Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Volume of Meaning

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I looked around the dark-paneled room at the seven other people also called to fulfill one responsibility of a good citizen. I smiled at one or two who caught my eye.  

My gaze eventually landed on a small four-shelf bookcase in the far corner. On a cardboard sign, hand-lettered in thick, black ink and tacked to the top shelf, I read:  “Free Books. One Per Person – No need to return.” Rising from the bench I flexed my legs, stiff from sitting for two hours as I waited to be called by the bailiff. I moved behind the seated would-be-jurors and stood in front of the bookcase. 

Books have been a personal talisman for most of my life. Simply being in the presence of books exercises a remarkable and powerful influence on me. How could I ever turn down a free book? I almost didn’t care what the title was, what the subject matter might be. As I scanned the meager offerings, my eyes landed on one lonely looking volume of the World Book Encyclopedia. Volume N-O, 3“ thick, showed few signs of ever being referenced. This  book called to me. I took it back to my seat on the bench and turned off my cell phone.

I’m a systems engineer. I’m familiar with all the latest electronic gadgetry. I can solve most of the problems arising within our company’s vast array of computers and servers. I’m online 24/7 to my offices, my wife and my children.  However, this is how I passed the next three hours: thumbing through a 1967 copy of Volume N-O.  A volume printed the year after I was born.

Choosing a topic, closely perusing or simply scanning the trove of information, made those three hours in the anteroom of the judge’s chambers pass with amazing suddenness. Perception is everything.  

Secretly pleased that my name hadn’t been called, I tucked the book under my arm and headed for the MAX train and the 45-minute trip home.      

As soon as I sat down, I opened Volume N-O and continued reading. I didn’t stare out the window willing the miles to fly by, I didn’t surreptitiously eye the boarding passengers, wondering if one of the scruffy looking kids was going to cause trouble. I simply read my latest book. I suppose I looked a bit odd. A 50-year old man thumbing through a large print book while others on the MAX train either were oblivious to all except the sounds coming from their ear buds, looked at their cell phones, or simply sat, expressionless, staring straight ahead. 

Alfred Nobel. Now there was an interesting fellow. My newly acquired volume reminded me he was a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, poet, dramatist and pacifist. Best known for the invention of dynamite. His will provided funding of Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology, Medicine, Literature and Peace.  The short biography was enough to pique my interest in the life of Alfred Nobel. I want to learn more about this man born in the mid-19th century. 

There are many more topics to explore in Volume N-O: 

NW Territory
Carrie Nation
Nuclear Energy
Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio

At my transit station I tucked the book into my briefcase, exited the train and walked the usual 1/2-mile to my home. I began thinking about "Nutrition," which led me to dwell on what my wife Olivia might be preparing for our ninth anniversary. 

Reading—even browsing—an old book 
can yield sustenance denied by a database search. 
~James Gleick

[based on a true story]

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Having my way with Words

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There is this need to put into words just how deeply I am affected by exemplary, stellar writing. I am awestruck by the author who possesses the talent to deftly and thoroughly insert a reader into the story.

My nature is to quickly devour that which I enjoy. Ah, but I refer to food and drink. Not to my beloved words! 

Words and the arrangement of words I savor and save, roll them across my mind, "see" their form and beauty, marvel at their ability, when skillfully strung together, to move me to tears and to anger; to provide comfort and solace; to educate and enlighten me. 

I often stop dead in the middle of a paragraph, in the midst of a sentence, stare away from the page and dwell on the adroit parsing of language, the beauty in the use of, the way with, words. I want to continue with the story, but several minutes pass before I drift back to the page.  

This experience can occur no matter what genre I'm reading. Poetry often has this effect. However, I read poetry knowing there will be intensity and deep, deft expression of feelings and ideas. Even before opening the book I am emotionally ready for the reactions that emerge.

A voice which is now silent but which will live on forever is that of Brian Doyle. His books, essays and poetry are the epitome of rich, detailed, shining writing.  

An excerpt from Doyle's The Wet Engine - Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart:

What " ... might we be if we rise and evolve, if we reach and leap, if we deepen and sing, if we come further down from the brooding trees and out onto the smiling plain, if we unclench the fist and drop the dagger, if we emerge blinking from the fort and the stockade and the prison, if we smash the bricks from around our hearts, if we cease to stagger and swagger, if we peel the steel from our eyes, if we yearn and learn, if we do what we say we will do, if we act as if our words really matter, if our words become muscled mercy ... and become as if new creatures arisen from our shucked skins ... become what we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of … 

What then?"

I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. 
Sometimes I write one, and I look at it until it begins to shine. 

~Emily Dickinson

Tolerance, Privilege and Security

This Simon Jenkins article from The Guardian, "So you think reason guides your politics? Think again," has been in my blog draft file since I first read it almost three years ago.  I'm aware Jenkins' piece is political in nature. However, I've gone back to read it again and again. Each time, setting aside the article's political bent, I zero in on particular statements that intrigue me. Here's one:

"Reason is ... a weapon we deploy to persuade others that we are right, and they use to prove us wrong. It is not a coming together but a driving apart."  

  It occurs to me that our survival may depend upon our talking to one another.
~Dan Simmon

The statement I found most provocative is, "[T]olerance is itself a privilege of security. Intellectually it is appeasement." Online there are more than 520 comments about Jenkins' article and the one receiving the most opprobrium is the one just quoted. 

I've never been homeless, have never gone without sustenance, have never experienced intentional physical or emotional harm. I consider myself a fairly tolerant person ... you live your life, let me live mine ... and yet admit tolerance on any level is likely much easier when one has good health, a comfortable home, and food in the fridge. 

When you don't know what you're talking about,
it's hard to know when you're finished. 
~ Tommy Smothers

Ah well, as my brother said when he was four years old, "I have a lot of thinks in my head." 


Monday, June 4, 2018

Merely a Strand

The web of life

Decades ago, when I first began learning about the ongoing destruction and looming decimation of the rain forests, my concern mainly focused on the plant and animal life being obliterated. 

In more recent years, study after study has shown that rain forests hold dozens upon dozens of plants which prove to be beneficial, and even curative, to humans. In fact, more than 1/4 of all medicines we use come from rain forests.

One of the newer scientific discoveries is that "...a weed traditional healers in the Amazon have used for hundreds of years ... has the power to stop [a particular infection in mice]." Of course, the next step will be human trials. 

Actually, these discoveries are not surprising to me. I have long believed that there is a cure in the natural world for every ailment we humans have. We are, wondrously and amazingly, part of a vibrant living network (really no better and no worse, no lower and no higher, than the worm making its way through my garden soil). 

If more humans realized this I am fairly certain we would not be quite so blasé about spraying, dripping and otherwise applying poisons to unwanted "weeds," stepping on a spider or killing a snake or mosquito. Yes, yes, yes, we can get them out of our lawns and homes, off of our skin, away from our food, but it does not have to be done with poisons or the heel of a garden boot. 

Stephen Hawking rightly observes that "greed and stupidity... " will cause the end of the human race. We humans are merely a strand in the web of life; possibly necessary for some biochemical process, maybe even vital (oh the ego!), but probably not. If we continue to destroy, we teeter closer and closer to the edge and will soon self-destruct.  

We are all connected. 
To each other, biologically. 
To the earth, chemically. 
~Neil deGrasse Tysonn

[The many links in this post will give further insight.Thanks to Uplift for the graphic and the additional information] 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

I Chose to Fall Silent

Yesterday, a cold, blue-sky day, I made a trip to the local grocery store. As I entered the store, I smiled at passersby (and received warm smiles in return), collected my coffee and other items and headed to a checkstand. 

As the man in front of me (male, white, about 30, clean, casually dressed) turned to leave with his groceries, I noticed the back of his black T-shirt emblazoned with:

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I had never seen the slogan before. The words, along with the skull partially camouflaged by the American flag, chilled me.  Of course, I am well aware of the extreme animus and hatred brewing in our country (especially toward persons of color or different ideologies). 

For some reason, I felt the need to engage this young man. So, while the clerk rang up my purchases, I took the opportunity to ask, in a non-confrontational manner, "What's the meaning of the words on the back of your T-shirt?" 

He stopped, turned, looked at me with dark, stern eyes and said, low and forcefully, "It means I hate Muslims." 

"You hate them? Why is that?"

He continued arranging his groceries in the cart and matter-of-factly stated, "They're murderers, rapists ... I hate them."

I had ventured into what was, for me, uncharted territory and my instincts were to pull back. I fell silent. I titled my head to the side, looked at him quizzically, and, tight-lipped, turned back to the clerk. 

I wonder what his response would have been if I had offered, "I am a Muslim, do you hate me?" 

I have fantasized that his response would have been, "No, I don't know you," leaving the perfect opening for me to say, "Exactly."

Many of my friends, with love in their hearts and conviction in their voices, would have definitely asked that question. 

I am not Muslim, they are not Muslim. However, we stand solidly against the pervasive blanketing of a culture, religion or ethnicity based upon the heinous acts of some members or adherents. 

Today I took the opportunity to Google the phrase I'd seen on the man's shirt. I clicked on a page that took me to a site so filled with hate, categoric falsehoods and venomous words, I felt as though I had thrown my entire mind into a pile of excrement ... and the stench might even be palpable.

          I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
~ Martin Luther King

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Paucity of Language: Parsing a Plethora of Information

A man I have known and greatly admired for decades, recently wrote, "We tend to get caught up in the words that we have, which may not be extensive enough to explain everything. I remember Zeno, or some Greek, telling us, ‘No cat has nine lives; my cat has one more life than no cats, therefore my cat has ten lives.'  I really think our paucity of language is a deterrent to [communication]." 

Linda Tirado, writing in Elle, states, "Solipsism [the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist] is self-soothing. It is easier to believe that everyone knows everything you do, and thus you ... assume that when they come to a different conclusion than you have, they are being intentionally wrongheaded, or selfish, or evil. Only, what if they aren't? What if you, given the information they have, would have reached the same conclusion they did? What if the problem in America is that millions of us, on the right and on the left, have been propagandized? In all the discussions of fake news, we seem to keep missing the most important conversation of all: Different information leads to different decisions for most rational thinkers."

Our "paucity of language," combined with our seeming inability to use critical thinking to read and analyze varied streams of information (not simply that which aligns with our beliefs or opinion) sets us up for divisiveness. 

We shy away from communicating with those who have differing viewpoints or beliefs because we either fear what we assume will be their bombastic wrath or we simply have no stomach for dissension of any kind.

Therefore, we keep to our own group of "think-alikes," talk over the same issues, come to the same conclusion: "It's them, not us! They are the problem!"

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation 
for the freedom of thought, which they seldom use. 
~Soren Kierkegaard


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Brief Moments - Lessons Learned

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"... This is how she now believes life happens.  One small thing at a time.  A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear briefly, to be this way...."  
~Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo

A very regular, usual, normal weekday morning. Coffee cup in hand, I walked to the front window, checking the skies to see what the day's weather might bring. My mood was almost as dark as the threatening clouds. No particular reason for this state of mind although it could have been the combination of realizing we were in for another cold and rainy day, a morning phone call that was mildly upsetting, and news of an acquaintance's recent monetary windfall.   

Image result for homeless manLooking to my left I saw a drenched, ragged and shaggy-haired homeless man rummaging through the neighbor's recycle bin. This old man had two filled-to-the-bursting-point garbage bags teetering precariously on top of other sacks and bags stuffed into his two-wheeled cart. I watched as the man assiduously rearranged the bags and eventually found an empty one, which he used to hold the several beer and soda pop cans nestled throughout the bin.

I'm accustomed to experiencing epiphanies that send my thoughts spinning, forcing me to rethink and reassess. I welcome these instances as they usually give me a good jolt to the senses and a reason to reexamine my mind-set or my mood. 

This morning I not only received an epiphany, I also got a good, metaphorical kick in the behind! 

Standing in a warm, secure and comfortable home, drinking fresh, hot coffee, looking across my small, tidy and flower-filled front garden, observing another human being as he struggled to simply survive, I understood all over again just how much I have to be grateful for. 

It's good to have these brief moments of clarity--and vow to carry the lesson throughout my day.