Posts Tagged ‘Changes’

Ingredients for Painful, Wasteful Conversations

©2017 By Bob Litton

Quandary over a visit

¶A former drinkin’ buddy and his wife, from Austin, are planning to be here next Frtday for a brief visit before they continue on to Nevada. We’ll share a supper together.
¶I must confess to a deepening sense of trepidation. You see, my friend is a Republican, while I generally vote for Democratic candidates. I have voted a slightly split ticket — back many years ago — when our two major parties’ offerings more nearly favored “Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee”. In those years, not knowing much about some of the statewide candidates, I relied on what they submitted as positions and qualifications to the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan organization whose main purpose was to encourage all citizens to participate in the electoral process. On a few occasions, the Republican candidate seemed to me to be more qualified. I don’t know if my friend ever voted for a Democrat.
¶As most North Americans are aware by now, our body politic has become more polarized over the past several decades: I would say since Ronald Reagan was first elected president. The polarization has intensified since Barach Obama’s and then The Creature’s (I can’t endure writing his name) elections. Now many of us cannot even discuss national politics civilly; and we often carelessly refer to those who voted opposite to us as “idiots”, “half-wits” or “numb-skulls”. (That is what is called the ad hominem argument or approach: attacking the person rather than the issue.) I’m not a professional historian; but, from the little I have read about our horrendously bloody Civil War, I believe our current dialectical dilemma parallels what happened back in the 1850s and 1860s, when fathers broke contact with sons and brothers shot at each other.
¶Over the past couple of weeks, I have pondered the options left to me when I meet my friend and his wife at a local Chinese restaurant. I would like to restrict our conversation to reminiscences of the years when we two university students went bar-hopping and of the adventures we had. However, that avenue is barred by the fact that my friends had not even met each other yet, much less become each other’s spouse; the wife would effectively be left out of the conversation, and that wouldn’t do.
¶We could talk about their continuing their journey after leaving Alpine. I wrote above that their destination is Nevada, but I am only assuming that on the basis of an email conversation we had a couple of months ago when he said they intend to go there so he could learn how to handle an AR-15 rifle. My fur bristled when I read that, and we had a brief email debate about whether an AR-15 had any use other than slaughtering people. It was a civil debate: How could it be anything else through emails? If we renew the topic at the restaurant, though, we might lose our control and resort to blows (or he might pull out his AR-15); and neither of us is any longer physically fit enough to engage in fisticuffs.
¶Perhaps I’ll end up just taking along a few poems to read at the supper table. No telling what kind of reaction that will arouse. But, regardless of what I do that night, here I will vent my political rage.

* * * * * *

Why we no longer can civilly argue

¶Valid exceptions can be pointed out regarding what I will say here. Exceptions can be made to virtually every generalization; that is an eternal fact of life. Still, such a case should not inhibit us from generalizing when the move is justifiable within the context of whatever subject we are discussing. And we should be prepared to respond with some specifics whenever our generalizations are challenged. This is one of the problems we encounter when trying to engage in any “civil” discussion about politics or religion.
¶I think that is why religion and politics are tacitly verboten in U.S. bars — in West Texas bars anyway. All you are likely to see on the TV’s in the taverns are athletic events, and all you are likely to hear is country-and-western music, either piped-in from the Internet or on a juke box. Nevertheless, last Friday I had an interesting conversation about politics in a local bar with a woman of about half my age whom I had seen there before but never met. I don’t recall how we managed to get on the topic, but we soon discovered that our attitudes were consonant, so we had no problem continuing our conversation without bristling. However, that, too, was a problem because, as I pointed out to her, we were “preaching to the choir”.
¶‟I should be talking about this with someone who doesn’t agree with me,” I said.
¶‟But they are in such a thick shell that they won’t listen to you,” she replied.
¶‟I know, so I am quiet and the bile builds up.”
¶Several of the national politicians, from Obama on down, have said we must try to regain civil discourse; but I am too affected by our situation to maintain my mental equilibrium; I am prone to fumble my facts or exaggerate my assertions when I get that way. And all of us humans, I believe, are too impatient with calm, deliberative, clearly reasoned argument to tolerate it for even a short period. We resort to “talking over” our interlocutor and wandering off in a huff, muttering epithets.

* * * * * *

The Creature in the White House

¶What my new acquaintance and I had been discussing, as you have probably discerned by now, was the Creature in the White House, which is what I prefer to call the being who can be found there when it’s time to sign illiterate Executive Orders in a photo op tableau. (Again, I cannot stand to write his name.) I read one newspaper article this morning that said the Creature left for his Mar-a-Lago mansion — which he has dubbed his “Winter White House” — shortly after signing one of those documents Friday or Saturday.
¶Reports from Politico, CNN and the Washington Post indicate that each of the Creature’s weekend jaunts to his southern castle costs U.S. taxpayers about $3 million dollars and he has made three trips there so far this year. The WP cited a tweet from Bruce Bartlett, a former aide to Ronald Reagan, who reportedly said that the Creature is on track to spend $1 billion in four years vacationing at Mar-a-Lago and housing his wife in New York City. The media report that protecting the wife and son in New York City is adding $1 million a day to the national bill. Back when the Creature was only the Republican nominee, the report was that the protection and traffic control in downtown Manhattan was costing the City $500,000. I don’t know if that $500,000 is part of the $1 million now cited by the national media or a separate expense item. I do know that many New Yorkers are not happy about their being held responsible for paying the bill; nor are the citizens of Palm Beach County, Florida, happy about their having to fork up part of the payment for hosting the Creature and his minions.
¶And all of this is being spotlighted at a time when it could not be more topical, for now the Congress and the American public have been flabbergasted by the Creature’s national budget proposal, which decimates many social, scientific, and arts programs in order to build a wall to nowhere and a wasteful military. Again, according to the WP article I read (March 18), the Congress could fund the U.S. Interagency on Homelessness for three years if the Creature had just stayed in the White House these past three months. The Creature’s PR aides and congressional henchmen are shuffling the budget proposal around like a pea shell during TV interviews, claiming we shouldn’t judge it yet because it’s only one leg of a three-legged stool (the other two legs will appear sometime in the future).
¶I wrote three letters to President Obama during his eight years in the White House. He, or perhaps one of his aides, replied to the first two, above his signature. I was not surprised that he did not reply to my third letter, because the election was over, he was about to move out and had a lot of last-minute business to attend to, and had solicited comments on his presidency from voters all around the country. The likelihood of his responding to all those letters was minimal.
¶But one paragraph of that third letter, dated Dec. 23, 2016, is pertinent here:

I know you have urged the citizenry not to despair but to remain hopeful, optimistic, and to give your successor a chance to do his best for the country. But what I have seen in the media the past few weeks indicates that is just not going to happen. The only possibly positive future I can foresee is one of these two scenarios, neither of which is initially positive: (1) your successor will be blocked by Congress or the Supreme Court from remaining in office because he will refuse to dispose of his enterprises, or because investigative reporting will reveal that he is guilty of some felony; (2) our government will collapse from the weight of the structure being eaten away by the worms your successor has nominated to “direct” its various departments. So, I am not optimistic, I am not hopeful, and the only thing I can even faintly wish for is that one of those two scenarios happens as soon as possible.

¶It is because I have begun to realize that only the second of the two scenarios described in my letter is likely to happen — because of the polarization and self-delusion of Congress — that I have returned to my blog posting. I don’t enjoy writing polemics, but I am an American who once loved my country. My country is being disemboweled and in other ways is being destroyed by a maniac in the White House, supported by a depressingly large number of other Americans. How can one love a pile of wreckage? I had to ventilate.


P.S. I don’t know if or when I will return to this blog. Take my word for what you think it’s worth.


Life Among the Ancients


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!


 ∗ 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.

Profile #1: Don and the “Bwō Cháng”

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶One thematic idea that has occurred to me was to write a series of “profiles” about people who have deeply affected me during my life, for good or ill and sometimes both. Both good and ill aptly describes the person who will be the first subject of a profile here: Donald L.  I hope you readers will find the portrait below edifying or amusing or, again, both.

* * * * * *

¶Don L. was in the same “flight” as I during our basic training at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio. Don was about the same height and build as I, a slender six feet, but he had black, slightly curly hair; while mine was sandy brown with only a cowlick to disturb the front. I wouldn’t have imagined him a cologne model, but he was at least as good-looking as I; anyway, I doubt that any young lady would have declined if he asked her to dance with him or to go out on a date. There was an intensity in him that I didn’t catch onto at first; it wasn’t as primary a feature then as it would become a couple of years later. There were about sixty of us airmen in the flight, and I had minimal contact with Don during that time; he was at one end of the barracks and I at the other. I can recall only three incidents in which he compelled my interest.
¶The first was on base orientation day, when one of our two training sergeants, S/Sgt. D. marched us to some of the facilities we might wish or need to visit: the chapel, the cleaners, the Airmen’s Club, and the bookstore. While we were in the bookstore, Don bought a German language self-study book. A few minutes later, as we stood in formation out in front of the bookstore, Sgt. D. chewed him out for buying the book; I wasn’t sure why, although I surmised it might be because WWII had ended only thirteen years previously. Then there was the conning possibility: the very next year, newspapers reported a scandal at Lackland AFB in which airmen and airwomen had been treated as “pigeons”, i.e. subjects for fleecing by some on-base businesses. However, Sgt. D. wasn’t above fleecing either; he conned us trainees out of fifty cents each to buy some super-duper shoe polish — polish that never appeared, not for me anyway.
¶The second occasion for my noticing Don in a direct way was while we happened to be walking from the cleaners on base back to the barracks. We chatted off-handedly, and he confided to me that he was a Germanophile—fond of German culture, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Thomas Mann, and even Adolf Hitler. At the time, the only one of those names I recognized was Adolph Hitler. During our conversation on the Lackland road, I argued weakly with Don about the Nazis because I was ignorant about all the other Germanic figures that entranced him; but before our acquaintance was but a memory I would learn much about them from Don and my own reading.
¶The third event that brought Don closer within my orbit was when Don and I were sent to a building on the base where we and perhaps a hundred other airmen were told we were “the cream of the crop” and were to be tested to determine our language-learning abilities. Based on the results of our tests, some of us would be sent to Yale University to study Chinese, and the rest would go to Syracuse University to study Russian. The week after that, Don and I were told to go to yet another building, where we and other selected airmen spent at least a week being taught some basic Mandarin Chinese and tested. When we were finished, we received our orders to report to Yale University’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages to begin our intensive study, in November 1958. I was somewhat disappointed because I had imagined that if I went to Syracuse I would get an assignment in Europe—Parisian cafés, Pamplona bull-runs, etc. China was a very dark place, almost invisible, in mid-20th century American minds. It wasn’t until Nixon and Kissinger visited Mao Tse-Tung in 1972, that China’s colorful culture appeared in American TV, newspapers and magazines.


A 1958-59 seminar at Yale’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages. This group is part of Don’s and my class,
but neither of us appear in the photo.

¶Since Don’s last name and my own began with the same letter, we were assigned the same dorm room along with another airman named Dale L., an airman from Pittsburgh. I didn’t like this Dale fellow at all; but the causes of our disconnect don’t fall within the purview of this profile, so I will ignore him.
¶Don and I, however, developed a strange kind of “odd-couple” relationship, sometimes a bit antagonistic but often almost brotherly. We walked around town together occasionally, but mostly had discovering conversations in our room. He related to me his fascination with Thomas Mann, suggesting that I read in particular Mann’s short story “Tonio Kröger”. He also bought an LP album of selections from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. Those I could appreciate, but I still found his admiration for Hitler disgusting. For whatever reason—and it was not sexual—a strong affinity was developing between us, although at Yale it was still in its embryonic stage.
¶At this point, I need to introduce a Chinese term that plays a major role in my relationship with Don over the next five years: that term is “bwō cháng” (transliterated using the Yale romanization; in Wade-Giles, it is “pwō ch’áng”; in Pinyin, it is “pō cháng”). The phrase translates as “wave length”. Our class was introduced to “bwō cháng” near the end of our first eight months, when we concentrated on military terminology.
¶ Don was among those who stayed another few months (four, I believe) to learn more Chinese characters; I and several others received our “diplomas” after eight months. (I had contracted chicken pox shortly after Christmas and spent a week or two in the dispensary, so I left Yale a “straight-B” student.)
¶My initial orders indicated I was to go to the Philippines; but by the time I reached San Diego a few months later—after a brief detour to Fort Meade, Maryland, to learn the technical aspects of my assignment—I learned that, no, I was to fly in one of those old twin-engine DC-7’s to Okinawa.
¶I was assigned to the Group HQ on Kadena AFB. My duties, as I soon discovered, had little to do with the Chinese language. I was told that, because there was a surplus of Chinese linguists and no translators were needed at the group level, I was to perform clerical tasks. Initially, that meant stuffing paper burn bags with secret documents, toting them out to an incinerator, and burning them. I was disgusted by the whole bureaucratic mess and wrote a letter of protest, which got some higher-up’s attention only months later. After a few months, I was engaged in cryptanalysis work, receiving reports from the field and trying to extract usable intelligence from them.
¶But back to Don. I really thought I would never see him again, for I assumed his assignment would take him to Taiwan or South Korea. One day, however, he showed up at Kadena, although his base was a field station at the other end of the island. I can’t recall whether he first appeared in my barracks room or at the base library, where I spent a lot of my free time reading.
¶The barracks room visit, I recall, was unfortunately timed, because, although it was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, I was on my bunk near the end of a marathon sleep after a long night of wine-drinking and seeing three movies in the nearby town, Koza. I could hear one of my roommates explaining to Don how I had been asleep a long, long time. But I was still too drowsy to want to get up, so I just let Don go on his way.
¶Later, I went up to where Don was stationed, and we went to see a movie about Franz Liszt—“Song Without End” (1960)—at the station’s movie house. Liszt, as most classical music fans know, became Wagner’s father-in-law.
¶But the most memorable incident happened the day I was sitting at a table in the Kadena library reading a book. All at once I subconsciously sensed a presence nearby, and then a hand clapped me on the shoulder. A warmth extended from my shoulder all over my back: it was the strangest feeling I had ever experienced, but I have felt it several times sense when I hugged certain women, and a kind of coolness when I have hugged others. I turned and there was Don standing just behind me. Later, when I read Bertrand Russell’s account of his first meeting Joseph Conrad, I felt confirmed in my belief that two persons of the same gender can have strong affinity without its being sex-based or even inducing physical warmth. It was primarily an intellectual/spiritual connection.
¶Don and I met only a few times on the island, but, unfortunately, I don’t recall the substance of most of our conversations there, just a couple of Don’s remarks. Once, when I had brought up the subject of our odd affinity, he acknowledged it and dubbed it the “bwō ch’áng”. I liked the analogy. Another time, he said to me, “Litton, sometimes when I think about you, I positively blush.” Although I felt slightly flattered by that comment, I didn’t ask him why; it had a certain aura of potential homosexuality about it, and I knew I wasn’t designed that way, nor did I believe Don was. It might, in fact, have been love, but I didn’t think Don was aware of the difference between philia and eros; while I had been in DeMolay, where brotherly affection was cultivated.
¶While on Okinawa I bought an LP album of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, with Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When I listened to it, in stereo, I was entranced. At least as far as Wagner was concerned, Don had influenced me positively about German culture.
¶After I had returned home and been discharged from the air force, I spent a semester at SMU and didn’t do well grade-wise. While at SMU, I read “Tonio Kröger” and the rest of Thomas Mann’s short stories as well as his novel Buddenbrooks. I wrote to Don, who had returned to his home in Seattle, asking if he could host me a brief while as I searched for a job there. After checking it out with his mother and grandfather, he sent me a positive reply. How recklessly carefree that train ride to Seattle now seems to me! I don’t mean the ride itself, but the risking myself into the unknown with very minimal resources and uncertain prospects. Maturing certainly drains one’s capacity for adventure.
¶Don met me at the train station, and we rode a bus to his grandfather’s house, a two-story structure in a block of houses set on a hill. His mother greeted me warmly, telling me that Don had informed her that I was of the same socio-economic class as they, although she didn’t express it so academically. If I recall aright, I didn’t meet his grandfather immediately and can only dredge up a vague vision of seeing him sitting in a chair in a back bedroom; perhaps he was handicapped and couldn’t move elsewhere; I don’t know. That night, I did meet Don’s sister, who also resided there; she was nearly his own age, but whether older or younger I never inquired.
¶One night, Don and I walked to a lake within the city, where we tossed some stones and talked a little about his fascination with Nazism. I asked him why he admired a racist philosophy. His replied actually shocked me: “Litton, you don’t know how much fun it is to hate!” I also asked him why he drank so much beer.
“Do you realize you are going to die?” he asked.
“I know it.”
“I know you know it, Litton, but do you realize it?”
I had never thought about the death question very deeply, and I sensed that I hadn’t enough self-awareness yet to respond, so I just let his question remain unanswered.
¶On a more positive note, one day while we were engaged in a conversation concerning some subject I cannot recall, Don remarked, “I think about these things, Litton, but you will do something about them.” I have since regretted my failure to follow that up by asking him to be more specific.
¶Don was working as a page at the public library. As soon as the next business day (probably a Monday) came, I took the bus downtown to look for a job, carrying a hefty sack lunch which Don’s mother foisted on me. When I told her I could pay for my own lunch, she replied with words I would hear from her a couple of times afterwards: “It just doesn’t add up in dollars and cents.” Seattle’s employment market was a good deal thinner than Dallas’ at that time, so I felt lucky to have found a job within the first couple of days of my search; it was a stockman’s position at a hobby-and-craft wholesale business. The owner, a cordial and honest man in his thirties, told me the day he hired me that he was reluctant to hire anyone right then because he might have to lay me off, and he hated doing that, but he took me on with no guarantees.
¶In fact, a few weeks later, he did let me go, although not personally. However, that was not as unfortunate as the fact that he also let another young man go, and that youth was to have been my roommate in an apartment on which we had just paid a deposit. The apartment owner gruffly declined to refund our deposit. So, I wished my erstwhile “roommate” good luck and went to Don’s house to tell him the bad news: I couldn’t afford to stay any longer.
¶I had already checked on the train fare prices. “If you can loan me ten dollars, I can return to Dallas,” I said, as we stood by the bus stop. “If not, then I’m off to San Francisco.” He pulled a ten out of his billfold. When I bent down to pick up my military-issued duffel bag, the handle broke. Was that a bad omen? I wondered. Occasionally since that day, I have fantasized how my life might have turned out differently if Don had not had the ten to loan me or if I had not asked for it.
¶After I had returned to Dallas and to SMU, Don and I resumed our correspondence. But I am a very wordy letter-writer, and Don was brief in the extreme as well as hypercritical. One time, I wrote him a letter using many of the 300 Chinese characters I had learned at Yale. I also included a satirical cartoon depicting a man in a Nazi uniform, holding a swagger stick and looking over a fellow who was sitting in front of an easel and drawing on it. (I was majoring in art at the time.) A cartoon “balloon” above the Nazi’s head contained the letters “Click, click!” (Don had some kind of nervous tic that occasionally caused him to utter clicking noises.) In a separate section of the drawing’s page, I conceded that my artistic ability was not in commendable condition and I perhaps should give up the effort. In his reply letter, Don wrote that I should give up writing in Chinese, too.
¶I haven’t related all the instances of Don’s hypercriticism, but there were several. Finally, after I had sent him a copy of a very brief story I had entered in a short story contest sponsored by SMU’s student literary magazine, he replied by panning my story for its inadequate characterization and anti-intellectualism. He concluded with one of the most cliché-burdened sentences I have ever seen: “For poor writing, your story takes the cake palms down. Hope you can get it back before the judges see it.” In a fit of angry exasperation, I wrote back saying, in part, “I’m tired of your vapid little notes to me.”
¶And that was the end of one of the most interesting relationships of my life. I have softened over the years and now wonder how Don’s own life turned out. He had told me he was going to return to the university he had attended before joining the air force, and probably major in Chinese. Apparently he lost interest in German. Hope he finished and benefited from that education.
¶One question Don asked me while I was a guest in his grandfather’s house—another one of those questions and remarks directed at me throughout my life which I did not respond to—was, “What do you want from me?” I did not answer, and now I wish that I had, for the answer was what I was all about at the time: “I want to discover what the bwō cháng is, but it seems to have faded away before I could find out.”



catastrophe type model

Unidentified Catastrophe Model Type from Google Images

“It is an intriguing thought that the same mathematics may underlie not only the way the genetic code causes the embryo to unfold but also the way the printed word causes our imaginations to unfold.”

                                                 — E.C. Zeeman, “Catastrophe Theory”,
                                                     Scientific American (April 1976), page 83

©2013 By Bob Litton

Most of us Earthlings consider “catastrophe” a synonym for “disaster”. Not so do the mathematicians, in whose abstract realm a catastrophe is just a way of describing an abrupt change in the world of things and events. For, they say, discontinuous or divergent events are simply another aspect of continuous and stable events.

The way these theories manage to come about is apropos. The system for describing continuous phenomena mathematically — called “differential calculus” — was invented concurrently by an Englishman and a German in the 17th century. It took a Frenchman, René Thom, to come up with a way of describing divergences in 1968. The suitableness arises out of the common notion that the British and the Germans are staid, while the French are spontaneous. The general tendency of differential calculus was to lob off imaginative bypaths, to make the universe into a safely circumscribed, predictable clock.

And yet, catastrophe theory is, in a fundamental sense, as deterministic as differential calculus. Using it, one supposedly could predict the moment a dog will bite (by measuring the space between his lips) or when he will tuck in his tail and run (by measuring the angle between his ears and skull). In another and just as basic sense, however, catastrophe theory does relate positively to the imagination: It not only serves practical ends when it is applied through continually multiplying ramifications to diverse aspects of Nature and human society, but it also may serve as a model to explain, as catastrophist E.C. Zeeman says in the article cited in the epigraph above, how our imagination itself works. Let us speculate as to what implications catastrophe theory might have for at least two of the humanities: dramatic criticism and ethics.

Thom devised seven basic mathematical formulas with accompanying diagrams —some quite visually pleasing* — to explain his theory; and he gave them colorful names such as “butterfly” and “swallowtail” due to their resemblance to natural phenomena . Thom’s “laws” have supposedly become diffused throughout educated society by now; at least, that would seem to be the case, since a term, “tipping point”, an essential element in the catastrophe theory, has appeared in news reports on a variety of subjects during the past decade. Most of those reports have concerned the weather and economic predictions, but I would not be surprised to see the theory affect dramatic criticism; for, one of the basic facts of psychological catastrophes is that a person cannot be neutralized by two contrary emotions of equal intensity. “…(T)wo controlling factors are then in direct conflict,” says Zeeman. “Simple models that cannot accommodate discontinuity might predict that the two stimuli would cancel each other, leading again to neutral behavior. That prediction merely reveals the shortcomings of such simplistic models, since neutrality is in fact the least likely behavior.”[1] It is conceivable then that a theater critic of the catastrophe school could chop Hamlet all to pieces.

Interpretations of Hamlet the character are multiple (e.g., straight forward: his search for certainty before committing a distasteful act; influence of the Reformation: contemporary debate about the existence of Purgatory; Freudian: Oedipus-Complex; Mirror: other characters’ interpretations of Hamlet’s motives and actions as concentrated on their selves, and the audience’s interpretations). Heretofore, the variety of the interpretations has been held up as a sign of the superiority of Shakespeare’s psychological perspicacity. The “straight forward” interpretation — the one most generally adopted — maintains that the prince represents the ineffective intellectual (of reason divided against its self). Perhaps because of Shakespeare’s literary stature, the nearly flawless classical structure of this play, and the poetic quality of the lines the playwright puts into Hamlet’s mouth, such inaction has been considered a weakness in the character and not of the characterization. But what if someone eventually analyzes Hamlet the character through the lens of catastrophe theory and discovers that the prince is really just a poked bag full of contrary ideas and not of contrary emotions.

What would be necessary to accomplish this, of course, would be measurable parameters, something that could be graphed so that, say, a “butterfly” or a “swallowtail” catastrophe would develop. Each stage in Hamlet’s psychological development would have to be given some numerical value. However, it should not be more difficult to “measure” Hamlet’s speeches than it was to measure the lip-span of an enraged dog. Something of the sort has already been done with self-pity, which Zeeman declares can be measured directly. Self-pity, he says,

is a defensive attitude commonly adopted by children, and it often seems that sympathy is powerless to alleviate it. A sarcastic remark, on the other hand, may provoke a sudden loss of temper and, by releasing tension, may open a pathway back to a less emotional state. It is unfortunate that sarcasm should succeed where sympathy fails, but the cause of that irony is apparent in the model. The sarcasm brings an increase in frustration, and as a result the point representing mood travels across the behavior surface as far as the fold curve; having reached the extremity of the bottom sheet, it is forced to make a catastrophic jump to the top sheet, and self-pity is transformed into anger.[2]

Once the parameters as scales have been worked out, the catastrophic analysis should be applicable to the protagonist in any play, at least in any play purporting to fit the mold of a play having a protagonist who undergoes some sort of “recognition of self” event. If the protagonist does not measure up to the criteria (i.e., if his change is not adequately justified by the cumulative causes) then he might be declared an “incomplete protagonist”; and the play, a “flop”.

Many people — of the anti-behaviorist sort — would hate to see such a development, for the same approach could be applied to living beings. In fact, this is already being done in England, where doctors have used catastrophe theory in conjunction with trance therapy to cure girls of anorexia nervosa. It is one thing, of course, to say that a certain behavior has had sufficient precedent cause and quite another thing to create behavior because one knows what will be sufficient cause. The latter action is what essentially terrifies the anti-behaviorists, although they waste no time in transferring their distaste to the former.

The problem is at least as old as Socrates, who advised “know thyself”, and his fellow Athenians, who killed him because self-knowledge was exactly what they did not want. In the ethical sense, however, the unpleasant prospect is not that individuals might be manipulated by some scientist who knows how to “cue” them through catastrophic determinants, but rather that proof irrefutable might evolve out of such research that individuals have no free will — not any more than has a beaker of mercury.

Now, let us lower the level of our discussion from the abstract to the concrete and the particular, where I, at least, feel more comfortable. Take the instance of a young man in the military during the early 1960s — at the height of the Cold War: the Cuban missile crisis. This young man, who had previously accepted the world pretty much as he found it, began to read philosophy books for lack of anything better to do on a small island. Because of his reading, he started to question the beliefs he had taken for granted. Particularly, he began to see his country’s role in the world in a different, less idealistic light. All of a sudden he came to consider that the world might come to an end — and he with it — without his ever having had a chance to do something creative. He felt a strong impulsion to act; but he could not determine the right, the highest mode, of action.

It was not only that the problems were multifarious and overwhelming, but also that he did not feel secure about the sincerity of his own motives. He wondered how he could be certain he was not simply reacting to his environment, which was rather desolate and lonely, after all. He had had no problem joining the service; he felt that the four years he had signed up for was a small price to pay for all the past and potential opportunities he did and would enjoy. Nor did he feel strong animus against any of the other servicemen, not even those who outranked him, not any more anyway that he had felt toward civilians; they were serving their country as well as he, only with what he conceived to be a blindered dedication.

He wanted to be truer to himself than that: if only he could determine what his true self was. What if he committed some irreversible act on the basis of a strong but transitory faith and on the morrow became convinced that he had acted selfishly and foolishly? The poor fellow got so strung out that he began to analyze the motives behind his own thoughts.  He constructed little schematic problems for himself to solve, hoping in that way to abstract the issue to such a point that he could logically answer it in only one way.

For instance, he considered the possibility of a man who regularly craves candy bars discovering one day that he is a diabetic. The imaginary man tries to quit eating candy bars, and as long as he is active doing something else he does not even think about them. Occasionally, however, when he is alone and a candy bar is within easy reach, he is strongly tempted to eat it. The instant he thinks about how the candy bar would taste, that can be the only image occupying his mind. When he thinks about the diabetes, on the other hand, then that disease is the only subject uppermost in his mind. He knows, however, that he will have to act, for he cannot sit there forever, mentally hopping back and forth between desire and fear.

Therefore, the young man wondered, how can we say this fellow had any choice, since in the one second in which he has to act there can be only one thought in his mind? It seems simply fortuitous which thought happens to be there when he makes his move; and yet, whichever one it is, is the one that will “dictate” his choice. What “mechanism” is it that causes one thought to displace the other? Where does that displaced thought “go”? And what is the engine of the final, over-riding impulse that propels action?

The result was a nervous breakdown.

This seems to me to be at least partly how catastrophe theory relates to our artistic and ethical lives.


*(The reader can find more detailed information and illustrations on the seven elemental catastrophe graph forms on the Internet if he/she wishes to delve that deeply into the subject.  My purpose in this essay is not to discuss the mathematical aspects of catastrophe theory, but to explore the theory’s potential applications to dramatic plots and to ethical quandaries.)

[1]E.C. Zeeman, “Catastrophe Theory”, Scientific American (April 1976), page 65.
[2]Ibid., page 69.


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