play in 1978, the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide was described as “the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom,” filled with crowd-sourced content because “most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing.” The Guide could be updated in real time via the Sub-Etha, an “interstellar faster-than-light telecommunications network” that was used for any type of data transmission across the galaxy. Physically, the Guide was described as “a small, thin, flexible lap computer” encased in a “sturdy plastic cover,” with the words “Don’t Panic” inscribed on it “in large, friendly letters”. (All quotes from Adams’ books, via Wikipedia).

I’m certainly not the first person to note that a modern human carrying a smart phone with real-time access to Wikipedia is essentially toting The Hitchhiker’s Guide around, whether it has large friendly letters printed on its case or not. And if that’s not enough to mark Adams as a singular visionary, note that he actually started a web-based, crowd-sourced, real-world version of the Guide called h2g2 in 1999, two years before Wikipedia was launched, in the same year when Adams himself passed away at the terribly young age of 49. Had he not shuffled off this mortal coil in such an untimely and unexpected fashion, we might today all be using Adams’ h2g2 for all of our search needs, instead of Jimmy Wales’ titanic digital encyclopedia. That said, you can still access (and contribute to) h2g2 if you’re so inclined, and it does provide a healthily irreverent counterpart to Wikipedia’s sometime stuffy and over-curated content at this point.

It’s worth noting (to me anyway) that we are fast approaching another interesting singularity point between the fictional guide and its primary real-world analog. In So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, the fourth book in the trilogy (yeah), the Guide‘s tally of pages is cited as 5,973,509. As I type this article, the real number of pages on the English version of Wikipedia is posted as 5,817,575. I certainly hope that someone at the Wikimedia Foundation is monitoring this number, and properly celebrates Adams’ estimation of the number of pages that it takes to describe the galaxy and all of the things in it when somebody creates page number 5,973,509. I’m guessing that will happen in 2019. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

For all of Adams prescience, I think there’s one way in which he missed the mark on the ways that sentient beings might deploy the Hitchhiker’s Guide. The book’s protagonists routinely use the Guide to acquire necessary, (mostly) useful information to get them out of, or into, various scrapes and predicaments, but it’s generally consulted in response to such external stimuli, rather than being consulted just for the sake of being consulted. Had Adams written the books today, now knowing what we know about how we know what we know, I suspect there would be lots of scenes where people (human and otherwise) just loll about in their various spacecraft and on their various planets, pointing and asking and clicking and reading and browsing for no other reason than because they can, and because they are innately, inherently, and often flat our insanely curious about all of the things in the universe, all of them.

That’s certainly how I interact with the world of information when I’m sitting at my static desk-top, clicking and clattering away. I can read something, or think of something, and not know some arcane piece of information about said something, and then suddenly find myself in an hours-long slide into data gathering and information processing that typically ends up far from where it began, leaving my head filled with a bunch of new noise, much of which will be forgotten hours after I first apprehend it. And then I’ll do it all again. And again. And again. And I will be happy all the while, even if I’ve not achieved anything meaningful in the process.

The mobility of my information gathering devices means that I do this in the “real world” too, as I encounter non-electronic stimulus: What’s that bird? How tall is that building? Where does this road go?  Who is that park named for? What kind of plane was that? Who wrote that song? What was its lyric again? Who played bass on it? What else did he or she do? Another bird? What was it? We live in a truly glorious age when it comes to assuaging our curiosity in this fashion, as the ability to itch the scratch or scratch the itch of not knowing things is effortless and immediate and (mostly) satisfying, even if much of the information that we pack into our noggins is the intellectual equivalent of a big bag of Cheetos: filling, colorful, possibly addictive, and of no practical, nutritional good whatsoever.

Which begs the question as to whether an active sense of curiosity (much less an over-active one) and the time spent assuaging it, is a good thing or a bad thing. Because sometimes we’re curious about things that we really should not be. You know that after the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide waxed so profoundly about (say) the perils of Vogon poetry, that some sizable number of readers would have immediately sought out some of those noxious texts out to read them, and suffer in the process, just as people visit various pages of horrors on the real-world internet, all the time. I’ve never heard of anybody really having a seizure from a website promising to deliver one, but I know that they exist, and I know that people look at them, just because they can. (Please don’t go find one now). (And do not think about elephants). (Are you thinking about elephants?) (You are, aren’t you). (That’s better than thinking about seizure robots, anyway).

I suspect that many damaging online pornography addictions are fueled by unhealthy curiosities: if a human body can do this, and I can find it online and look at it, then I wonder if a human body can do that, and if so, where can I see it?  The market for Faces of Death-type collections of carnage imagery predates the internet, but once upon a time they were hard to find, whereas now: search, click, look, regret. When people watch cell phone videos of people being gunned down in their cars, or on the streets, or in their homes, or of bombs being detonated in public spaces, or of the beheading or hanging of political captives, they may say they’re doing it as part of some refined sense of social justice, wanting to share and experience such pain with its victims in more meaningful ways, but I can’t help but think that morbid curiosity of that nature is just a digital form of rubber-necking at an auto accident, ultimately nothing more than the insatiable curiosity to see what something terrible looks like, coupled with an inability to resist it. And I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing.

Unfortunately, it often seems that the bad outcomes of curiosity anchor a lot of the ways in which we educate and raise our young in modern western cultures. “Curiosity killed the cat” is an adage we learn fairly early on. Later, we might encounter books or television shows about Curious George, a charming simian simpleton whose insatiable curiosity gets him into all sorts of trouble, requiring the Man in the Yellow Hat or other sensible adults to bail him out, so he can curiously investigate the next shiny thing that catches his eye. The classics take similar stances: Pandora’s curiosity about her now-eponymous box unleashed sin, disease and death upon the world, and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden used Eve’s curiosity against her to bring on the Fall of Man.

The Bible even explicitly exhorts us to mind our own business and not ask big questions: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). That feels like the ultimate “because I said so” answer to every “why?” question that every child puts forth, communicating that some things are just not knowable, no matter how much we want to know them. And maybe that quiets a child, or the childish being cooped up within an adult, for some period of time, but it doesn’t assuage the desire for knowledge, it just makes it feel wrong. Which, in turn, itself seems wrong, since curiosity is by all objective measures a key component in the process of learning, and the acquisition of knowledge, if not wisdom.

Education is a key component of cultural inculcation, and it seems that it would be a whole lot easier to harness the innate curiosity of youth rather than censuring it. Perhaps this pervasive conundrum hinges on adults wanting children to learn certain things, in certain times, in certain ways, rather than openly figuring the world out as it presents itself to them, naturally. Education as a form of control, as it were. And if your curiosity persists in carrying you in directions other than those in which we wish to point you, we now have medications to take the edge of that itch, so that you can concentrate on this here algebraic formula, and not that there way cool bug crawling up the wall in the back of the classroom. You won’t be able to balance a checkbook by knowing its name, now will you? And it might sting you, anyway. Pay attention.

Our pets might actually have it better than our children on this front, since we’re generally content to let them sniff and snuff at whatever captures their fancies, so long as they don’t do it on the furniture, or strain too hard against the leash. While I find the entitled over-pampering of American pets to be mostly absurd, I do think that it’s a good thing that we’ve generally come to understand and accept that our non-human companions, and loads of non-domesticated non-human animals, can be just as curious as we are about the worlds in which they find themselves, investigating their surroundings with agency, and individuality, and intellect, and not just as mindless automatons driven by species-encoded patterns and instincts. The searches for food and water and mates and shelter are certainly compelling, but they’re not the end-all and be-all of animal experience, and it’s a joy to watch any being, of any species, happily exploring its world, and eagerly investigating stimuli beyond its normal experience.

It has taken billions and billions of years for hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to organize themselves in such a way that our species can actively, consciously think about that organization, and how it happened, and what it means, and how it fits in within everything else in the visible and invisible cosmos. Give them another billion years or so, and some of our cetacean, simian, corvid, canine, porcine and feline friends might join us in this pursuit; we’re not likely special in this regard, other than being first to cross the bar of conscious, tool-based scientific inquiry. (On our planet, anyway). Viewed this way, it seems that our innate desire to want to know all the answers, to all the things, might be something of a birthright for our species, and that squandering our little moment in the sun — brief as it’s been in celestial terms, and fleeting as it might be in a solar system filled with planet-killing objects and opportunities — would be a refutation of eons and eons of evolutionary progress, not necessarily with us an end point, but perhaps with us as a conduit to something unknown, but not unknowable.

So I might not be touching the divine when, on a whim, I get online to remind myself who played guitar on the second Toe Fat album from 1971 (Alan Kendall, for the record), but I am actively engaging the part of my brain that’s evolved to crave information and stimulus that has no bearing on my ability to breathe, or sleep, or breed, or eat. Knowing that scrap of information doesn’t make me a better human being by any meaningful measure, but finding it does give me a fleeting chemical pleasure, and that little “ah ha” may trigger other chemical cascades that do make me just a bit sharper than I might have been otherwise, or maybe it will serve as a conversation point years hence that might make other chemicals flow in ways that turn an acquaintance into a friend, or a friend into a follower, or a follower into an explorer. That seems positive, in a little way, and lots of little ways pointed in the same direction can become a big way, to something, again unknown, but knowable.

When I ponder what a personal end of days might look like, I tend to think that losing the desire for these types of inquisitions will be among the key dominoes falling in an ultimately failing physical system, and I’m going to rage, rage against the dying of that light, for as long as I can. For all of the emotional negatively that morbid curiosity might theoretically inflict upon me, were I more prone to explore it, I can’t help but think that the emotional positivity of eager, open, innocent investigation of the world around me will always return a net positive position for the time and energy spent in its pursuit. If I am the sum total of my experiences, then my curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes me me. And your curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes you you. And the glorious variety possible through endless permutations of those equations is what makes so much of life so very enjoyable, in ways that I hope to remain always curious about, until I disperse the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen that composes me, so that other curious entities might form from it.

Curiosity may indeed kill a cat, every now and again, but for each one that goes to the great litter box in the sky as a result of its investigations, thousands of others end up with the ball of yarn, or the catnip mousie, or the comfy, comfy comforter, or the warm pile of laundry, or the tasty gazelle, possibly with a friend who might be another cat, or a duck, or a dog, or a human child, bursting with enthusiasm to know what that cat feels like, and why it’s tail curls that way, and how come it makes biscuits with its paws, and where its kittens came from.

I’m with those cats, when all’s said and done. Let’s chase this string and see where it leads us . . .

Which state quarters are you missing?? I have to know!!!

Note: This is part one of a planned twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this second article complete, I roll the dice again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Ten: “Security.”

Credidero #1: Hostility

I went to college six weeks after my 17th birthday, and I learned how to kill people.

That educational process started early on during my time at the United States Naval Academy with one-on-one types of hand-to-hand combat and self-defense techniques, before we moved on to heavier fare, literally and figuratively. I qualified as a marksman with a pistol and as a sharpshooter with a rifle during my freshman year, and then I had the opportunity to operate a variety of portable ordinance devices in later years, including shooting at a (scrap) truck with a tube-launched, optically-sighted, wire-guided anti-tank missile. That was fun! Later on, I trained in airplanes, on submarines (including ballistic missile boats), and on surface warfare ships that were all stacked with formidable people-killing armament. I then went on to a decade-long career managing budgets and contracts for a program that designed and built nuclear propulsion plants for transporting various instruments of mass carnage around the globe, rapidly, stealthily, lethally.

Thankfully, I was never asked to use any of those skills nor any of those tools in any real acts of hostility, simply by virtue of having had my time in the military correspond to an unusually long peaceful streak in our nation’s history. Had I been directed to do so, though, I certainly would have followed my orders. Interestingly, though, I doubt that I would have actually felt any real sense of personal hostility toward any of my targets, but rather would have just been a willing pawn deployed to implement my kingdom’s institutionalized hostilities toward other kingdoms.

Unless, of course, someone was shooting at me or my loved ones first, which would have changed everything, instantly. I can think of few things more likely to trigger towering feelings of hostility than the sheer indignity of having one’s life or family threatened directly, whether by an enemy combatant, or by an armed robber, or by a drunken or road-raging driver, or by any other external assault on my/our well-being.

I learned first-hand by stepping into the boxing ring during my time at the Academy how such an unbidden sense of preservation-based hostility can emerge suddenly and unexpectedly. I fought my own room-mate a couple of times, and while I truly do love him like a brother, he’s a good deal bigger than me (it sucks to weigh in at the bottom of the heavy-weight division), and after he popped me in the face a couple of times and the adrenaline started flowing, I just wanted to hurt him quick before he hurt me again. If I’d have been able to score a knock-out blow, I would have been happy to land it. And then the final bell rang, and then we hugged it out. Hostility resolved. Wow, where did that come from? And where did it go?

In considering the nature of institutional and personal hostility, it seems helpful to sort the ways in which it can emerge or be imposed, as a possible first step in considering how (and if) it can (or should) be mitigated. Perhaps a quadrant model like this, where the X-axis plots how ordered the hostility is, and the Y-axis plots the number of humans sharing in the hostility:

In the organized group hostility quadrant (top right), the types of hostilities experienced are generally those imposed from above or beyond any one individual’s emotions. Below that, hostilities in the organized individual quadrant (bottom right) may be more personally deep-seated, with gang members deeply hating their rivals, xenophobes self-organizing into militias to fight the feared others (whoever they might be), and rival sports teams (or more often their fans) actually hating those who play or root for other teams.

On the chaotic side of the grid, the group quadrant (top left) represents spontaneous or non-governmental hostility against a ruling caste, or a different ethnic group, or a competing economic system. The chaotic individual hostility quadrant (bottom left) seems to be one most prone to and rife with sudden personal violence, and it’s also the space where those transient, emergent senses of rage and aggression and ill-will can quickly emerge, and possibly abate, just as quickly.

While the word “hostility” is certainly one fraught with negative connotations, as I look at this graph, I can hypothetically formulate situations in the upper quadrants where hostility may be a justified, and even noble, emotional state. Oppressed citizens throwing off the yoke of a tyrant (top left), for example, or soldiers fighting a “just war” as the Allies did in Europe against the monsters who conceived of the Holocaust (top right), among myriad other horrors. (More problematic: those who were just “following orders” in implementing those vile dictates). Humans should feel hatred toward loathsome dogma, and if that hatred manifests itself as active, overt, institutional hostility toward those who embrace such dogma, that seems a fair, fitting and reasonable fuel for the actions required to quell and quash such noxious beliefs and the regimes that promulgate them.

The lower half of the quadrant is more difficult to parse: it’s hard to frame a sound argument for justified street crime, or sports hooliganism, or mob hits, or hateful graffiti, or destruction of private and public property as a hostile response to undesirable stimuli. The sense that individualized hostility is always (or nearly always) a negative condition to be avoided or suppressed is borne out in mental health diagnosis and practice, where hostility is actually considered a symptom of many underlying mental or emotional disorders, and where numerous theories have been put forth to explain hostility as a psychological phenomenon.

So unwell people may feel hostility as part of their mental illness, and we would theoretically seek to treat or cure that symptom and its cause — even as every single one of us feels what could be considered clinical hostility toward some of the people we interact with, some of the time, regardless of how we might aspire to avoid such emotional states. We may not act on our hostilities, mind you, but we feel them, on a very deep, organic basis. In some ways, it seems that this type of chemical hostility is simply a manifestation of the disgust reflex: nobody likes feeling repelled or nauseous by filth and decay, but that strong bodily reaction to such stimuli actually protects us from harm by steering us away from toxicity. Are some forms of emotional hostility toward others just manifestations of that disgust reflex?

If hostility is, in fact, an intrinsic, organic part of what we are — and century upon century upon century of humans hating and harming each other would certainly seem to indicate that this may be the case — then perhaps the only meaningful reflection on individual hostility is to consider how and when we let that inner state of aversion manifest itself externally. Is shouting racial slurs at strangers acceptable, desirable behavior? Of course not. But how about “punching Nazis” (to cite a common current trope), literally or figuratively? Is that hostility justified? And if so, is acting on it acceptable and desirable? Could be.

While we may not be able to choose what feelings of hostility we experience as individuals, we do have more personal agency when it comes to our willingness to accept and act on institutional hostility. As noted above, I know full well that had I been given a legal order to take the lives of others in the field of war, I would have done so, accepting that whatever hostility my Commander-in-Chief dictated on behalf of the Nation’s citizenry was a hostility that I would be willing to act on, whether I actually felt it emotionally or not.

Many others would not and do not, obviously, by either refusing to take up arms, or refusing to accept orders to use them. I tend to think that when a national leader regularly expresses loathsome personal hostilities, then there’s an even greater onus on those who serve the nation to actively, consciously weigh their obligations to embrace institutional hostility, since it’s a slippery slope down the “just doing my job” argument into concentration camps and genocide.

There’s a conundrum in all of this: many (most?) of us are willing to service hostilities that we don’t personally feel, even as we work hard to not act on the hostilities that we actually do experience internally. The social contracts that create this odd dichotomy are easily understood and widely accepted on a macro basis, even as they provide ripe fuel for cognitive dissonance and other psychological turmoil on a micro basis. We may even find ourselves feeling hostile toward the very structures and strictures that define how hostility manifests itself in our lives, both publicly and privately.

The only way to completely step beyond this dichotomy would be to step beyond the company of other human beings altogether — but while the hermits of the world may not wrestle regularly with the conundrums of every day hostilities, they ultimately end up being conceptually hostile to humanity as a whole. Managing our hostilities makes us functionally human, on some plane, and the shared alignment of our expressed hostilities may even serve to create and bind the societies we live in — and thereafter the societies that we hate, individually and institutionally.

Imagine a world where all humans were all hostile toward the same things, in the same ways. A single global hatred would actually result in a more peaceful planet than we’ve ever experienced since we learned how to kill with our hands, and with sticks and rocks, and with blunderbusses and bazookas, and with guided missiles and cluster bombs. It’s the wide breadth of human hostilities that segregates and isolates us, more than the depth of any one hatred. Ironically, as we grow ever more connected on a global basis in this our brave new digital heyday, we also grow ever more aware of just how many specific types of hatred and hostility are available to us all, individually and institutionally, which divides and agitates us ever more precisely on many planes.

So should we aspire to reject and rebuff all the forms of hostility that surround, shape and define us? I’m personally hostile to that idea, and I would oppose a regime that promoted it as a defining organizational dogma, since such a regime would pragmatically represent nothing more than the fever dreams of mad Utopians. A rejection of hostility as a defining characteristic of the human experience is an impossibly inhuman stance, and collectively stripping ourselves of our own humanity, flawed though it may be, would be a precursor of an ultimate collective psychological and sociological implosion.

We’re better served by understanding our hostilities than we are by denying them, segregating the justifiably actionable or expressible ones from the ones that constantly patter around inside us, whether we want them there or not. Some hostilities protect us from harm. Some do not. Some hostilities define who we are. Some do not. Some hostilities shape our communities. Some do not. The art of being successfully human may come from being able to skillfully parse these distinctions, and openly and fairly encouraging others to do the same. In doing so, though, we need to understand that others may view the world through different lenses than we do, and that the hostilities experienced by (say) an older, affluent, white male may be entirely different from those experienced by a woman, or by a person of color, or by a homeless person struggling with the very basics of subsistence.

We can know how to kill without killing. We can know how to hate without hating. We can feel hostile without being hostile. Or we can be hostile without feeling hostile. We have agency in the presence of hostility imposed and hostility expressed, both individually and institutionally, but we must choose to accept that agency. I believe we should do so, and I believe we may all become better humans by occasionally facing the ugliness that sits at the very heart of our species’ collective soul, and also occasionally considering the ugliness that our societies ask us to assume as part of our social contracts, and then consciously, actively shaping our behaviors to manage, accept, or reject that ugliness, as best befits our personal and collective circumstances.

I didn’t generally feel hostile, even when I was training to be an agent of hostility.

Note: This is part one of a planned twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this first article complete, I roll the dice again . . .

.

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Eight: “Curiosity.”

Credidero: A Writing Project

I’m not generally a New Years’ Resolution kind of guy, since I’m more than happy to torment myself masochistically with arbitrary self-imposed goals all year long, and not just in January. But as 2018 ground to a close, I did find myself feeling like I needed to make some changes in three key areas in the nascent year before me:

  • Read more books, and less social media.
  • Read better political coverage, and less often.
  • Write better stuff, about something different.

The first two bulleted goals have been pretty readily achievable with a little bit of structural change in how and where I engage in virtual space. I’ve been doing the online thing for a long, long time, so I know how to reboot, reformat, and restart when necessary. I’m glad to have been an early adopter of lots of online communications technologies, and I’m equally glad to kick them to the curb when they have exhausted their utility in my life, or when they make me into a dumber, slower, sadder human being. And America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or television, and we all did just fine all that time. So I can, and will, aspire to something closer to that model. The constant barrage of noise has killed the signal for me. Enough.

That third writing bit, though, has taken a bit more thought and deliberation. I am always better at working out my writing muscles when I have a project, so that I’m not just doing the same old things, only with more repetitions. And my projects are usually the most successful when I tell people that I’m going to do them before I start, as I’m well motivated by delivering on the commitments I announce.

I’ve used such publicly-declared web projects in the past (e.g. a poem a day for a year, a short story a month for a year, my Five by Five Books series, the Hidden in Suburbia series, etc.) to apply discipline to my writing, and as much as I have appreciated the outcomes of all of those projects, the real benefits to me came from the processes that produced them. They were good reboots, and in a year that’s already going to be rife with change, it seems this is a good time to re-energize my writing chops, one way or the other, for current audiences and perhaps for new readers or freelance clients.

Having written a novel, and a lot of short stories, and a lot of poems over the past quarter century, none of those idioms or forms are really speaking to me in terms of what I might want to write in 2019. I’ve done tons of music and art criticism and travel writing over the years, too, so those didn’t feel like things that would keep me motivated and moving forward either. (Well, to clarify: travel very much motivates and inspires me, but I find I’m more inclined as I age to enjoy the moments in the moments, rather than writing essays about them after the fact, and that well-crafted photography often evokes what I want to capture better than words do anyway).

So I’ve  slowly crafted a new idea that’s making me vibrate a little, and it’s not as easily described as “Hey, gonna write one poem a day, for one year, let’s do this!” Some years ago, I wrote a piece called How Stories Happen that explained how disparate, disjointed, homeless mental concepts often coalesce and take shape in my head, swirling about for weeks or months before something finally triggers an “ah ha” spark sends me off to my computer to write with some sense of purpose or mission. That’s sort of what happened this month as I was pondering a new writing project, and these bits and bobs were swirling about in my brain, looking for resolution:

  • A friend of mine in high school wrote I poem called “My Creed.” It was in the “higgledy piggledy” double dactyl format, with each verse laying out a litany of woes or troubles, all of which were dispatched with the same, simple phrase at the end of each stanza: “I laugh.” I liked it then, as a poem and philosophy, and it sticks with me to this day.
  • I’m weary of every issue and every news item being immediately parsed politically into left or right, or red or blue, or liberal or conservative, or whatever other polarity you choose to define. I was thinking about how to frame premises or tenets in ways that don’t immediate drop into one of those mutually exclusive buckets, and in so doing, I started racking up a list of abstract nouns formed from adjectives by adding the suffix “-ity.” Such nouns refer to the state, property or quality of conforming to their adjective’s descriptions, and they are typically abstract and uncountable. On a macro time or global geographical scale, the politics that consume us are ultimately local and ephemeral and increasingly numerical as pollsters stand as the dominant alchemists and wizards of our age. Do uncountable abstractions rise above the daily media concerns that consume us? And are there greater truths to consider if we rise above our own place and time?
  • As noted above, I’ve been writing online for a long, long time, and so I do have a readership, of sorts, that responds in some moderately predictable ways, as evidenced by traffic and comment logs. The things that generate the most long-term engagement and response from my readers have often been original think pieces that involve personal opinions, and personal stories, but are not directly reactive to a specific stimuli, like records, or concerts, or travels. Call them philosophical pieces, for lack of a better word; they’re examinations into certain premises or tenets that may have relevance to contemporary issues, but aren’t strictly reactive to them, nor are they anchored in the language of political discourse and debate. They almost always carry some emotional heft, too, along with some personal stories or narratives. Here’s a good example.

Those three threads started twining around each other, often as I walked my usual five to ten miles a day about Chicago, and I found myself focusing on a series where I grappled with one of those abstract and uncountable “-ity” nouns every month or so, letting it carry me where it would, with the thematic restrictions on the pieces being that they should reflect some real personal belief (“My Creed”), that they should eschew political dogma (neither “left” nor “right”), and that the acts of creating them should spark emotional response in some way, ideally something at the joyful end of the spectrum as an escape from the unrelenting sourness of modern media discourse.

So focused, I found a grammar page online that showed all the ways that “-ity” nouns can be created from their adjective forms, and I picked the following twelve single-word themes to consider in the year ahead (Note: completed articles are linked here):

I tried to find word themes that would challenge me from both a research and a thought process standpoint, where I don’t really have a clear set of preexisting beliefs that I’ve elucidated here or elsewhere, and that collectively would approach aspects of human experience incorporating what seem to be both positive and negative surface perspectives. I have an idea that when the project is done, the totality of the twelve pieces might actually come to represent a personal manifesto of sorts, maybe a road map toward a next stage in my life, where self-definition may be less a function of my paid work and more a function of how I spend unstructuted time.

From a logistics standpoint, I decided that I would use a random number generator to pick one theme, think about it, write about it, and not pick the next theme (also randomly) until I am done. That way, no one theme gets more or less contemplation than any other, as would be the case with a locked and pre-set schedule, where December’s topic would receive much more mental churn than January’s. I think I can get through the list in a year that way, but if it takes longer, so be it.

When I first started sketching this concept out in writing, the “My Creed” poem was running through my head, and so I originally planned to title the series “Credo,” from the first person indicative present conjugation of the Latin verb “credere,” which means (approximately) “to believe.” That conjugated form has long since entered the English language to refer to a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions and premises, that guide an individual’s actions.

But as I started to think about it more, I realized that I don’t actually have a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions, related to those 12 tenets and words right now — though I should in the future, once I really consider them. Hence a new title: “Credidero.” That’s the first person future perfect conjugation of “credere.” This verb form is used to describe an event that is expected to happen before a specific time of reference in the future. So if “Credo” translates to “I believe [now],” then “Credidero” translates to “I will have believed [by the end of the year].”

It’s a weird usage, and a weird conjugation, for sure, so I put it into Google to see if, where, and how it was used elsewhere historically, and one quote kept coming up over and over and over again:

“Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam.”

That was written by St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), who is considered to be the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God, and of the satisfaction theory of atonement. Here’s what the quote means:

“Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

I have read and parsed those two sentences dozens of times since I discovered them, and they still fall somewhere in the sweet spot between subtly sensible and completely confusing. But that seems fitting as I seek to tackle a writing project about beliefs before I can actually state what I believe. I see it as affirmation of this project, a signpost from days long past, pointing down a fuzzy trail in the woods, perhaps with a sharp turn early on the journey, obscuring everything that’s to follow.

I believe it will go somewhere. I hope to enjoy the journey. Maybe St Anselm will appear again along the trail. And maybe you’d like to come along?

Let’s do this, St Anselm . . .

Epilogue: I used a random dice generator the day after I posted this article and I rolled a pair of threes . . . so my first theme explored will be number six: Hostility. Well. Let’s get deep right from the git-go, shall we? Watch this space!

Number Six: Hostility.

Regular English Speaking Tree Nerd On Holiday

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the January 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here. Also, if you don’t get the reference in the title of this post, then you must go play this video while or after reading the article.

It’s always an extra treat to travel when you’re a tree nerd, since you get to play “canopy compare and contrast” between your home turf and your destination(s) while you are abroad. Marcia and I greeted 2019 with a trip to London and Paris, and my FitBit tells me that we walked 160,000 steps (about 80 miles) over the course of the week, much of that time spent with me ooo-ing and ahh-ing at special street trees or historic park trees or “what the heck is that?” trees we passed as we ambled about.

I love London Planes (Platanus × acerifolia) anywhere I spot them, and it was particularly delightful to see so many mighty specimens at the heart of their namesake city, their dappled trunks striking in sun or shade, and their distinctive seed balls providing “winter interest” as you surveyed the streetscape. In Paris we strolled the Bois de Boulogne with its native and curated forests, and we admired the Tilias that abound throughout the city, and which lay people call lindens, or basswoods, or limes, depending on where they make their homes.

We spent a lot of time in airplanes getting to and from Europe, and also had a nice EuroStar train trip via the “Chunnel” between London and Paris. This gave me a hefty amount of quiet time to read (more than I normally have, anyway), and the tree nerd in me was happy with that prospect, too, as I read a most remarkable book about trees, and people, and people and trees called The Overstory by Richard Powers.

I have to assume that if you’re reading this article in the TREE Fund newsletter that you’re at least a little bit of a tree nerd yourself, too, and so I most heartily recommend this book to you. It’s a transcendent novel that twines the tales of a half dozen wildly dissimilar humans into a single, solid, towering, powerful creative monument, with every step of the story given shape and substance by trees. The New York Times perhaps captured this concept best in their review of the book, where they noted “humans are merely underbrush; the real protagonists are trees.”

While The Overstory can resonate with those who don’t necessarily love or know their trees (e.g. it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best novel in the English language issued each year), it was positively electrifying to me given my professional avocation. It’s not every day that mycorrhizal networks pop up and play key roles in a work of fiction, after all, but they’re quiet superstars here.

Like all great novels, The Overstory leaves the reader with a lot to consider when it has run its course, and while not everyone may agree with all of Powers’ implied or explicit lessons and morals, I can guarantee that his words, his stories, the magic of his prose, and most of all his trees will resonate with you all.

Happy reading, and let me know what you think!

Street trees had a big role in the experience of New Year’s Eve on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.