Six Little Poems

Note: All six of these little poems were written in 2004, and are copyright JES. I leave it as an exercise for the reader as to what themes they have in common and why I share them today.

I. Monster

Despite the spite, I suggest paying attention
to the next set of ravings that fall out of his head.
He’s a mean one, he is, on that there’s no argument,
but he telegraphs his moves through the things that he’s said.
He’s quite predictable in the targets of his new obsessions
and in his pettiness and willingness to carry a grudge
long after a normal person would have just let it wither:
once set on a bad path, he’s a hard one to budge.
But he’s ponderous, not nimble, and easy to outwit
if you do all your homework real well up front.
If you learn what he’s aiming for, by paying attention,
you can easily stay clear when he’s out on the hunt.
He’s a monster, though frankly he lacks the key skill
that he needs to be effective at the point of the kill.

II. Election Day

There’s foreign observers
down at the polling station,
as the hacks and the flacks
champ for confrontation.
I wonder, as I’m voting,
with some consternation:
When did we become
such a mess of a nation?

III. Anesthetized

no data, doesn’t matter
get some facts and force them into
tangled webs of gossamer
and lies
the scientists are vying
with the publicists and naturalists
romanticists and classicists
and spies
the talking heads are talking
as the chopping blocks are chopping
and the commentators comment on it all
home looking, works cooking
we crash the couch and force the spike
into our flaccid arteries
and let the world
fall upon us with a sigh
on flat screen tablets
and in digital surround
on a rising stream of noise we swim
it engulfs us and we drown again
anesthetized
’til tomorrow when
we rise
like Lazarus
to die again

IV. Flood

There you go, let loose the flow
of tainted waters, rising from below,
bitter bile, salty tears, unspoken fears,
all the yes dears, for years and years
rupture the structures, the rocking towers,
like cattle in Babel lowing the hours,
some past, some present, some yet to be,
let loose the torrent, set the flow free,
ride, Sally, ride, on your column of flame
bottled and brokered by merchants of pain,
and the rain, oh the rain, the heavens part,
the waters are rising, drowning your heart
in the cascades and rapids, the swirling pools
of singular servants, wisely suffered fools,
for a moment, a minute, a point in space,
caught in curved surfaces, lost in a place
of floods and mud plains, waves of grain,
Amber alerted by Sally’s complaint
of pressured flow building from below,
so let loose the flow, let it flow, let it flow.

V. Labor, Organized

They cut the timber, we make it into pulp
They bring us pine trees, we grind ’em into pulp
Our machines eat up their logs in one big scary gulp

They work the west seam, we burn their coal for heat
They bring us black coke, we burn it up for heat
Watch ’em coughing up their lungs while drinking in the street

They grow the soy beans, we feed ’em to our pigs
Feed corns and soy beans, we give ’em to our pigs
Come the holidays we’ll have some bacon with our figs

They’re in the garden, with pitchforks in their hands
Pitchforks and torches, and long ropes in their hands
We sit here in darkened rooms and question their demands

VI. Immolation

he’s spun up like a top wound by an old crack-addled dervish
and he’s twitching like a fish, he’s flopping on the deck, he’s nervous
and he’s agitated, too, he’s got an edge just like a cleaver,
something somewhere is broadcasting, and he knows he’s the receiver
of its tension and its anger, though he couldn’t quite explain it,
he’s the bearer of a lit fuel tank with no good way to drain it,
just a spark or just a cinder, and the whole town would be flattened,
leaving nothing in its wake, not even hatches that he’d battened,
though he knew that it was coming, he just couldn’t seem to date it,
and it caught him by surprise the day the deal was consummated

William Blake could see the future. It looked much like the past.

Midwestern Measures

The weather in Iowa can be putrid pretty much any time of the year. We’ve been enduring a particular gnarly stint here in recent weeks, with a gross combo platter of grey skies, rain, wind and humidity. Last night, just as we sat down for dinner, the tornado sirens went off, just to add some spice to the stew of suck. None of this should be surprising should you consult the Köppen Climate Classification System before visiting (or moving to) Iowa, which is classified as having a “Hot Summer Continental Climate.” Here’s the dispassionate description of that:

A hot summer continental climate is a climatic region typified by large seasonal temperature differences, with warm to hot (and often humid) summers and cold (sometimes severely cold) winters. Precipitation is relatively well distributed year-round in many areas with this climate, while others may see a marked reduction in wintry precipitation and even a wintertime drought. Snowfall, regardless of average seasonal totals, occurs in all areas with a humid continental climate and in many such places is more common than rain during the height of winter. In places with sufficient wintertime precipitation, the snow cover is often deep. Most summer rainfall occurs during thunderstorms and a very occasional tropical system. Though humidity levels are often high in locations with humid continental climates, it is important to note that the “humid” designation does not mean that the humidity levels are necessarily high, but that the climate is not dry enough to be classified as semi-arid or arid.

Sounds lovely, huh? If you consult a global Köppen Classification map, you’ll note that Iowa shares its climate with such exciting weather tourist destinations as Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Ontario and the cluster of American states in which corn, soybeans and hogs define the economy. Spring Break in Almaty, yo!! Woo Hoo!!

While looking out my window at the deep, deep drear this morning, I was reminded of a series of poems I wrote in 2004 and 2014 called “Midwestern Measures,” describing some of the unique facets and features of life in the Upper Corn Belt. The poems were written in Poulter’s Measure, a popular English Renaissance poetry form that also features heavily in various Christian hymns. I like it as a fun style, akin to double dactyls (I wrote a series called Women of Spam in that form), and limericks (which feature in my obviously titled ode to my homeland, Low Country Limericks). All part of my over-arching love for absurdist observational piffle and tripe.

I wrote the first set of Midwestern Measures during my “Poem A Day For A Year” project, and they were inspired by a visit to Marcia’s home state of Minnesota. The second set came after we moved to Iowa, and were originally published anonymously on my now-defunct Des Mean website. (That link will take you to the set of articles from there that I saw fit to move here when we left Iowa for Chicago in 2015, never imagining that we’d come back; this article will appear at top, but you can scroll down for many older ones). Some of the earlier Minnesota-based Midwestern Measures were later repurposed for Iowa, because despite many radical cultural, political, social and artistic differences between those two states, their geographic proximity does create some similarities, most of them having to do with vile weather.

So in “honor” of the revulsion that my local climate is producing right now, I re-post all of the Midwestern Measures below, opening with some of the weather gems. The Minnesota specific ones are appended at the end of the list. Hope they’re all good for a giggle. God knows we could all use some of those these days.

“Climate Control”

Our winters are quite cold.
The summers? Very hot.
It’s windy almost all the time,
and rainy when it’s not.

“Breezy, With A Chance of Showers”

The wind blows from the west,
and leaves us to the east.
And for as long as we recall
it’s never, ever ceased.

“Where Their Weather Goes”

The wind blows from the west
and crosses the Great Lakes,
which makes the snow in Buffalo
come down in sheets, not flakes.

“The Road Trip”

We drove off to the North.
I-35 was closed.
And somewhere just outside of Ames,
we sadly sat and froze.

“Iowa’s Greatest Lake”

Those Minnesota lakes?
The best I’ve ever seen!
But this Clear Lake, I’m sad to say,
is either ice . . . or green.

“On Landing at DSM”

We flew above the clouds.
We could not see the ground.
We saw some hills as we went up,
then none when we came down.

“Iowa Longevity”

We’re healthy folks ’round here,
a fact the world affirms.
We work hard, sleep lots, and live in
a place too cold for germs.

“Eating in Iowa”

The diet here is great,
our plates are quite the sight:
with corn and pork and milk and bread,
our food is always white.

“Practical Politics”

So we sent Joni Ernst
to D.C.’s hallowed halls,
because she knows her way around
a pair of porky balls.

“The Other Maytag”

I ate the Tenderloin,
I ate the Snickers Pie,
but if you make me eat that cheese,
I think I might just die.

“Know Your Audience”

Bruce Braley thought he’d run
for Old Tom Harkin’s seat.
He made a “stupid farmer” joke,
then harvested defeat.

“Warning Signs”

I will not take my wife
to State Fairs anymore:
I went to go see Butter Cow,
and lost her to Big Boar.

“Side Effects”

I gave up eating meat
per PETA Girl’s requests.
I’m now a soy-fueled PETA Boy,
with unexpected breasts.

“Red Zone”

The Cyclones have the ball,
two seconds on the clock.
A pass, a score, they win the game!
(Twelve people die from shock).

“Trip Time Portal”

No matter where we go,
our GPS display
says driving there and back will take
three hours, either way.

“Gasp!”

The farmer’s wife was shocked
to find her husband’s porn,
from which she learned a brand new way
to eat an ear of corn.

“The Count”

Atop the Show Me State,
beneath 10,000 Lakes,
sits Iowa: The Capitol
of Caucus Count Mistakes.

“Her Scenic View”

We climbed the Loess Hills.
We hiked the Driftless Zone.
But anything between those points,
she makes me walk alone.

BONUS MINNESOTA MEASURES

“Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken”

The sky is bright and blue,
the air is cool and brisk,
but I am flushed and turning green:
I ate the lutefisk.

“All This and IKEA Too”

Progressive to the end,
this state will meet your needs,
and do it with efficiency.
(God Bless the noble Swedes!)

“Land of a Lot of Lakes”

Ten thousand lakes we saw,
and all of them were nice.
Although I think I’d like them more
if they weren’t solid ice.

“Friendly Neighbors”

In Minneapolis,
we’ve really got it all.
And if we don’t, then right next door,
they’ll have it in St. Paul.

“After the Bear”

We saw the Northern Lights,
we saw our clouded breath,
we saw our ripped up tent and then
we slowly froze to death.

“Football Is An Outside Sport”

The Vikings used to play
outside in Bloomington,
but now they play inside a dome.
It’s warm, but not as fun.

The view from my office desk. It’s really that dreadful.

 

Four Mathematicians (Poetically)

I think I’m done archiving old concert reviews for now. While trawling though that old hard drive, though, I did find a few other things that I found amusing, and that have not been up on my public website since the 1990s. One that particularly pleased me was my series of short poems about mathematicians. I don’t know why I wrote them, but I was happy to be reminded of their existence, and share them today. Because nerd.

ONE:
He George Boole
He no foole
He new al-jabre
Nifty toole
Things be yeae
Things be naye
Or and nor nande
All things saye.

TWO:
Fibonacci, in perplection,
Logicked out the Golden Section.

THREE:
Gödel’s Hurdles:
By going out a system seeking proofs,
A bigger system’s spawned with bigger troofs.
(Repeat ad infinitum).

FOUR:
Georg Cantor, never dull,
Starts the count at aleph null.
Now he’s boxed and wormy dirty,
Contemplating aleph thirty.

I think I see a Fibonacci Spiral in his stylish hat.

Tiny Blue Isle

We all live on a tiny blue isle
in a ravening crimson sea
that scours our shore
as storm gales roar
from windward side to lee.

We all live on a tiny blue isle
that shudders against the waves
of scarlet brine
and turpentine
leached from sunk slavers’ graves.

We all live on a tiny blue isle,
that’s smaller, day by day,
as marshland sinks
into that pink
foam sloshing ’round the bay.

We all live on a tiny blue isle,
like a berry in currant crème,
a healthy mote
that stays afloat
in a sticky blood-red stream.

We all live on a tiny blue isle
and work one job, with glee:
we fling blue sand
with spade and hand
to fight that damned red sea . . .

I wrote this poem on November 10, 2016, after seeing some version of the following electoral results map:

I don’t often get political here on any partisan basis (though I presume my allegiances are clear), since nobody needs yet another voice howling into the Twitsphere about that which each of us feels is obvious, creating ever more repetitive echoes in our respective chambers of cognizant isolation. But while looking for an old article to reference in an another post, I re-read “Tiny Blue Isle” for the first time since I wrote it. I’m pleased with it as an original take on a tiresome topic, so I am sharing it again today. Take it as you will.

Back in February (Jeezum Krow, it was only three months ago?!?), Marcia and I participated in the dumpster fire that was the Iowa Democratic Caucus, which was appalling in the moment, and even more so in hindsight. Never again, America, please?  We just took our next step in the 2020 electoral process today by casting our ballots by mail for the Iowa Democratic Primary, which only featured one competitive race in our district: the Senate candidate who will challenge Joni “Hog Balls” Ernst in November. Here’s hoping Iowa can count our ballots correctly this time. I take nothing for granted on that front anymore.

We’ll be supporting candidates and organizations on a nationwide basis in the months ahead to perhaps create new blue land around our current tiny isles, while taming those ever-more damnably bloody red seas. And with that on the table today, we will return to our regular piffle and tripe here on Ye Olde Blog with my next post, whenever that may be. Likely soon. Quarantine Time is certainly fostering blog post fecundity.

Credidero #9: Eternity

As I pondered this month’s Credidero topic over the past thirty days, it occurred to me fairly early on that there’s a “one of these things is not the like the other” facet to this particular concept, in that “Eternity” is the only one of the twelve topics that cannot be tangibly experienced by human beings in any way, because it does not actually exist in the natural world.

I could go take a walk right now and experience complexity, or hostility, or curiosity, or any of the other eight topics I’ve considered and written about before this one, but there’s no way for me to experience an infinite span of time — unless I put my absolute faith in the premise of eternal life after death, snuff myself, and evaluate never-ending time as a tree in Dante’s Forest of Suicides. Or, conversely, if I was unexpectedly squished by a bus, and all was well with my relationship with my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at that moment, in which case I could be granted eternal bliss in the presence of the The LORD and all of His angels, world without end, amen, amen.

I certainly don’t intend to do self-harm in the name of research, and I hope that there’s not a bus grill in my immediate future, so those avenues for exploring the concept of endless time are not on the table at this point. And even if they were, do I believe that my incorporeal soul would tread one of those paths when my incredibly fleeting time as a sentient seawater sack plays out? No, not really. I’ve formally directed that my bodily remains be cremated when that time comes, and they’ll presumably be scattered somewhere (informally, I’ve suggested that they should be put in a fire ant nest at Stoney Creek Cemetery), so the closest thing to eternity that the constituent bits which once were me will likely experience is a slow dispersal of elements which will be reintegrated into other living things (most likely plants, or fungi), which will feed other living things, until such time as life is exterminated from our planet’s face, or the planet itself ceases to be. And even then, some of those bits may travel through interstellar space, landing who knows where, who knows when, until the universe itself collapses, leaving behind . . . something? Maybe?

That will take a long, long time, for sure, but not an eternity, in the normal use of that word. While the earliest moments of the universe are mind-bogglingly complex and confusing, and its final moments will likely mirror that incomprehensible chaos, time as human beings understand it will have started at one point, and ended at another, a finite (though immense) period, short of the infinity required to accurately capture the core concept of eternity. Scientifically and objectively speaking, the story arc of every other human being, and every other living thing, will be exactly the same on a macro basis, and even if we aggregate all of the life spans and all of the experiences of all of things that have ever creeped, crawled and croaked across our planet’s surface, we’d still come up with a time span that approached infinity, but never actually reached it.

Eternity is, therefore, a non-existent physical state in a non-metaphysical universe. And yet, it’s a cornerstone concept of most global faith traditions, where gods always have been and always will be, and human souls are presumed to endure over never-ending time spans, once they are sparked into being. (One of the quirky things about infinity is that a thing that has no beginning and no end exists for the the same amount of time as a thing that has a beginning, but no end). A logical corollary of such belief systems is that the periods of time when our souls are resident in their physical forms are essentially non-existent in the grand scheme of things, as ~80 years of corporeal life divided by an infinite number of life-after-death years equals zero, mathematically speaking. If we go to hell after death, then eternity is suffering, always. If there’s a paradise, then eternity is bliss, always. Everything that we are, and everything that we do, in our physical lives, condenses down to a single, timeless point, a toggle-switch in which the indeterminacy of forever is resolved into one of only two possible eternal states.

While I wouldn’t have understood or stated it quite that way, I can tell you that few concepts were more terrifying to me as a young person than this one, having been raised in an evangelical Christian household. The concept of The Rapture — when all believers, alive and dead, would rise to meet The LORD in glory — made eternity even more terrifying, as it could happen any time, and if it occurred during that one little moment of doubt, or that one little second after temptation had become sin, then I would be left behind to bear the tribulation, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, after which eternal damnation or eternal salvation awaited. All I knew as a young person was that if I had been bad, I could wake up one morning to find that my parents and all of the “good” people in my life were gone. In theory, that should have helped me to behave. In practice, I sinned with great aplomb, and was just scared all of the time that I wouldn’t be quick or thorough enough in my prayers for forgiveness to dodge that incoming Rapture bullet.

This was real enough in my world that I can remember having deadly earnest conversations with friends in middle school church youth groups about what we would do if didn’t make the cut when the Rapture came: where we would meet, how we would hide, what we would do, when finally faced with the undeniable reality of eternity, to ensure that we made the next cut together, and weren’t cast into eternal darkness and suffering. We saw it as some sort of post-apocalyptic action movie scenario, where we’d live on the run, protecting our little community at all costs from the Beast, and the Whore, and the Antichrist and their minions, faithful in our hidden catacomb headquarters, desperately repentant that we didn’t get it right the first time, determined to make amends if only given one more chance. And we had those conversations, more than once, because we all knew that we were woefully inadequate in our abilities to maintain sin-free, fully faithful lives, 24/7/365, so that the odds were stacked against us that we might all be right, true, and squared up in our faith at the precise moment when the virtuous souls began ascending. None of us pondered eternity with any expectation that it would be a positive experience, at bottom line. At least not without a whole lot of suffering before we got there, anyway.

So that’s what “eternity” meant to me through a good chunk of my formative years, a fraught concept fully anchored in an arcane belief system, and not in any observable reality — but terrifying nonetheless. That fear has abated over the ensuing decades, thankfully, and when I ponder the definition of eternity as “infinite time” now as an adult, I find that I can only perceive it at arm’s length, far more so than I can with any of the other Credidero concepts, as it has no meaningful impact or import in how I live my daily life and interact with other human beings. If I have any adult fears related to the concept, they spring from the knowledge that there are a shockingly large number of death cult zealots in positions of national leadership who are actively fomenting unrest in the Middle East in a misguided effort to hasten Armageddon and bring on the end times described by John the Revelator. I suppose eternity isn’t as frightening to them as it was to my young self, so secure are they in their faithful infallibility in the face of some final judgment. Must be nice.

Interestingly enough, the generally accepted definition of eternity as “infinite time” is (in relative terms) somewhat recent, having emerged only in the late Sixteenth Century. The ancient roots of the word are (possibly) found in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language’s aiw, meaning “vital [life] force.” From there we pass through the Latin aevum (age), aeviternus (great age), and aeternus (enduring). That latter form morphed into eternité in Old French, and thence into eternity in Late Middle English. The concept certainly captured long time spans over the aeons, if not infinite ones. There is also a specific philosophical usage where the word “eternity” means “outside of time,” as opposed to “sempiternity,” which is used to describe objects or concepts that exist now, and will continue to do so forever.

The crux of any discussion of eternity’s nuances, therefore, really hinges on whether the word is being used to describe very, very long time spans (which exist in our material world), or infinite ones (which do not). Which begs a second level question: does anything infinite really exist in the observable world? If there is no infinite time, is there an infinite distance, or an infinite mass, or an infinite number of some particular object(s), or anything else that has no beginning and no end when we attempt to count or measure it? Or even anything else that has no beginning and no end and exists somewhere else in the material world beyond our view or understanding?

I’m probably going to create a vision of myself as a most terribly neurotic child by sharing this, but I have to admit that “infinity” was another concept that kept me up at night as a young person, some years before fear of eternal damnation moved to the forefront of my existential anxieties. As a child of the ’60s, I was deeply fascinated by space exploration, and read voraciously about the topic. Our understanding of the solar system was a bit simpler then, with nine planets, and a readily countable and nameable number of natural satellites, plus some junk in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Beyond Pluto, there was Deep Space, which went on (we presumed) forever. I have specific memories of laying in bed thinking about that: I’d fly my mental space ship to Pluto, and then go further. And then further. And then further. And there would still be further to go. I could make myself woozy if I kept at it long enough, trying to comprehend space with no edge and no end. (Honestly, I could probably make myself woozy today if I thought too long about what’s out there 13.7 billion light years away from the center of the universe, at the very leading edge of the Big Bang’s reach; it’s just as mind-numbing to ponder now as it was then, if less scary).

Despite its questionable existence in the real world of tangible human experience (or our questionable ability to perceive it), infinity is a readily accessible, and useful, concept in higher mathematics, which fascinated me to no end when I was studying advanced calculus and differential equations in college. The key kluge to tangibly dealing with infinity is captured in the concept of mathematical limits, where the value of a function (or sequence) approaches some limit as the input (or index) approaches some other value. So we can say that the limit is zero as an input approaches infinity, or we can say that the limit is infinity as we approach zero, or any number of other possible permutations that can be framed by various formulae and equations. We can’t actually get to infinity, but we can understand what happens as we approach it, in perhaps simpler terms. We can also accept that anything divided by infinity is zero — but not that anything divided by zero is infinity. (I’ve seen various explanations and proofs of that concept over the years, and I accept them, though there’s still some sense of logical incongruity there for the casual mathematician).

My math studies in college were one place where contemplating the infinite, the imaginary, and the irrational — and the ways in which they can modeled — was actually a positive, pleasurable experience. One of the most sublime intellectual moments of my life was seeing the derivation and proof of Euler’s identity:

“π,” as most know, is the ratio of the circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number (e.g. it cannot be written as a fraction), and to the best of our knowledge, it continues irrationally infinitely; it has currently been calculated out to 31.4 trillion digits, and it never repeats in any predictable or discernible fashion. “e” is Euler’s Number, the base of natural logarithms. It has been calculated out to about 8 trillion digits, as best I can ascertain, also continuing irrationally in perpetuity. “i” is the imaginary number unit, which is the square root of -1. It cannot be calculated as it does not exist in the set of real numbers, but it’s a cornerstone concept in complex number theory. “0” is of course, zero, the opposite of infinity, and 1 is the first non-zero natural number, and the first in the infinite sequence of natural numbers. The fact that these five numbers — discovered and/or calculated and/or understood in different times, different ways, and different places throughout history — are provably related in such an ultimately simple and elegant way still utterly blows my mind with wonder and awe, both at the natural order that produces such relationships, and at the human powers of observation that divined and codified it. 

Those mathematical studies also inspired and spilled over into my creative life at the time. Around 1983, I wrote a song called “Anathematics” (there’s a demo version of it here), which included these lyrics, among others:

There’s a school of thought that is so large, it can’t be learned by one.
Six hundred monks are studying it now, but they have just begun.
The more they think, the less they know. They less they know, they’re not.
The more they’re not, the less I am. There’s more to me, I thought.
The limit is zero as we approach infinity.
The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be.
Anathematics explains what cannot be . . .

It’s less elegant than Euler’s Identity, certainly, but it was an attempt to try to capture the awesome confusion of the infinitely big and the infinitely small and the ways in which they overlap, taken from the viewpoint of modeling that which cannot be, rather than that which can. So essentially a poetic (and much shorter) version of what I’m doing here in this article, with a stiff beat that you most certainly cannot dance to.

There’s another way, in my life right here and right now, that I find myself reflecting on the limits of eternal time and eternal distance. My wife, daughter, and I all have the Drake Equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here it is, if you’re unfamiliar with it, along with an explanation of the terms embedded within it:

The Drake Equation was written in 1961 by Dr Frank Drake as a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. We know a lot more about some of the variables today than we did when Drake postulated this argument (e.g. rate of star formation, fraction of stars with planets, etc.), but for most of the variables related to life, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all.

“L” in some ways is the most interesting variable to me, since we have no idea how long we’re going to be able to keep broadcasting before we destroy ourselves, or something else destroys us. I suspect in the grand scheme of things, it’s likely going to end up being a relatively small number. Imagine, though, if L for human and other civilizations was vastly large, approaching eternal, meaning that once a planet began broadcasting, it would broadcast forever, or at least until the collapse of the universe. I believe that were that the case, we’d be picking up myriad signals from across the galaxy, since I also believe that we are not the first planetary civilization to develop broadcast capabilities since the Milky Way emerged some 13.5 billion years ago. (Compare that to the current estimated age of the universe at 13.7 billion years . . . our galaxy was born about as early as it was physically possible for it to, if our understanding of those ancient events is accurate. Wow!)

Given the immense distances at play, I’m not sure that we’d ever actually meet any of the other civilizations, but it would be transformative for humans on a planetary basis to know that we’re not alone, rather than simply believing it. It would also be truly revelatory to know that our sentient non-human colleagues in our universe are not metaphysical in nature (e.g angels, demons, gods and goddesses), but exist instead in the knowable, experiential world of real things. I’m not a dewy-eyed optimist about how that knowledge would instantly make everything better on earth (we’d likely still be prone to inhumanity in our dealings with others of our species), but it would certainly answer a lot of big questions, and it would certainly present some big opportunities.

After we got the Drake Equation tattoos, my wife summarized what she thinks when she looks at hers thusly: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” True that, for sure, for now. Given the fact that a longer “L” for humanity means we would have a higher probability of eventually demonstrating that “N” is greater than 1, I’d be most inclined to adopt and hew to a belief structure and practice that’s anchored in managing our lives, our cultures, our civilizations and our planet in ways that increase the likelihood of extending “L” for as long as humanly possible. It seems to me that a belief in and commitment to the tangible (though as yet indeterminate) time span “L” is of greater utility than being afraid of and/or longing for a metaphysical eternity and what it might (though probably doesn’t) represent and contain.

So is anybody up for starting The Church of Maximum “L,” with a defining core belief that “N” is greater than one, if we can only stick around long enough to establish contact and connect? I’d be a darned good early apostle if you need one.

Two-thirds of the family’s Drake Equation tattoos, freshly inked . . .

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

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Five: “Authority”

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

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 article is part of an on-going 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 fourth article complete, I roll the dice again . . .

12die

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Twelve: “Inhumanity.”

Caution: This book may detune your world.

 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue