Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Life Among the Ancients

5234810361_788418eac6_m

Bingo chip> Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶Well, it’s December 29 again. That day of the year when I change the digits while filling out some questionnaire on the line that asks for my age. The numbers now are “77”. Isn’t that supposed to be a lucky number? No, no, I’m confusing Double Seven with “4” plus “3”, “2” plus “5”, or “1” plus “6”.
¶Ignorant as I am, I Googled “77” to see if it has any meaning besides a highway sign, a TV show, or a whiskey concoction; and, lo and behold, what did I find in a numerology blog but this supposed personality trait: “77 → Intelligent, inventive and spiritually wise.” Wow! That’s awfully flattering, but such spiritualistic readings usually are. And in Dawna Hetzler’s blog I found this explanation: “Seven is the number of completeness and perfection (both physical and spiritual). It derives much of its meaning from being tied directly to God’s creation of all things. According to Jewish tradition, the creation of Adam occurred on October 7th, 3761 B.C. (or the first day of Tishri, which is the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar)…. (He) turned seventy seven—double sevens. (He) must feel exuberant knowing (his) age is the number of completeness and perfection (both physically and spiritually).”*
¶Decades ago, I learned that there is a lot of difference between intelligence and common-sense. Intelligence might be an admirable attribute, but common-sense is more likely to put a roof over one’s head and food into one’s tummy. By the time I had graduated from high school I suspected I was sorely lacking in the latter, so, while I was studying Chinese at Yale, I went to the campus bookstore and bought a paperback biography of Alexander Hamilton. In a letter to my girlfriend back in Dallas, I mentioned that I was reading about Hamilton; and she responded, “It’s nice that you’re reading that book, but why?” I was too embarrassed to explain that I was hoping some of our country’s first Treasury Secretary’s touted common-sense might rub off on me.
¶“Inventive” is, to me, an ambiguous adjective. In its most common use it means able to create something uniquely useful out of raw materials: I never saw myself as an inventor. However, “inventive” can also be used as a synonym for “resourceful”, which denotes the ability to apply one’s wits toward solving a problem with extraordinary elements, material or non-material: now, that I can honestly claim to have done a few times.
¶“Spiritually wise” perhaps might be a positive attribute, but to apply it to one’s self seems, to me, a bit arrogant. I will acknowledge that much of my thinking time is spent on spiritual matters, particularly my relationship with the Holy Spirit. And some people in the past have characterized me as “an astute observer”, “insightful” and “wise”; but their perceptions were based on really minimal evidence; they had not witnessed the moments of my folly. Anyway, I freely and gratefully acknowledge that any “spiritually wise” comments I have uttered proceed not from me but from the Holy Spirit, which I hold dwells within anyone who accepts him/her/it. Sometimes, H.S. surprises even me.

* * * * * *

¶As the late comedian George Carlin noted in one of his sketches, children, eager to be older so they can be taller and supposedly freer from parental constraint, will push their age by saying “almost six” when they are only a few months past their fifth anniversary. And a rather tired old joke is that line about “she’s still 29 and always will be”.
¶We can have all the facelifts we want. They won’t change our internal structure or the way we emotionally react to the passing of time. Some of us manage to stay “happy” or at least “content” for many years beyond the point when others of us falter under regrets and diminishing horizons.
¶I am one of those who have been melancholic almost from childhood. Actually, melancholy can be a pleasant emotion sometimes. I remember how I used to get spiritually inebriated on a winter day when the sunlight pierced the ether at an angle lower than at other times of the year. Emily Dickinson was also affected by that “certain slant of light”, although she received its effect much more negatively than I. Strange, but then, Emily was weirder than I am.
¶As for the diminishing horizon, that has struck me particularly hard. Part of the problem is that I have too many interests: art, poetry, philosophy, theology, history, politics.  Every once in a while, I get excited about a sub-topic of one of those fields and say to myself, “I’ll read up on that (or engage in that) and become a notable expert, ‘blowing away’ every observer with my brilliant performance.” I have a bad habit of hopping from one interest area to another, hardly ever finishing a project to the degree it deserves. Then I am struck between the eyes, so to speak, by the realization that I don’t have the years needed to accomplish such sublime goals.
¶Then there are the regrets connected to personal relationships. Someone I read recently (but can’t recall who) said that indulging in regrets is destructive to the psyche. That well may be, but it’s practically impossible to retard the sudden bolts of regret that strike one’s mind. What is odd about them in my case is that many are about piddling slights, such as not replying to a letter when a reply would have been a deserved courtesy to the correspondent. Many other regrets, of course, relate to psychological or financial injuries I have inflicted; in most cases it is no longer possible to make amends because the hurt ones are no longer alive, or I don’t know where they are. As John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in “Maud Muller”,

For of all sad words from tongue or pen,
The saddest are these, ‘it might have been’.

* * * * * *

¶The worst of aging is “ageism”. This is a current issue in the United States, not exactly on a par with racism or sexism but still controversial. Now is not the time for delving into the general debate, which has more to do with jobs than with socializing. Since I am retired, the job issue holds only an academic interest for me; I am affected more by the social impact of aging, such as those occasions when I irritate customers behind me in the grocery store or café  while I try to count my dollars and coins.
¶There are a few positive benefits in graying. Most young folks will hold a door open for you, especially if you have a cane. They will also surrender a stool for you at a bar if the place is crowded. The problem with that is, in my case at least, they will try to herd you to a stool next to some other old codgers — to corral you in with your generation. I use the terms “herd” and “corral” on purpose because the two other elders at my favorite “watering hole” are a retired Border Patrol agent in his late 90’s and a retired cowboy in his late 80’s. Don’t interpret me amiss: both these fellows are decent, well-mannered gents. The problems are that neither one can hear very well, so talking with them is a chore from the get-go; and I have begun to resent being ushered to a stool beside or between them as though nobody else will be interested in my conversation. It could be that, in fact, no one will be interested, but I’m not ready to face that possibility yet. I will never forget the first time, during my early 30’s, when a young man in a Dallas pub addressed me as “sir”; it was like a flick of cold water in the face.
¶Well, I have to go see if that cake over there can support seventy-seven candles.
¶Happy New Year!

Finis

 ∗ Ms. Hetzler used the feminine pronoun (without mentioning any antecedent). Since I am male, I have changed the pronoun to masculine for context’s sake. Thus the parentheses.

Class War: A Perspective on Wealth

weaalth distribution in U.S.A.

Source: Bing Images

©2016 By Bob Litton

WEALTH
1a. An abundance of valuable material possessions or resources, riches
1b. The state of being rich, affluence
2. Goods and resources having value in terms of exchange or use
3. A great amount, a profusion
The Free Dictionary (online)

* * * * * * * *

As long as I have been aware of societal divisions into classes I have hated the whole idea of a caste system and not strictly because of any income gaps. No, I am repelled by the notion that somebody could believe that he or she is irreversibly superior to me by divine right or other source such as a congressional appointment. I got my first taste of the totem pole culture while in the air force when I learned that I was expected to be always the first to salute and that I must always surrender place when even the spouse of an officer picks up mail at the postal window. That very much offended me and I still bridle a little when memories of those incidents come to mind.

Nor do I have any appreciation for the terms “upper class”, “middle class” and “working class”. I guess we are supposed to be thankful that the words “peasant” and “slave” are no longer generally descriptive of people in the United States and most other countries, but that is not enough: the whole class system must be erased entirely. (Sadly enough, slavery— or “involuntary servitude”— is still irritatingly present, although illegally, in my fatherland.) In the United States, class distinctions are not generally based on bloodlines as they have been in Europe and in Asia but on wealth, although family connections were more noticeably determinate up through, perhaps, mid-20th century.

During the last couple of decades the topic of “income inequality” has often appeared in newspaper and magazine articles and columns. Repeatedly the image of a very small portion of the U.S. population—the so-called “one-percenters”, those whom Thorstein Veblen called “the leisure class”— has accumulated more than a third of the nation’s wealth, and the next 19 percent possess more than 50 percent, leaving the remaining 80 percent of our citizens with only 15 percent of our national treasure. How did that happen?

Now the conservatives like to argue that the super-affluent obtained their riches through hard work, thrift, and prudent investments. To a limited degree that is true for some of the rich but not, I believe, for all of them. With the exception of “prudent investments”, those attributes cannot logically account for the vast wealth gained by the one-percenters. A person would have to enjoy an extremely high hourly wage to get wealthy through “hard work” (a phrase I handily contemn). Of course, most of us are aware of the ridiculously high “salaries” and bonuses lavished on corporate executives, even when their companies are losing money and are letting the CEOs go with “golden parachutes”.

In an April 24, 2014, column Harvard economist and regular The New York Times contributor Paul Krugman wrote that the primary route to riches for most of the one-percenters is not by way of “hard work”. Krugman applauded a recently published economics book by French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, in which the author asserts that the affluent don’t get rich from enterprise but from assets gained mostly through inheritance. Piketty calls for “progressive taxation as a way to limit the concentration of wealth”, wrote Krugman. Conservative critics have responded with ad hominem attacks, calling Piketty a “communist”, Krugman noted, because they cannot come up with any substantively valid arguments to refute him.

Some roads to riches, however, do involve initiative and energetic endeavor—along with considerable native intelligence. Two of the richest men in the U.S., for instance, started their eventual capitalistic enterprises while still in school, with assistance from classmates. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wrote his first computer program at age 13 while in prep school and went on to refine his geek skills, with college classmates, to a point where he could start-up Microsoft. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook working with four college classmates in their dorm rooms. More about those two later.

Many young people of our time, though, seek to win fame along with fortune in either entertainment or sports. The most worrisome thing about this trend, for me, is that only a very small number attain the stature and earnings they had hoped for. And the “earnings” of those who do seem as ridiculously out of proportion as those of the corporate executives.

Harrison Ford, for example, reportedly received from $10 million to $25 million (different sources cite different amounts) upfront for his final appearance as Han Solo in The Force Awakens (2015), along with .5 percent of the film’s gross earnings. Contrast that with the $500,000 his contracted base pay was for Return of the Jedi (1983), the $100,000 for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and the $10,000 for Star Wars (1977). The .5 percent on gross sales of course significantly augments those figures.

Another major Hollywood figure, Carole Lombard, was the highest paid cinema star of 1937, during the Great Depression. Of course her earnings that year ($485,000) did not come anywhere near Harrison Ford’s, but we must allow for inflation. She did earn $150,000 for each picture, definitely exceeding the amounts Ford initially received for his first two Star Wars films. The main reason I mention Lombard here, though, is the interesting tidbit I picked up from an August 25, 1938, article in The Mercury. She paid four-fifths of her 1937 earnings on taxes; after that amount plus various incidental expenses such as her press agent’s fee, her net income was about $20,000, according to Mercury.  “‘But I have no kicks,’ she [said]. ‘I am pretty happy about the whole thing, and 20,000 dollars a year is plenty.’ She added: she was glad the government was spending the rest on public improvements….’”

Then there is the music industry. I recall viewing the film The Glenn Miller Story in 1954. It starred Jimmy Stewart as Miller and June Allyson as his wife Martha. I now can recall only three scenes from it, and even those only vaguely. The scene related below is the only one pertinent to this essay. (I transcribed the dialogue from the film as I viewed it recently on YouTube):

Miller’s parents come to visit him, Martha and their infant child in their new home — a mansion for the times. While Glenn and Martha lead his parents up the wide stairway, his father inquires about how his son has managed to pay for the house on a musician’s earnings:
Pop: “Paid for, is it?”
Glenn: “O yeah, yeah, all paid for.”
Pop: “Must be doing pretty well.”
Mom: “O yes, he’s doing pretty well. Don’t we hear him on the radio every night?”
Pop: “That’s only 15 minutes. Don’t suppose they pay very much for that.”
Mom: “Well, there’s the records, and he’s playing at the Hotel Pennsylvania.”
Pop: “How much do they pay for playing on one of those records, son?”
Glenn: “We get three cents a record.”
Pop: “Three cents, huh? Have to sell a heap of records to make it worthwhile, don’t you?
Mom: “But they do, dear.”
Pop: “How many copies of a record do they sell, son?”
Glenn: “O, of ‘Moonlight Serenade’ we sold about 800,000.”
Pop: “Did you say 800,000?”
Glenn: “That’s right.”
Pop: “O! Heh, heh, heh.”
Now, if you suppose that Glenn Miller’s orchestra spent a full 8-hour day producing “Moonlight Serenade”, then they grossed $24,000 on that one record. Of course not all of that went to Glenn, there were the members of his band and presumably a studio rental and sound technicians to cover, not to mention some income tax. Still, that was just for one record; when you consider similar days for a whole work week, Glenn still came out pretty well.

The above scene brings to the fore an important question. We may be amazed and even disgusted at the huge amounts recording artists make from their records and live performances; but when we look at it a little more objectively, three cents is a really paltry amount on a single record. It is only when we multiply it by the 800,000 purchasers that the earnings jump significantly. And the world’s consumer market has increased tremendously since the 1930s, when Miller was just starting out. How can we begrudge some musician three cents on a single record?

As far as record sales go, the gain hasn’t increased all that much since Miller’s time. From what I have been able to gather online, the most popular musicians of today—the “rock stars”—receive only 75 cents to a dollar on an album. No, most of their wealth comes from live performances and T-shirts. An average box office “take” for a live performance was noted as between $150,000 and $200,000; but the fee for venue rental can be as high as $50,000, and there are the truck drivers and “roadies” wages to pay. Still, one source claims that each member of the rock band Metallica has had from $5 million to $10 million in the bank from their start-up to the present.

The earnings of major sports have become similarly ludicrous. In December 2015, basketball star LeBron James signed a lifetime contract with Nike to act as their brand-enhancer. The exact amount was not revealed, but ESPN reporter Darren Rovell estimated it could be worth $1 billion. In 2014, James joined the Cleveland Cavaliers for $22 million a year. And, Rovell wrote, James “ranks as sixth on Forbes 2015 list of highest paid athletes.” James’ total wealth—from endorsements and business ventures as well as from playing basketball—has been estimated at $64.8 million.

During the same month (December 2015) that James contracted with Nike, pitcher David Price finalized a $217 million, 7-year deal with the Boston Red Sox. According to Jimmy Golden of the Associated Press, the terms of the contract are that Price be paid $30 million a year for 2016-2018, $31 million in 2019 and $32 million in each of the final three years.

Professional sports teams that used to be filled by white men only are now predominately black. I don’t know what happened to the white guys: Are they physically unable to compete anymore or are they too racist to engage in the try-outs? As for the blacks, professional sports teams have become the equivalent of the 1840s gold mines; they apparently dream from childhood on of becoming sports heroes; sports has become their pathway to success and financial security. And the team owners are playing this longing to the hilt: I read an article not long ago that related how scouts have been venturing to a certain country in Africa (which one I don’t recall) to recruit youngsters to come to the USA and show their stuff; unfortunately, a large percentage of youths who venture westward cannot make the grade, not because they aren’t talented enough but because there aren’t that many positions open.

Another source of over-the-top income is gambling, either in the stock market or in the lotteries.

Oprah Winfrey, for instance, bought 6.4 million shares of Weight Watchers stock in October 2015 for $43 million. Almost as soon as this newsy item was out, Weight Watchers stock skyrocketed by 90 percent, according to ABC News. Winfrey said she invested so heavily in the company—which was “struggling with declining sales and a looming debt of $144 million” (ABC)—because Weight Watchers had helped her and millions of others with their weight issues. (The prestige derived from her joining the board of directors very likely helped them, too.) In February 2016, however, Weight Watchers stock declined 29 percent, according to USA Today (Feb. 26, 2016), and as of that date Oprah had lost about $29 million on her investment.

Then there is the much less admirable mode of gambling in which a hell of a lot of poor people engage: the lotteries. As far as I am concerned, this is a national sin. Yet the fact that lottery winnings are so absurdly astronomical testifies to the willingness of many of my compatriots to be gulls. I recall a news story from 1987 about a New York City janitor who won $5 million in a lottery, went to work the next day and, as he was about to climb a ladder to screw in a light bulb, another bulb lit up (in his head). “What am I doing this for?” he wondered, “I’m a millionaire.” Fifteen months later, according to a 1992 New York Times story by Alessandra Stanley, the lottery winner died in an automobile accident; and, since he left no will, his family had to spend a lot of time and money on lawyers and accountants plus income and estate taxes before they could extricate themselves with an estimated $400,000. Many other lottery winners’ stories have reportedly ended in similar Dickensian tragedies, according to what I have seen on the Internet.

But the most ridiculous money-grubbing story I ever read about concerns that silly little ditty known as “The Birthday Song”. If you live in the English-speaking regions, you probably know the words to the song. (I won’t dignify them by calling them “lyrics”, as some people do.) And if you don’t know the words, they are absolutely simple to learn; no memorizing necessary. It goes like this: “Happy birthday to you/Happy birthday to you/Happy birthday dear Nancy (or whoever)/Happy birthday to you.” It is usually sung at birthday parties; Marilyn Monroe sang it to John F. Kennedy at a celebration for him, but it is a universal tradition for anybody’s birthday in my country.

The ditty, you will note, contains only four words with an additional two stuck in as the addressee. And when it was supposedly composed by two sisters in Kentucky in 1893 no thought was taken as to copyright. The two ladies, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, used the ditty simply as a tool for teaching young children to sing. It reportedly first appeared in print in 1912, still without credits or copyright notices. Then, in 1935, the Summy Company registered a copyright. That company was bought by Warner/Chappell Music in 1988, when “Happy Birthday” had an estimated value of $5 million. Groups larger than small gatherings of relatives and friends had to pay royalties to the company for the opportunity to chirp the nonsense. For one such opportunity, in February 2010, the royalties reportedly amounted to $700. According to the Wikipedia article where I read up on this farce, “the song is the highest-earning single song in history, with estimated earnings since its creation of $50 million.” In addition, legal battles over the copyright issue went on for decades until February 8, 2016, when Warner/Chappell accepted a final judgment declaring the ditty to be in the public domain. For an entertaining summary of the lurid history of “Happy Birthday” I refer you to the Wikipedia article.

So, what can we do to “level the playing field” in economic, not sports, terms? Not a whole lot, I’m afraid, for greed and thievery will always be part of the human makeup. There are some proposals and movements, though, that seem promising to a small extent.

One is that old one FDR applied during the Great Depression and to which I referred when discussing Carole Lombard’s patriotic attitude: raising tax rates on the rich. Such is not going to happen, however, as long as the Republicans dominate Congress. Anyway, to me it seems a Sisyphean solution, attacks the symptom, so to speak, rather than the problem, and would certainly aggravate the tensions between rich and poor. But it might stabilize the income gap until a more satisfactory solution can be instituted.

A sort of obverse to that approach is what has been termed a universal basic income (U.B.I.), which New Yorker staff writer James Surowiecki wrote about in his June 20, 2016, column. The tactic here is to pay every U.S. adult a stipend of, say, $10,000 a year (children would receive a smaller amount). An experiment on this idea was tried in Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada, in the mid-nineteen-seventies, and, although a conservative government buried it quietly in 1979, later research indicated that while the guaranteed basic income was in force hospitalization rates had fallen, more teenagers had stayed in school, and work rates had only barely dropped.

New experiments on U.B.I. are currently underway or planned in Finland and in Oakland, California, Surowiecki reports. He writes: “In the U.S., the new interest in the U.B.I. is driven in part by how automation will affect workers. Bhaskar Sunkara, the publisher of the socialist magazine Jacobin, told me, ‘People are fearful of becoming redundant, and there’s this sense that the economy can’t be built to provide jobs for everyone.’”

I’m all in favor of a U.B.I., but even it might leave a certain discontent in people’s minds—the yearning to be useful and creative. I am too cynical to believe that every adult in the U.S. has enough imagination and energy to discover and develop a creative purpose or function or vocation on his/her own just to preserve his mental health. I can only hope I am wrong.

As long as we have businesses and industries that still employ people and that hope to retain their work force for a long period, another approach might fit: Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs). Actually, ESOPs have been around for years now, becoming popular in the mid-nineteen-seventies. According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, by 2014, seven thousand companies had ESOPs covering 13.5 million workers. I will let NCEO describe the system themselves, for they can do it more clearly than I:

“Similar to Profit-sharing plans, the ESOP is a trust fund into which the company contributes new shares of its own stock or cash to buy existing shares….Shares in the trust are allocated to individual employee accounts. Although there are some exceptions, generally all full-time employees over 21 participate in the plan. Allocations are made either on the basis of relative pay or some more equal formula. As employees accumulate seniority in the company, they acquire an increasing right to the shares in their account, a process known as vesting. Employees must be 100% vested within three to six years, depending on whether vesting is all at once (cliff vesting) or gradual.

“When employees leave the company, they receive their stock, which the company must buy back from them at its fair market value (unless there is a public market for the shares). Private companies must have an outside valuation to determine the price of their shares. In private companies, employees must be able to vote their allocated shares on major issues, such as closing or relocating, but the company can choose to pass through voting rights (such as for the board of directors) on other issues. In public companies, employees must be able to vote on all issues.”

There is more and important information in the NCEO statement that might interest you, but I will have to refer you to NCEO’s website (www.nceo.org) to read it, for my essay is already too long and I have a bit more to write.

All the media coverage over the huge disparity between the incomes of the super-rich and the rest of society apparently has had some impact: The Giving Pledge. According to its Wikipedia article, the Giving Pledge’s goal “is to inspire the wealthy people of the world to contribute the majority of their net worth to philanthropic causes, either during their lifetime or upon their death. The Pledge is a moral commitment, not a legal contract.” In June 2010, billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett formally announced “the Giving Pledge campaign” and began recruiting members. By August, forty people had pledged $125 billion. As of March 2016, one hundred forty-two individuals or couples had pledged an aggregate total of $731,860,000,000.

A year or two ago, before I had even heard of The Giving Pledge, I read a comment by Melinda Gates (Bill’s wife) in some news article to the effect that she didn’t need a billion dollars to live on and was planning to give some of her wealth away. I have long been suspicious of Bill because of his viciously aggressive business tactics, but I was also pleased by his reported charitableness: he reportedly has donated many, many computers to children in Africa. I realize that could be a subtle business tactic, too, since it might lead to future purchases of his Microsoft products in the future, but why “look a gift horse in the mouth”? (Come to think of it, the Trojans might have done well to have done just that!)

As for Warren Buffett, he has been one of my favorite people for several years now—ever since he urged Congress to make his tax rate higher than his secretary’s. If he approves of Bill Gates enough to associate with him in this Giving Pledge organization, then I guess I’ll have to accept Gates as okay, too.

The top five donors on The Giving Pledge roster are Bill and Melinda Gates ($77.3B), Warren Buffett ($66.7B), Larry Ellison ($49.3B), Michael Bloomberg ($37.2B), and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan ($35.7B).

According to the Wikipedia article, “The pledge does not involve pooling money or supporting a particular set of causes or organizations. The pledge asks only that the individual give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charitable organizations either during their lifetime or in their will….The pledge encourages signatories to find their own unique ways to give that inspire them personally and benefit society.”

I don’t know whether my curiosity derives from good old-fashioned journalistic instinct or from dirty old cynicism, but I wonder what these people’s motives are. Could they be reacting to the threat of a possible new revolution of the French sort? (You might recall that one year later the “Occupy Wall Street” movement began in New York City.) Could they be honestly sensitive to the inequity of the wealth disparity? Could they have concluded that a hyper-tax is looming ahead and want to determine for themselves where and how their contributions are to be spent? I can’t answer those questions, and I don’t think it is necessary that I do so. Although the Giving Pledge is not likely to benefit me individually or directly, if it reduces the number of solicitations for contributions that show up in my mail box each December, then I will be pleased.

Finis

 

 

Another Twist of the Kaleidoscope[1]

Greek Amphora

An ancient Grecian amphora: Image Source > Bing Images

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I am in a strange position right now. On the one hand, I have three topics in my noggin, each deserving extended composition. On the other hand, they all require more research than I have devoted to them thus far, if they are to be “done up” right. Yet it has been eleven days since I published my last post, and my ego is supposing that some regular — but non-“Following” — readers are getting a bit antsy after returning often to my blog site and finding nothing fresh. So, my only recourse is to compose a potpourri of short opinions/insights. (Well, actually there are a couple of other options, but I don’t want to go down that “rabbit trail” right now.)

I

About twenty years ago, in Dallas, I bought a set of classical Greek language texts published by Cambridge University Press. I purchased them because I had been reading translations of the early Greek tragedies and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and wanted to read them in the original language. I had noted some editors’ comments that the playwright Euripides, the historian Thucydides, and the philosopher Plato, were superb stylists. I had been a good student of Spanish, French, Chinese, and Old English (Anglo-Saxon), so I did not anticipate much difficulty with Greek, although I figured that the Greeks’ odd-ball alphabet would annoy me for a while. By Zeus, was I wrong! All the diacritical marks, the dizzily varying declensions and conjugations, and the swamping mass of vocabulary to learn frustrated me. I got as far as Section VII (out of XIX), laid my books aside, and went on to other interests. Twice over the next two decades I started the Greek again — at Section I. (I got that one down pat, by the way!)

A couple of months ago, I dove back into the translation of Thucydides and was freshly astonished by the parallels with current events. If you read the Greek statesman Pericles’ oration at the memorial service for the first Athenian warriors killed during the Peloponnesian War, you too, I believe, will be struck by the similarity of Pericles’ claims for Athens’ “exceptionalism” to American politicians’ claims for our homeland’s superior qualities. Thucydides also lays out in bold yet unbiased descriptions the virtues and faults not only of Athens but of Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Corcyra and other city-states as well. He also analyzes the characters in their actions and their motives. The people as a whole are scrutinized with equal clarity. The acts of heroism and of treachery are rendered vividly.

I possess the first two (of four) volumes of Harvard University Press’ Thucydides, with Greek printed on the left-hand pages and English on the right. However, I have delved into the first volume only as far as the first 70 pages. The version I read all the way through, years ago, and am perusing for the second time is the 1874 translation by Richard Crawley, heavily abridged by Sir Richard Livingstone for the Oxford University Press in 1943, during the hottest period of World War II. It is only 388 pages long (not counting two maps and an index) with the pages measuring 9×15 cm. Still, condensed though it is, Livingstone’s offering provides a full sense of the flavor and drama of that conflict — the “world war” of its time. Especially perspicacious is Thucydides’ analysis of the class warfare between the aristocrats and the democrats, which led into the general war. I have excerpted the sentences below from his commentary:

Revolution brought on the cities of Greece many calamities, such as exist and always will exist till human nature changes, varying in intensity and character with changing circumstances. In peace and prosperity states and individuals are governed by higher ideals because they are not involved in necessities beyond their control, but war deprives them of their very existence and is a rough teacher that brings most men’s dispositions down to the level of their circumstances. So civil war broke out in the cities; and the later revolutionaries, with previous examples before their eyes, devised new ideas which went far beyond earlier ones, so elaborate were their enterprises, so novel their revenges. Words changed their ordinary meanings and were construed in new senses. Reckless daring passed for the courage of a loyal partisan, far-sighted hesitation was the excuse of a coward, moderation was the pretext of the unmanly, the power to see all sides of a question was complete inability to act….

The cause of all these evils was love of power due to ambition and greed, which led to rivalries from which party spirit sprung. The leaders of both sides used specious phrases, championing a moderate aristocracy or political equality for the masses. They professed to study public interests but made them their prize, and in the struggle to get the better of each other by any means committed terrible excesses and to still greater extremes in revenge. Neither justice nor the needs of the state restrained them, their only limit was the caprice of the hour, and they were prepared to satisfy a momentary rivalry by the unjust condemnation of the opponent or by a forcible seizure of power….[2]

Appear familiar? Of course, history does not repeat itself in a symmetrically balanced manner; there are some differences from that situation in ancient Greece and today’s world; but I believe there are more analogous than non-analogous elements, both in our Congress and in the world entire. In fact, I am so enamored of Thucydides’ work that I believe our senators and representatives should be required to take a month-long course with this book as their text before they assume office, or perhaps even before they run for office, and attain a passing grade.

II

 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought for a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
                                                                                                — I Corinthians 6:19-20

If there are any anti-spiritual types out there in Cyberland, I beg your pardon, but I feel a calling to preach a bit here. Oh, don’t worry overmuch; it’s not a fire and brimstone message; really more of an extended pet peeve with an ounce of theology sprinkled on to give it some authority. Although I matured in the Methodist Church and even considered a few times becoming a minister, I argued myself out of it by pointing at the Apostles’ Creed and grunting at the several elements I could not honestly adhere to. But that is all fodder for some later blog post; not now.

The above passage from Paul of Tarsus, however, resonates with me for two reasons. Firstly, it brings forward the image of my favorite pastor during those young years, Clark Calvert: he was my mentor, even a sort of father figure for me, and he used that verse to counsel me. Secondly, I appreciate the image conjured by the verse itself: my body as the eternal residence of the Holy Spirit. To be perfectly frank with you, dear reader, the Holy Spirit is the only Person of the Trinity I feel that I can comprehend and be comfortable with. God the Father is too abstract and paradoxical, especially when I consider the old conundrum about Evil; and Jesus of the New Testament — “The Son” — has too many faces and does and says self-contradictory things, like some protagonist in a Jacobean tragedy. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is definitely comprehensible to me; he has a definite, singular role to play: to act as our guide, comforter, and advocate. And I believe He/She/It has done all that for me many times. Naturally, I don’t always respond positively to the nudges, but I recognize my responsibility when I recalcitrantly plunge ahead at the suggestion of my impulses.

But let’s return to the image of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Lately, like within the past couple of years, I have become inordinately conscious of my appearance and, even worse, of the appearance of others. Of course I realize that, aging as I have, I would become more aware of the changes in my body, particularly in my face; giving up three molars during the past twelve months certainly highlighted those changes! I really do not take good enough care of myself, and I cannot fathom why. Is it just laziness or perhaps a self-contempt expressing itself physically?

But it is my view of others that really bothers me. I judge people constantly, especially young people, who, to my way of thinking, have an almost moral obligation to keep themselves in shape and definitely to avoid tarnishing their features with rings in their noses and lips, and with tattoos all over their bodies. What are they going to do, I wonder, when they get older and suddenly realize how tacky they look. One can erase only so much. Enough people are ill-favored, even downright ugly, and I look on them with pity, thinking that Nature has been too unkind to them; but, ironically, many of them found mates, while I remained single.

Then there is the obesity epidemic which is affecting all generations. I am overweight myself but am gradually losing some of it; I can now get into half a dozen pants that wouldn’t fit six months ago. However, I can’t see myself as readily as I can others; and the external scene is downright shocking. Especially ridiculous is the sight of the many fat nurses — people whose jobs are to help other people get well and stay healthy. And now, in our small town at least, we have a number of peace officers and criminal justice students who look like balloons. Those people are supposed to be able to chase malefactors, aren’t they? Our modern mode of working is the central villain here: most of our jobs involve a lot of sitting; when I went into the county tax office recently to renew my license tag I was at once both shocked and amused at the sight of a dozen female clerks who looked like walruses on a beach.

I feel guilty judging others as the above remarks evidence. I can’t change the world to fit my aesthetic and moral values; yet the impulse to judge is almost constant. Sometimes I wish I were blind.

— BL

Postscript:  Parenthetically speaking, Paul of Tarsus was not commenting on the Corinthians’ appearance. He was chastising them…actually even condemning some… for the immoral physical actions, such as fornication, that they were guilty of. I think Paul was a bit harsh with the Corinthians, when you consider what he confessed to the Romans:
I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.
                                                                                                                    — Romans 7:15

Finis

[1] If you are interested in my first “kaleidoscope” post, look in the archives for “Off My Head”, July 29, 2015.

[2] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book III, ¶83.

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, WordPress.com (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

Bob’s Apology to the Children of the World

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

O little children, how I regret the need to write this letter to you. If we big people had done our duty for many years now, this apology would not have been necessary. You might not be able to read or comprehend by yourselves what I shall say here, so you perhaps should wait until you are a little older and have learned more and bigger words. (I will try to rein in my tendency to use complicated words, but that is very hard to do.) Or your parents might sit down with you and reduce the content to your level of understanding. I doubt that they will, because it could be too embarrassing for them.

I don’t have any children of my own, but there was a time when I deeply wanted a baby. However, I was already past the age when being a good daddy was practicable; and, anyway, I didn’t have a wife. A mommy is just as important in a child’s development as a daddy, usually more so. But my being childless is not really important: I am still just as responsible for our troubles as any parent.

But, let’s get on with the basic message I want to share with you.

The world is in a sad situation right now, both in an environmental way and in a social way. Perhaps the primary cause of that sad situation… (Let me introduce a new word to you here: dire. I would rather use that word than “sad” because, although it contains much the same meaning, it also means more. You see, a situation can be “sad” and yet limited; it might affect only one person or just a few people, and it might be just a temporary mood. “Dire”, however, adds more meaning — the element of threat. If something is a threat then it is neither tied to a mood nor likely to be temporary; it could mean the end of all life, even all things.)

One current threat is Climate Change. The Earth’s temperature is increasing; at least that is what about 300 of the world’s scientists have told us. And many things that we can see, if we look at them, appear to back up the scientists’ claims: the Arctic ice is melting, threatening the habitat of the polar bears and the Eskimos; the coral reefs, on which many sea creatures depend for food, is receding; the schedules and flight patterns of migratory birds are changing; and, perhaps the simplest test of all, the recording on temperature gauges is inching upward year by year. And those are just a few of the observable changes.

Now, a sizable minority of the world’s population refuses to acknowledge these changes or to attribute them to Man’s use of energy sources that come out of the earth, such as coal and oil. And other people, who might recognize Man’s guilt in all this mess, don’t have the political will to do anything about the problem. What hinders them is that to take the urgent actions needed to try and reverse, or at least moderate, disaster would require eliminating some industries, such as coal-mining and oil/gas-drilling, which have employed many people — perhaps your daddy or mommy — for a long time. You can understand, can’t you, why your parents, if they work in one of those industries, would fight to keep their jobs? They want to be able to feed and clothe you just as they have always done. And when the cost of a solution closely affects a person’s family his or her range of vision becomes severely narrowed.

Another threatening element in our world’s scene is tribalism. If you are Americans, you probably think that only the Native Americans (formerly known as “the Indians”) live in tribes. Actually, though, we are all members of tribes in that our facial features, skin colors, cultural attitudes, political arrangements, and even spiritual beliefs are shared by varying fractions of the world’s population. Throughout the centuries, tribes have often been in conflict with one another; this is very noticeably the current case in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. But it is also an issue in Europe and the United States, where mass migrations of peoples who are fleeing oppression and poverty in their homelands continue. Especially when a bunch of them move to any one country, they tend to congregate in the same area so that they can share themselves with others of their own culture and language; thus, we have neighborhoods that become known as “China Town” or “Little Mexico”. Large influxes of peoples bringing with them their traditions, religions and other cultural habits appear threatening to native peoples, who want to protect their own cultural norms from alterations. Now, some of the native people — particularly the farmers — often welcome the foreigners because those refugees are willing to do work that some natives do not want to do. That causes quarrels between the farmers and their urban neighbors.

There are also, naturally, more practical problems that come with mass migrations: how to house, feed, clothe, educate and medicate the foreigners. The governments in Europe, the United States and some African countries are wrestling with those problems right now. A subtle and dangerous aspect of this social turmoil is the element of racism and religious bigotry involved. Ethnic jealousy and political partisanship also are part of this poisonous mixture. Such a seemingly small matter as whether a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear her religion-prescribed head scarf in some places has engendered debates in parliaments and the media.

Religion itself is a major element in the world’s general conflict. In the Middle East, one branch of Islam attacks another branch over the question of who was the rightful successor of Mahomet as leader of their religion. In China, the government is again trying to extinguish Christianity. And here in the U.S., one political party is working hard to infuse the Christian religion more deeply into our political system; they want to establish Christianity as the official religion of the U. S.. In all our conflicts, a primary element is the “us versus them” mentality, and that is especially true of the religious divisions.

Then there is the question of how you children are going to earn a living when you grow up. Robotics and mechanization are already reducing the number of humans who are needed for many types of jobs. In Japan, I read recently, they are already using robots to work the reservation counters at airports. A batch of sociological studies all indicate that many more positions will be taken over by robots over the next 25 years, including those of lawyers, doctors, and news reporters. So, what will you do? How will you spend all your “free time”? How will your food and shelter be paid for? Don’t expect the owners of factories and other businesses or the political officials to care: they want to eliminate the need for human employees because doing so will save them money. Why should they spend that savings on your needs?

Now, I should give credit to those grown-ups who are trying to solve some of the problems I have too briefly described above. There are many individuals, companies and even governments who are altering their practices regarding gaseous emissions from factories and vehicles, which are a major cause of the Climate Change problem. There are also some statesmen who are trying to tamper down the social strife caused by religious and cultural differences.

And there are your parents, who had enough faith in humanity to bring you into the world. I feel some mental and emotional conflict within myself at this point because, on the one hand, I wonder at their wanting to bring children into a world full of direful and daunting difficulties; while, on the other hand, I admire them for their faith and for providing us with you. The solutions will require people — intelligent, energetic and loving people — to discover and put them into practice.

Thus I leave you, Children of the World, with my most heart-felt apology for the messes we have left for you to clean up, and with my earnest hope and encouragement for your success.

Bless you,

Bob Litton

Fragile Civilisation

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I have been viewing again some DVDs about the course of Western Europe’s cultural history since the fall of the Roman Empire; I bought the set a year ago. They constitute the 13-part documentary titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, which was produced by BBC-2 back in 1969. While still a graduate student at SMU, I enjoyed the series when it came to the U.S. the following year. The personable, humorous and brilliant Kenneth Clark immediately became my newest hero.

My description of  this Scotsman, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), contains the adjective “humorous”, but I don’t mean by that that he was a comedian or even that the primary tone of Civilisation is light-hearted: it is in fact often melancholy, even at times somberly prophetic, for the theme of the narrative is how the trend of civilisation in Europe has not been an unswervingly upward slant but has declined several times since 476 C.E. (the generally accepted date of Rome’s conquest by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer) and has even slipped into darkness once for several hundred years. Nonetheless, Clark’s comments frequently are interlarded with understated wit, a quality which has characterized many British intellectuals over the centuries.

But wry wit is not my theme: rather I want to align myself with Clark’s emotional concern about the impending fate of the West today—Europe’s of course but America’s as well. During at least two of his presentations (or lectures, if you prefer), Clark alludes to the very possible extinction of what he chose to call today’s “civilisation”. (This spelling, by the way, is not a typographical error; the British spell “civilisation” with an “s” while we in the United States spell it with a “z”; I have elected to employ the British spelling throughout this essay.) Without being specific, Clark alludes to recent events as portents of another dip in humanity’s cultural development. I still don’t know what he could be referring to: the Cold War? modern art? mechanization? materialism? political corruption? Here and there in the episodes he mentions all those and other fault-lines, as well as the constant, congenital “fragility of civilisation”. But if there is any single danger to current civilisation that he considers our immediate nemesis, I am not certain which it is.

Early in the first episode of Civilisation, Clark conceded that he couldn’t define civilisation…“yet”. Then, playing on the cliché about the philistine who at first demurs when asked what to him is “fine art”, Clark adds “…but I know it when I see it.” He later makes the same remark about “barbarism”. Soon thereafter, however, he lists several attributes of his subject: “intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality”. Still further on in the series, Clark adds stability, confidence, prosperity, order, and broad participation in society. And even further on, Clark describes a civilised society as “intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate”; but these latter qualities are not simply what create civilisation, they are also what are necessary to sustain it. Nomadic peoples, such as the Vikings for instance, although supremely confident and adventuresome, could not develop a civilisation, according to Clark’s definition, because they were unstable and saw no value in maintaining anything other than their tools for survival: in the case of the Vikings, their ingenious ships. And the highly cultivated society of 17th century France could not last because the portion of the population which participated in it was too small.

I perhaps should mention “light”, since Clark asserted that light “can be seen as the symbol of civilisation.”  He is referring to the light of reason, education and accumulated knowledge as well as to the light that was so typical of Dutch painting during the 17th century and to the light studies in 19th century French Impressionism. His appreciation of light is almost mystical.

Although Clark does not name any singular major threat that confronted mid-20th century Western Europe, he does specify what caused the luster of previous cultures to fade: fear of war, plague and the supernatural; boredom; exhaustion; and insularity.

At the end of Clark’s cultural tour he confesses himself to be a “stick-in-the mud”, by which he means that he holds onto several values and beliefs which have been abandoned by some other modern intellectuals. Peace, he says, is preferable to violence, and knowledge is preferable to ignorance. He adds that he cherishes courtesy and compassion. And above all he advocates for the recognition that we humans are a part of Nature’s big picture, not separate from it, and that we should view other animals as our brothers and sisters, much as Saint Francis of Assisi did.

Now, to the present. I have my own personal issues with which to cope, issues that no one other than I can resolve. But I also share in many, and in some ways starker, issues that confront Americans as a whole and others that are faced by everyone on this planet, whether they are aware of them or not. What makes these problems seem especially intractable is that they are typified by paradoxes and dilemmas.

Recently, for instance, I heard an interview on National Public Radio in which the interviewee was author of a book about the psychological disturbances that afflict many military service people when they return home from places like Viet Nam and the Middle East. These disturbances we have classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The author, who is himself a veteran of the Iraq conflict, claimed, however, that that classification is inaccurate, at least in his case. He said that the problem evolved not from having been in a combat situation but from leaving it. Coming home to a “stable” environment had made him feel marooned, so to speak. On the battle field he had been in the company of men who depended on each other every second for their survival; when he got home, he felt isolated because of the separateness and indifference he saw all around him. In another NPR interview, a woman who had survived the horrors of the ethnic war in Bosnia during the 1990’s said she was ashamed to admit it, but she now yearns for those days because people cared for each other at a very deep level. During that same interview, mention was made of how the murder and suicide rates in New York City steeply declined immediately after 9/11.

I cannot accept the notion that the cohesion of society—of civilisation—depends upon war and other calamities.

For any of you who are interested, you can view Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View documentary on YouTube…at least as of May 29, 2016.

Finis

 

 

Pomp and Circumstance

© 2016 by Bob Litton.  All Rights Reserved.

The two theme ideas that have been hounding me lately are quite different from each other, one being the ultimate in the grandiose (“The Idea of God”) and the other so bland as almost to amount to trivia (“Academic Regalia”). Naturally, being the lazy and cowardly person that I am, I opted for the latter.

It all started this way: Last week our hometown university published a notice in the local weekly announcing who the guest speaker at this year’s graduation ceremony would be. There was a fairly lengthy description of the speaker in the paper; but, because he was an alumnus of the same university as I, I wanted to know more; so I used a search engine. Unfortunately but naturally enough, this year’s speaker hadn’t been announced yet when the program was published online. However, serendipitously I happened upon some information that was just as intriguing.

Firstly, I was surprised to see that college administrators can be just as dictatorial as the Misses Grundy’s we encountered our first year in grade school — when they separated us into “blue birds” and “red birds”. Here is how the university organized the commencement (the blue and red highlightings are my addition):

IMPORTANT DOs and DON’Ts for graduates and guests:
• Attend rehearsal at 2 p.m. on Friday, May 13th so you know the marching order.
• Arrive by 9 a.m. on the day of graduation, Saturday, May 14th.  The ceremony will begin at 10:00am.
• Leave valuables with family members during the ceremony.  There is no secure place for your belongings.
• Wear proper academic regalia.
• No selfies, hijinks, or inappropriate behavior as you cross the stage.
• Cell phones should be turned off or placed on silent.
• Students are expected to return to their seats after the on-stage presentation. The last person is just as important as the first.
• Diplomas will be mailed two weeks after commencement.  If you choose to pick up your diploma, please contact the Provost’s office.
• Guests should arrive early as seating is on a first come, first serve basis.
• Use of air horns, noisemakers, or other disruptive items is strictly PROHIBITED.
• Guests are expected to remain in their seats during the ceremony.
• Photos are allowed in the designated area only. To avoid congestion, please limit the number of guests on the venue floor.
• Guests should sit in the designated areas only; seats on the floor are reserved for faculty and graduates only. Do not stand in the aisles.

My, my! I innocently had thought that by the time one graduated from college, he or she would have grown out of pranksterism, but here we are with the graduates being warned not to engage in “hijnks” or any other sort of “inappropriate behavior” as they cross the stage. And I was curious whether anyone during any previous commencement had blown an “airhorn”.  The wording reminded me of our current political caucuses and primaries. Of course, most of the other instructions are moderate and understandable, assuming the exercise is going to exhibit any organization at all.

Well, I said “moderate”, but I don’t know if that is really the true case or not. For, look at the blue-highlighted item: “Wear proper academic regalia.” Elsewhere in the instruction pages the graduates are informed where they can “buy” the caps and gowns — at the campus bookstore — but the cost is not listed. When I was graduated from high school in Dallas in 1958, we didn’t have to buy our caps and gowns; but, then, that was presumed to be the only occasion we were to use them. When one gets into the levels of “higher learning”, there can be multiple occasions for wearing the cap and gown (or the gown at least) unless the graduate changes his/her academic field along the way, the reason being that the gowns are color-coded.

I counted twenty colors in the local university’s regalia, but the number of colors will vary from school to school depending upon how many degree programs at the school; the maximum number is eighty-five, but I don’t know of any university that offers that many degree programs.. We are way beyond the “blue bird”/”red bird” stage, folks! I won’t burden you with all twenty colors and their particular fields, just the few that caught my attention for different reasons.

The first one (on their list and mine as well) is Agriculture with its maize gown. According to its Wikipedia article, the term “maize” can be applied to “a variety of shades, ranging from light yellow to a dark shade that borders on orange”. Of all the colors on the gown list, this color — that of our American corn — best matches the academic field it signifies. Hurray for the farmers and county agents!

The next one I noticed (their third on the list) was Accountancy, Business, Commerce: drab. Now, I realize that business majors are often the butt of campus jokes, but isn’t this carrying the humor a bit too far? Drab? Drab is “a dull, light brown color, the color of undyed wool”. I won’t say any more about it.

The colors for Education (light blue) and Philosophy (dark blue) intrigued me because they are both blues; but is there any significance, other than a limited number of colors to draw upon, in their intensity difference? My imagination hints the answer: “Yes!” For, Education can be a light-hearted field, particularly if the graduates are going into elementary school teaching; while Philosophy, as I discovered too late, is usually way too dark for safe living, especially if you concentrate on Schopenhauer and the Existentialists.

A little further down the list we come upon Journalism (crimson). Being a former journalist, I was naturally curious about that color and why a shade of red was chosen, the color often associated with anger. I would have expected to read “yellow”, not out of any association with cowardice but rather harking back to the historical period of “yellow journalism”. On the other hand, such a choice would have been almost as bad as the drab tacked onto Accountancy, etc.

As for the students having to purchase their caps and gowns, I suppose at least some of them will end up donning them again on a few later occasions, when they earn higher degrees, even honorary ones. And, of course, those who become college professors will have to don theirs at least twice a year for future commencement ceremonies. As for those who entertain no further academic ambitions as such, they can just box their caps and gowns and stow them away in their attics with other memorabilia.

I don’t have any problem with old academic regalia myself, for I did not attend either my bachelor’s or my master’s graduation ceremonies: I had my degrees mailed to me. My memory of that tedious high school graduation with 494 students marching up to the stage at Dallas’ State Fair Music Hall to receive our individual degrees while a band doggedly played Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over again was too vivid a memory.

Finis

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
When a person reaches the 76th year he can develop the notion that, because he has lived through — even studied — much history, he has accumulated a dense patina of knowledge in his brain; yet he also feels afflicted by the suspicion that he does not know how to apply it. I recall in my youth enduring various puzzling illnesses and mechanical problems which, after healing or correcting by learning the causes and applying the proper treatments or techniques, I have said to myself, “There now, in the future when I come across this situation again, I will know what to do!” The only problem with that assumption is that the illness or mechanical failure  seems never to repeat itself. There is always a new puzzle to ponder. Because of a few such episodes in my recent past, the idea of composing this essay flowered in my brain.

Past:

Einstein said that time and space are the same. I take that remark to mean that if I get up from this chair and walk over to my bookcase, about fifteen feet away, I will be walking into the future; and that if I turn around and walk back to my chair, I will be walking into the past, because I am going the same distance, over the same area, over the same period of time, only in reverse — just like the “rewind” device on my VCR. But I don’t feel that to be the case, for I have aged infinitesimally during both transits. (I wonder, to render this example valid, would it be necessary for me to retrace my steps backward rather than doing an about-face and proceeding forward again but in the opposite direction?)

I’m a very time-sensitive person, and the only place I feel that I am delving into the past is in the memory sections of the brain (the pre-frontal lobe [short-term] and the hippocampus [long-term]). Of course there are extant, exterior entities, such as an old photo or a “golden oldie” sound recording, even a scent, that can stir and augment memories.

A strange aspect of some memories is that they have made me imagine that the events which they relate still exist. Those particularly vivid memories, though very transient, are so palpable as to make their events’ extinction seem improbable. When I had such a memory unfold in my mind one day recently, I wondered where I would have to search to recover the event itself; but I quickly shook off that notion after realizing that every event has preceding and subsequent events, and I could not bring back that singular, desirable scene without also summoning its past and future. That enterprise would require a time machine.

Before you summon the guys in white coats, consider a few sentences from an article in last January’s Harper’s magazine. Titled “WHAT CAME BEFORE THE BIG BANG?”, the essay was written by MIT physicist and novelist (what a combination) Alan Lightman. Actually, in the sentences I will quote here, Lightman is referring not to his own cosmological theory but to one being investigated by another MIT scientist, Alan Guth, and California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll. Their hypothesis, known as the “Two-Headed time theory”, according to Lightman, proposes that the order of our universe, then much smaller than an atom, “was at a maximum at the Big Bang; disorder increased both before and after…. (T)he forward direction of time is determined by the movement of order to disorder. Thus the future points away from the Big Bang in two directions. A person living in the contracting phase of the universe sees the Big Bang in her past, just as we do. When she dies, the universe is larger than when she was born, just as it will be for us. ‘When I come to understand that the reason I can remember the past but not the future is ultimately related to conditions at the Big Bang, that was a startling epiphany,’ said Carroll.

Lightman compares the expansion and contraction phases of the universe to that children’s toy, the “Slinky”, which, as he points out, “reaches maximum compression on impact, and then bounces back to larger dimensions. Because of the unavoidable fluctuations required by quantum physics, the contracting universe would not be an exact mirror image of the expanding universe; a physicist named Alan Guth probably did not exist in the contracting phase of our universe.” Still, there is always that wiggle room left by “probably”.

Lightman describes a few other theories of the “origin” of the universe, none of which allow for the notion of time and therefore do not consider “before” and “after” and therefore are outside the province of my essay here. However, I do want to bring in one more analogy that Lightman uses to characterize the expanding/contracting phases of the universe: a movie of a glass dropped on a tile floor, shattering, then recombining and flying back up to the table top from which it fell. If I think of the glass shards as events in my life, and of the possibility that they are scattered now out there in the vastness of space/time, and that they might someday in the far-off future recombine to become those events again, then my dream, as I related above, of summoning memories is not so absurd as you readers might have judged earlier. Heh?

Present:

We are frequently advised by gurus of various varieties to “live in the moment” in order to be happy. Who am I to argue with that formula? Only it doesn’t work for me. Why?

Well, I think it’s partly a function of Fate: I don’t have any choice but to live in the moment, yet the present seldom smiles on me, definitely not for more than a few hours. The present, in fact, seems like the target on a dart board where missiles are continually bombarding. I keep looking for that day when I can proceed from arising to retiring without some, at the least, irksome or, at the most, catastrophic encounter. I can’t recall the last time I gamboled through such a day, although I feel certain there have been some, quite likely many such. They were just too long ago. (And here, I see, I can’t even write about the present without bringing in the past and the future: depending on one’s definition of “the present”, it seems impossible to separate it from those periods. Is the present this day, this experience, or really just this “moment”? )

Another problem with the “live in the moment” prescription, not just for me but for every adult, I believe, is that even in our most positive moments we have to consider future events: college, career, possibly marriage, elections, and retirement funding. A host of other, smaller concerns requiring decisions are scattered through our lives. As one old humorist expressed it, “Why does any man examine the teeth of a horse he is thinking of buying and yet forgo checking out his prospective bride’s teeth?”

Laying all that aside, just how do I confront the present? That is too big a question. I mean, in this time I cannot ignore the fact that many of the problems I have to face also stand before almost everybody else: crazy politicians rattling their sabers, oncoming weird weather disasters and famines, fanatical gun toters, out-of-control medical and housing prices, etc. I can’t limit all those problems to myself. The conundrum, then, for me is: How can I separate out what affects only me from what affects everybody else? I cannot totally and sensibly demarcate those boundaries. Yes, there are a few somewhat private health issues which I have, but even they, as types, also afflict at least some small portions of the population; how I weary of hearing a “comforting” friend utter, “Oh, that’s just part of getting old!” or “Yeah, that stuff has been going around lately!” Why cannot my current problem be mine…individual…alone?

Future:   

My, how the calendar has shrunk! It used to be the case that when someone reminded me that some event took place last year, I could imagine an expanse of time with body to it. Now “last year” seems like what we once-upon-a-time called “last month”. I’m not sure whether this change is due to aging in me or to a more encompassing phenomenon which Alvin Toffler described as the perception of “too much change in too short a period of time” in his book Future Shock back in 1970. If the latter, then it is really weird how external events can cause one’s notion of a calendar period to shrink. There is now a whole “scientific” field of people — called “futurists” — who gather data from a large array of sources to predict what the future holds. Simple crystal balls and astronomical charts are passé.

When one reaches an age as advanced as my own, he or she is confronted with the reality that their options have greatly shrunk. There is no point in our seeking another academic field or degree, although we might have fun and benefit from taking a “continuing education” course occasionally. And we might look at our overloaded bookshelves, count the books we haven’t read, and resolve for the nth time never again to enter that bookstore a few blocks away. I swear! I must have bought all those books just because they are so decorative! Oh me, oh my!

Nor are we to get married…not sensibly anyway. Oh, if we are very wealthy and are seduced by a beautiful, young “honey-pot” into being her “sugar-daddy”, we might find ourselves wandering down that church aisle or into that Las Vegas drive-thru wedding chapel. Or, if we are much less affluent, we might marry someone nearer our own age just because we each anticipate the other will at least nurse us through our final days. The latter case is a little less contaminated by folly or predatoriness but does retain some of the strategical about it: no hot romantic blood there certainly.

But there are other issues that affect not just me and my ilk but many, many other Americans. The news media daily reminds us that we have several potential, horrifying fates lying in wait for us — climate change disasters; the threat of religious and political radicalisms; dissolution of welfare programs, including Social Security; Alzheimer’s disease; and Donald Trump as president. And those are just the severest ones. Although we should not let them overwhelm us to the extent that we can prevent them from doing so, we still have to pay attention to them in order to prevent, or at least defend ourselves against, them. So, in that very deep sense we are attached to the future.

Finis

 

 

%d bloggers like this: