Tolkien’s childlike world

The Tolkien books are “restful,” as A. S. Byatt is said to have remarked,* because they are free of sex, and of money. In this respect they are childlike. The people in the stories are seen in the ways that children—privileged children, at any rate—see people. Money exists, but without much regard for where it comes from or how it is earned. Travellers are welcomed into comfortable homes where abundant food appears on the table and soft beds await them when the evening meal has finished. Everyone seems to be independently wealthy, or on summer holiday, without any hint of a servant underclass. The hobbits seem to be farmers, mostly, but we never see them working. Butterbur runs his inn, but who prepares the food, and who washes the dishes or cleans the rooms or launders the linens? Like young children, we readers rarely or never consider such matters: we unthinkingly accept the delicious food and comfortable lodgings. We are grateful and happy, but we do not inquire into the sources of all these comforts.

The people in Tolkien’s stories fall into the categories used by children to classify grown-ups. Old people are either gruff and grumpy, or kindly and wise; some of them start out appearing to be gruff but are revealed in time to be kindly. Men are sorted by their jobs: farmer, gardener, innkeeper, soldier, etc. Unmarried women are young and beautiful; married women are nurturing and motherly; old women are wise and caring, with an occasional witchy character like Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Many modern readers and critics have pointed out that these roles and stereotypes belong to an era and a culture and a social class that can be traced to Tolkien’s own life as a middle-class Catholic and an Oxford don nearly a century ago..

Children today, no doubt, see adults rather differently. But there remains that period of life before adolescence when one sees the world without thinking about sex or money. That innocence, much regretted once one crosses the threshold into the adult world, naturally appeals to us when we have had some experience of the stress, anxiety, and heartache that follow inevitably from becoming a sexual creature who must earn a living and pay for everything. Tolkien’s world offers a respite from such concerns. We imagine the delight of being welcomed as guests and never needing to think about who pays for it all or who cleans the toilets (another item completely absent from Tolkien’s world). We take a holiday from lust, jealousy, and sexual envy. It is, as Byatt says, restful.

And then, the kings and queens. Fathers and mothers. Aged, in the child’s eyes, and yet ageless. All-wise, all-powerful, always protecting their children, their people. Sometimes we have stories recounting the child’s nightmarish fears, stories of evil kings, evil queens, reassuring stories that always end with the overthrow of the wicked and the establishment of a new order under new, benign monarchs. The true king is restored. All is well. The child in us does not long for democracy, but for the benign rule of a father-king and mother-queen. This longing explains much of what we read in the news. We long to be ruled by the true king.

*Byatt is quoted in this Wikipedia article, but the source is not clearly indicated.

How to be successful, respected, and well-liked

Ask any professional musician, “Who gets hired?” and they will all give the same answer. It isn’t the most talented player; it’s not the one who can play more notes, or play faster than anyone else. It’s the one who shows up on time; the one who plays what is needed for the music; the one who is reliable; the one who is pleasant and friendly and gets along with others.

You don’t need to be a super-talented musician. You don’t need to be a star athlete, or a top student.

To be respected and well-liked, to feel good about yourself, you need only do what every one of us can do:

  • Be a good friend; a good classmate; a good teammate.
  • Be reliable. Show up on time, and whatever the work is, give it your best effort.
  • Think of others, not just yourself, and help out when you can.

Doing these simple things will earn the respect of all who know you, and the self-respect that will make you feel good about who you are. That’s a pretty good description of genuine success.

Leviticus, progressive humanitarian

Leviticus 24:17-20 reads as follows:

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. . . .If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.

Man, that Old Testament sense of justice was tough, eh? Let’s see.

On October 7th, according to Israeli data, 1,139 Israelis were killed.

Since then, news reports estimate 27,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza.

That means that almost 24 Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli killed on October 7th.

If we round that number down to 20, we can revise Leviticus as follows:

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death, along with 19 of his friends, neighbours, and family members. . . . If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, 20 fractures for every fracture, 20 eyes for every eye, 20 teeth for every tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him, 20 times over.

Makes you glad you weren’t born into that primitive Old Testament world, don’t it?

Well-educated, intelligent, and primitive

Recent events recall this passage from Sinclair McKay’s book about the fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945. In the years following the war, those who had been involved in the operation wondered about the necessity and the morality of what they had done.

The young scientist Freeman Dyson, who had worked in Bomber Command and who had come to feel a revulsion especially for the raids carried out towards the end of the war, found himself discussing the Dresden bombing raids with a ‘well-educated and intelligent’ wife of a senior air force officer. Dyson asked her if it was right that the Allies should be killing large numbers of German women and babies. She told him: ‘Oh yes. It is good to kill the babies especially. I am not thinking of this war but of the next one, twenty years from now. The next time the Germans start a war and we have to fight them, those babies will be the soldiers.’ There was something quite extraordinarily primitive about this exterminating impulse that stayed with Dyson for decades.

—from Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness, by Sinclair McKay, p. 294

“Pigeon Tunnel,” by John Le Carré

John Le Carré’s memoir, Pigeon Tunnel (or is it David Cornwell’s memoir?) teems with con-men, fraudsters, spies, criminals, assassins, political subversives, and a gaggle of celebrities and one-percenters with whom they rub elbows at cocktail parties. I have never met any of the above, to my knowledge. Le Carré a.k.a. Cornwell’s elegantly-recounted anecdotes fascinated me, but the fascination gradually wore down to a residue of annoyance. Are there no ordinary people in Le Carré’s world? No loving mothers and fathers who do honest work, raise their kids as best they can, follow the rules, abide by the laws, and try to be the best people they can be? No. Such people do not make for exciting novels, which is why they are largely absent from Le Carré’s spy thrillers. Weirdly, though, they seem to have been equally absent from David Cornwell’s life. 

Immediately upon finishing Pigeon Tunnel, however, I listened to the most recent episode of Rob Reiner’s podcast series, Who Killed JFK?, and there they were again: spies, assassins, criminals, political subversives. Then I recalled reading somewhere that the three most valuable commodities in world trade were petroleum, weapons, and illegal drugs—all of which required the services of often-crooked lawyers and international bankers—and the world began to look again more like David Cornwell’s world. And I remembered one of my favourite Chinese phrases, 他们都是流氓: they are all gangsters. I am reminded, too, of Harry Lime in The Third Man, when he meets Holly Martins in Vienna’s Prater and looks down from the top of the Riesenrad at the tiny figures below. “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.”

So, are we deluded and naïve, we ordinary people who go to school and go to work and read books and listen to music and watch movies—do we live in willful ignorance on the fringes of a world fueled by greed and criminality? Or are the drug dealers and arms dealers and crooked bankers the deluded ones, fatuously believing that diamonds and caviar make life worth living?

Who are the suckers? Discuss.

Trees, baby! Trees.

Bits and bobs from The Overstory, by Richard Powers:

“You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit. “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian takes the bait. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

. . . which reminds me of e. e. cummings:

plato told

him:he couldn’t

believe it(jesus

told him;he

wouldn’t believe

it)lao

tsze

certainly told

him,and general

(yes

mam)

sherman;

and even

(believe it

or

not)you

told him:i told

him;we told him

(he didn’t believe it,no

sir)it took

a nipponized bit of

the old sixth

avenue

el;in the top of his head:to tell

him

Another debatable claim—

The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

—seems increasingly dubious as this long, sprawling novel continues. Powers moves us most when showing us how much we have been missing in our understanding of nature—

“We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So we make sure nothing looks like us! Until a short while ago, we didn’t even let chimpanzees have consciousness, let alone dogs or dolphins. Only man, you see: only man could know enough to want things. But believe me: trees want something from us, just as we’ve always wanted things from them. This isn’t mystical. The ‘environment’ is alive—a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other. . . . Flowers shape bees as much as bees shape flowers. Berries may compete to be eaten more than animals compete to eat them. A thorn acacia makes sugary protein treats to feed and enslave the ants who guard it. Fruit-bearing plants trick us into distributing their seeds, and ripening fruit led to color vision. In teaching us how to find their bait, trees taught us to see that the sky is blue. Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.”

—and by the end it is this overwhelming vision that sticks. The human dramas, which may have initially drawn us in to the story, have lost their power. We want to go into the woods, sit at the base of a tree, and just listen.

UC Santa Cruz, sort of

From The Overstory, by Richard Powers, p. 257:

He’s admitted to the new social psychology graduate program down at Santa Cruz. The campus is an enchanted garden perched on a mountainside overlooking Monterey Bay. It’s the worst place he can imagine for finishing a doctorate—or doing any real work whatsoever. On the other hand, it’s perfect for making interspecies contact with sea lions down by the pier, climbing the Sunset Tree naked and stoned at night, and lying on his back in the Great Meadow, searching for a thesis topic in the mad cloud of stars.

This parody, like all parodies, is founded on truth, in part. In my day (1969-72) we called Santa Cruz (the town, not just the university) Hippie Heaven. Plenty of flakiness—so much that when I moved to Oregon a few years later I had an immediate aversion to that state’s Santa Cruz simulacrum, Eugene, and happily continued north to the state capital, Salem, which was as much like a boring midwestern town as anything west of the Rockies. What a relief! When I was at UCSC two highly-touted professors recruited to the school left after just one year for East Coast schools where students were serious about their studies. Plenty of UCSC students and teachers were serious about their studies—I was one of them—but the tone of the place was definitely set by the “middle-class white-boy”* faux hippies and their silliness. I had a few great teachers; I learned a lot; but I was happy to drop out in the middle of my third year when they demanded that I declare a major, and I have never had the least desire to go back.

*”Middle Class White Boy” is one of Mose Allison’s inimitable classics.

The blackness behind us and before us

In W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), this prescient and evocative passage seems to speak directly to us in the summer of 2023:

Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread. In Italy, France and Spain, in Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, in Canada and California, summer fires consume whole forests, not to mention the great conflagration in the tropics that is never extinguished. A few years ago, on a Greek island that was wooded as recently as 1900, I observed the speed with which a blaze runs through dry vegetation. A short distance from the harbour town where I was staying, I stood by the roadside with a group of agitated men, the blackness behind us and before us, far below at the bottom of a gorge, the fire, whipped up by the wind, racing, leaping, and already climbing the steep slopes. And I shall never forget the junipers, dark against the glow, going up in flames one after the other as if they were tinder the moment the first tongues of fire licked at them, with a dull thudding sound like an explosion, and then promptly collapsing in a silent shower of sparks.

Has any phrase ever conveyed the human condition more succinctly than the blackness behind us and before us?

Phil Freshman, my good friend

Phil Freshman, who I met in 1970, died yesterday.

There are so many good memories, and so many stories I could tell.

I first saw his name in a by-line on an article in the UC Santa Cruz student newspaper in the fall of 1969. The article was about freshman orientation; I thought the by-line was a pseudonym. A few months later this guy stuck his hand out and said, “I’m Phil Freshman.” I started laughing.

In 1981 I was living in Oregon when my little brother got married in our home town in San Diego. Wanting to surprise him, I told him I wouldn’t be able to make it, then got into my car and started driving south. In L.A. I stopped to pick up Phil, who was at home with his parents in Reseda. We arrived in time for the wedding, and Phil spent the entire afternoon talking with everyone at the reception. He had a way of meeting people I had known for years and finding out more about them in ten minutes than I ever knew. As the sun was setting and we started back north, I said, “So . . . what do you think?” There was a pause, then a sigh; then he shook his head. “I thought people in L.A. were superficial,” he said.

His original idea of a career in journalism turned instead into a career as a copy-editor who specialized in catalogues and other publications by art museums. Meticulous and stubborn (and almost always right), he was invariably embroiled in disagreements. In 1982, while working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), two of his colleagues wanted to dispense with the hyphen in the name of their department. His memo to the boss on this topic is reproduced here for posterity. (“I was just trying to make people laugh, convince them via humor,” he said later. The hyphen in “Twentieth-Century Art” was retained, but no one seems to have laughed.)

To: Earl A. Powell III
From: Phil Freshman
Subject: Twentieth-Century Hyphens

As you know, a storm has lately been rattling teacups in the upstairs offices over what would seem to be an innocuous grammatical point. Maurice Tuchman and Stephanie Barron evidently abhor the presence of a hyphen when it is used to hook up the words Twentieth and Century when they appear adjectivally prior to the word Art. More specifically, the curators, formerly of the Department of Modern Art (formerly the Modern and Contemporary Art Department) are adamantly opposed to having their newly renamed department publicly known as the Department of Twentieth hyphen Century Art. I’m told they see the hyphen, in this location at least, as a blemish, an excrescence.

I confess that when I first heard of their assault on our language’s unsung little intelligibility-maker, my professional instinct was to rush unquestioningly to its defense. After all, wouldn’t our bearings be more difficult to find if we didn’t have the adjectivally employed hyphen to tell us we were about to see “sixty-odd works of art” rather than “sixty odd ones”? And how embarrassed we might feel if we were left, hyphenless, to divine the best way to approach an “ill favored woman”.

More angrily, and pointedly, I could have arisen, stuck an index finger down onto any properly punctuated book, newspaper, or magazine page where the subject of 15th-century poetry, 19th-century sculpture, or 20th-century anarchy was treated and then, folding my arms, let my case rest.

However, being a student who knows the language has a way of changing, sometimes radically, before our very eyes, and being an employee of an American museum in a time when more and more of those institutions’ modern art departments are adopting this century’s name for their very own, I decided to do a bit of digging. I called four major museums, each of which had, according to the 1981 Official Museum Directory, “20th Century Art” departments. Instead of phoning these museums’ editorial departments and collecting a pile of confirmations for my view, I spoke with members of the departments in question; if they felt as Maurice and Stephanie do, and had gotten their museums to condone the breaking of grammatical code, I wanted to hear from them how they had justified it.

The four museums I called were the Metropolitan in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

At the Metropolitan, a Mrs. Rubin, the assistant to one of the associate curators of Twentieth no hyphen Century Art, told me the department had had the name since the ’60s and that no one, certainly no editors, had to her knowledge ever questioned the usage. She said the department refers to itself in all public places hyphenlessly. “But now that you mention it,” she added, “yes, I guess you’re right. I wonder why no one has ever said anything?”

Next I called Boston. “Don’t mention that hyphen!” cried Debbie Emerson, the departmental secretary. “We all think it’s ugly, unsightly.” But does the Museum of Fine Arts use it? “Yes,” she admitted. “Our editors make us. On business cards, in the annual reports, everywhere. But around the office we avoid it like the plague.”

Then it was Philadelphia, where I talked with the curator herself, Ann d’Harnoncourt. “You tell Maurice and Stephanie I’m on their side,” she said. “I just can’t stand that hyphen, and I never use it in any of my letters.” But what about the museum’s official usage? “Well of course it’s correct and the museum includes it in the calendar of events, the annual report, you name it. But God, it’s so unaesthetic!”

Finally, Chicago. Susan Frio, the department’s secretary, was just as hot on the subject as her co-religionists in Boston and Philadelphia. “We despise that hyphen, but what are we going to do? We co-publish the University of Chicago Manual of Style [LACMA’s style bible], and so it would look pretty dumb if we deviated from that. So we make it Department of Twentieth hyphen Century Art consistently.”

What are we to conclude from all this? Seemingly, the law-abiding adjectival hyphen, just trying to do his job in the strife-torn world of modern language, is undergoing a death-dealing hail of abuse by other twentieth-century art departments than our own. However, he has, in most places, managed to survive. I want him to survive here. And so I recommend, consistent with both grammatical practice and the policies of reputable (though embattled) museums, that this museum recognize the legitimacy and necessity of linking Twentieth and Century with a hyphen whenever those two words publicly precede Art.

Naturally, I wouldn’t presume to suggest extending this rule to the private correspondence and paperwork of the Twentieth-Century Art curators, or anybody else. That would indeed be a less-than-reasonable, over-regimented, far-fetched, and even un-American policy.

In 2015 he came to visit me in Suzhou, China, where I had been living and working for a decade. Although we hadn’t seen each other for years, we picked up right where we left off, and Phil was the same curious, gregarious omnivore of new experiences that he had always been. I am so blessed to have known him, and I will miss him, as the saying goes, like salt.

Attention, for Donne, was everything

From Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, pp. 294-95:

It was very deliberately that he wrote poems that take all your sustained focus to untangle them. The pleasure of reading a Donne poem is akin to that of cracking a locked safe, and he meant it to be so. He demanded hugely of us, and the demands of his poetry are a mirror to that demanding. The poetry stands to ask: why should everything be easy, rhythmical, pleasant? He is at times almost impossible to understand, but, in repayment for your work, he reveals images that stick under your skin until you die. Donne suggests that you look at the world with both more awe and more scepticism: that you weep for it and that you gasp for it. In order to do so, you shake yourself out of cliché and out of the constraints of what the world would sell you. Your love is almost certainly not like a flower, nor a dove. Why would it be? It may be like a pair of compasses. It may be like a flea. His startling timelessness is down to the fact that he had the power of unforeseeability: you don’t see him coming.

The difficulty of Donne’s work had in it a stark moral imperative: pay attention. It was what Donne most demanded of his audience: attention. It was, he knew, the world’s most mercurial resource. The command is in a passage in Donne’s sermon: ‘Now was there ever any man seen to sleep in the cart, between Newgate and Tyburn? Between the prison, and the place of execution, does any man sleep? And we sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave we are never thoroughly awake.’ Awake, is Donne’s cry. Attention, for Donne, was everything. attention paid to our mortality, and to the precise ways in which beauty cuts through us, attention to the softness of skin and the majesty of hands and feet and mouths. . . .

[The quotation is from Donne’s Sermon XXV.]

Homeless people, empty office buildings. What to do?

Premise 1: There are lots of homeless people in the downtown area.

Premise 2: Since office workers got used to working from home during the height of the COVID pandemic, many of them prefer not to return to the office, and as a result we have lots of empty or half-empty office buildings . . . downtown.

Conclusion: Therefore we should continue ignoring the homeless problem, and force office workers to go back to their cubicles.

Pretty obvious, really.


Update: Here is an article detailing all the issues involved in converting offices to residences, written by a couple of people who actually know what they are talking about: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/analysis-heres-what-it-would-take-to-turn-empty-office-buildings-into-residential-housing.

Plato on old age

At the beginning of The Republic, Socrates walks from Athens to the port city, Piraeus, to see an old man named Cephalus and ask him what it’s like to be old.

“There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to enquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult. And this is a question which I should like to ask of you who have arrived at that time which the poets call the ‘threshold of old age’–Is life harder towards the end, or what report do you give of it?”

“I will tell you, Socrates,” he said, “what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is—I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known. How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, ‘How does love suit with age, Sophocles,–are you still the man you were?’ ‘Peace,’ he replied; ‘most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.’ His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden.”

—Plato’s Republic, B. Jowett (Translator). Book I.

Removing gender from athletics

A conversation today got me thinking about the current controversy in the U.S. and in international athletics about transsexual women and girls being banned from competing in women’s and girls’ teams and competitions.

Here’s my question: Why do we still have gendered athletic competitions at all? The standard answer, of course, is that most women and girls, in most sports, will not be able to compete successfully against men and boys, who in general are bigger and stronger. But is the current norm—separate teams and leagues based on gender—the best solution?

In the case of school team athletics, for example, why not simply have First Tier teams, Second Tier teams, and Third Tier teams? Placement would be determined by performance, not gender. The current nonsense of classifying athletes by gender identity and testosterone levels could be put aside. All interested students could participate on teams suited to their skill levels. Girls, boys, and trans students skilled enough to compete against the best athletes in the First Tier could do so; those lacking the skills to make the First Tier could still enjoy playing in the Second or Third Tier.

The same idea could be employed in individual sports like tennis or swimming or track and field. In the Olympics, for example, instead of male swimming competitions and female swimming competitions, why not have First Tier swimming, Second Tier swimming, and Third Tier swimming? If your performances reach a certain level, you qualify for the First Tier. Otherwise, you compete in the Second Tier, or the Third. The objection, undoubtedly, would be the same argument used in favour of gendered competition: many women and girls would be excluded because they would not be able to compete successfully against men and boys, even at the Second or Third Tier levels. Dishonest individuals who could not win in the First Tier would deliberately underachieve so they could be relegated to the Second Tier, where they could then capture all the gold medals.

Maybe. But measures could be taken to mitigate against unfairness. And fears of cheating are overblown. Cheating is already a part of every sport, and every sport has rules and sanctions to minimize dishonesty. Most athletes, however, want to test themselves against tough competition. Winning against opponents whose skills are clearly inferior would hold no satisfaction or pleasure for the vast majority of competitors.

I am “thinking out loud” here, and perhaps I have not thought hard enough or carefully enough about these issues. It does seem clear to me, however, that banning and stigmatizing transsexual athletes is cruel and unsustainable. There has to be a better way.

You couldn’t give me a billion dollars to get on an airplane.

The great Paul Motian, from Motian in Motion, a wonderful 2020 documentary of his life and career. Skip to the 41-minute mark for this:

Oh yeah. No, I won’t get on an airplane. Forget that. You couldn’t give me a billion dollars to get on an airplane. I’m serious. Give me a billion dollars—I will not get on an airplane. I just did so much of that, man, so much touring, wow, year after year after year after year. Planes. Airplanes. Hundreds of airplanes. Terrible! That’s terrible! Touring is a horrible life.

Years of international living and traveling have led me to exactly the same conclusion. Having said that, billion-dollar offers are welcome.

Cause of death

With AIDS, unlike COVID-19, you had to work pretty hard to be infected. Walking into a restaurant and breathing was not enough.

So when people died of AIDS, the reports would say, “died of complications from AIDS,” and everyone understood that having AIDS made you vulnerable to a host of other illnesses—pneumonia, for example.

COVID deaths, however, are being massively mis-reported and under-reported. If someone with COVID contracts pneumonia and then dies, the cause of death is reported as . . . pneumonia! Why? Because if COVID deaths were reported as “died of complications from COVID-19,” all holy hell would break loose. Lots of people would be more reluctant to walk into restaurants and breathe. Or to go to shopping malls, or go out to a nightclub, or go to a play or a concert.

That would be bad.

Gotta keep the economy going, y’know?

Casablanca American School Turns 50

Hala R. Mustafa Al Hassan
Casablanca American School
Casablanca, Morocco

Dear Hala,

I have been pondering what to say in response to your appeal for memories of CAS as part of the school’s 50-year anniversary celebrations.

My first thought was: it should not be all about me. It should be about you, Hala, and your classmates in 1986 when I arrived to teach all of the English courses, Grades 7-12. I remember the first time I asked students, “What do you think?” and seeing the looks of blank terror on their faces: having come from schools where “learning” was all about memorizing what the teacher said, they had never before been asked that question. I remember Hind arriving in Grade 10 with barely a word of English. At break one day she was sitting with her friends outside on a sunny fall day during a break. “How are you?” I asked. “Oooh,” she said, fanning herself, “C’est hot!” I remember my Indian students explaining the logic of arranged marriages to me and persuading me that arranged marriages made more sense than “love matches.” I remember Nita, Sanguita, and Meenakshi dressing me up as Krishna for “Indian Night” at the Churchill Club. Although my three years at CAS (1986-89) came near the beginning of my teaching career, I am still in touch from time to time with so many of my former students from Casa: Myriam and Kamal, Marcus and Pontus, Cat, Amal, Noura, Alia, Hind, Youness . . . . It speaks to the strength of the bonds we formed.

This little memoir should be about John Randolph, the best head of school I ever worked for across four decades and four continents and eleven schools. When I first met John, at a recruitment fair in San Francisco, I saw him sitting behind the table under the Casablanca American School sign and assumed from his looks that he was Moroccan. By now, I think he probably is! John showed me that a head of school could be fiercely principled, passionate about education, and utterly devoted to the best interests of his students. I could write a small book about John and his profound influence on me and my career. I remember him reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, “As I Grew Older,” at morning assembly in the courtyard of the old upper school. I am still teaching that poem, almost forty years later. John Randolph started out as my boss and became a dear, lifelong friend. I know that I am far from alone when I say that I could never thank him enough. 

My colleagues at CAS left lasting memories, and became lifelong friends. Mike Radow and I met on the plane returning home to Oregon from that San Francisco recruitment fair and ended up sharing a flat for the first year; or was it two? John Hall, Velma, Marcia, Orestes, Gayle, and then all the local staff who were so kind, generous, and helpful to us clueless expats. It was a vibrant, committed group of teachers. Anne Osman was a pillar of strength, along with her marvellous husband, Farid. Jack and Tricia Shepherd arrived in my second year and became essential members of the faculty. And through it all the indefatigable Marie Randolph, like a mother hen, took care of us all. We did not always agree, but we always cared about teaching and learning above all else.

In another sense, however, this little memoir should be about me, just as those of other CAS alumni should be about them, because that’s what Casablanca American School was always about: the students, teachers, staff members, and parents who made it the wonderful place it was, and is. I am sure that the 50th anniversary celebrations will provoke a tremendous response, because Casablanca American School has made a tremendous difference in the lives it has touched.

Sincerely yours,
Eric
(yes, you can call me Eric now, Hala!)

A purposeful life: Stephen Kotkin

“Having a purposeful life is actually not that hard. You’re in a school, you’re in a workplace, you’re somewhere where you can affect other people in a positive way. You can lead a life that can show others what good values are, and you can lead a life that dedicates yourself not only to your own material well-being but to the well-being and development of others around you. And it can be on a humble scale. It can be in a small classroom or a small workplace, a small work team. And having a positive impact, even on one other person, gives far greater meaning to your own life, and is profoundly satisfying.”

—Stephen Kotkin

Source: The very tail-end (2h41m) of a long discussion from May 2022 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Slightly edited for clarity. Kotkin is a scholar (Princeton, Stanford) and historian who specializes in Russian history.

Plagues and uncertainty

In the three centuries when bubonic plague swept across Europe, no one understood that the disease was carried by fleas and rats. Many people died; some became ill but recovered; some never became ill at all. These apparently random events made no sense, and so people resorted to superstition, mysticism, bigotry, and hysteria.

How little has changed since then.

Despite modern science and medicine, we don’t understand why some people suffer serious illness or death from COVID-19, while others experience only mild symptoms, or none at all; why some may escape entirely; why some suffer long-term disability after surviving the acute phase of the disease. Popular responses to this fear and confusion are often medieval in their embrace of irrationality and superstition and pseudoscience.

Humans seek clear, simple answers to their questions. They do not respond well to uncertainty and ambiguity. Plagues kill, but the suffering is compounded by our determination to arrive at an answer in the face of contradictory or incomplete evidence. As uncomfortable as it may be, we will be better off acknowledging that we don’t know, and acting accordingly.

The Story of the Taoist Farmer

The following text was published on a website that no longer exists, and I am unable to contact its author, Duen Hsi Yen, so I am reposting it here.


Version 1:

This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to condole over his terrible loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”
A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”
The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”
A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.
As told by Executive editor, Elise Hancock, in the Johns Hopkins Magazine, November 1993, page 2, in section entitled Editor’s Note.
Version 2:
A man named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune. Sei Weng said simply, “That’s the way it is.”
A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune. He said, “That’s the way it is.”
Some time later, Sei Weng’s only son, while riding the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng’s misfortune. Sei Weng again said, “That’s the way it is.”
Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng’s lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed as Sei Weng’s good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sei Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “That’s the way it is.”
As told by Chin-Ning Chu, in “The Asian Mind Game: unlocking the hidden agenda of the Asian business culture — a westerner’s survival manual,” New York:Macmillan Publishing Company, page 182. (1991)
Version 3:
A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”
A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.
The Lost Horse, a Chinese Folktale.
As told by Ellen J. Langer, in” The Power of Mindful Learning,” Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, page 99-100. (1997).
Version 4:
近塞上之人有善術者,馬無故亡而入胡,人皆弔之。其父曰:「此何遽不為福乎!」居數月,其馬將胡駿馬而歸,人皆賀之。其父曰:「此何遽不能為禍乎!」家富良馬,其子好騎,墮而折其髀,人皆弔之。其父曰:「此何遽不為福乎!」居一年,胡人大入塞,丁壯者引弦而戰,近塞之人,死者十九,此獨以跛之故,父子相保。故福之為禍,禍之為福,化不可極,深不可測也。
Translation (see above link for annotations and comment):
Among the people who lived close to the border, there was a man who led a righteous life. Without reason, his horse escaped, and fled into barbarian territory. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said : “what makes you think this is not a good thing?”
Several months later, his horse returned, accompanied by a superb barbarian stallion. Everyone congratulated him. But the old man said: “what makes you think this is cannot be a bad thing?”
The family was richer from a good horse, his son enjoyed riding it. He fell and broke his hip. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said: “what makes you think this is not a good thing!”
One year later, a large party of barbarians entered the border. All the valid men drew their bows and went to battle. From the people living around the border, nine out of ten died. But just because he was lame, the old man and his son were both spared.
Version 5 (under construction)
“Explaining Conjunctions” from The Book of Lieh-tzu: A Classic of Tao, translated by Angus C. Graham, New York: Columbia University Press (1960, revised 1990)
Version 6:
THE KING AND HIS FRIEND
An African king had a close friend who had the habit of remarking “this
is good” about every occurrence in life no matter what it was. One day
the king and his friend were out hunting. The king’s friend loaded a
gun and handed it to the king, but alas he loaded it wrong and when the
king fired it, his thumb was blown off.
“This is good!” exclaimed his friend.
The horrified and bleeding king was furious. “How can you say this is
good? This is obviously horrible!” he shouted. The king put his friend in jail.
About a year later the king went hunting by himself. Cannibals captured
him and took him to their village. They tied his hands, stacked some
wood, set up a stake and bound him to it. As they came near to set fire
to the wood, they noticed that the king was missing a thumb. Being
superstitious, they never ate anyone who was less than whole. They
untied the king and sent him on his way.
Full of remorse the king rushed to the prison to release his friend.
“You were right, it WAS good” the king said.
The king told his friend how the missing thumb saved his life and
added, “I feel so sad that I locked you in jail.That was such a bad
thing to do”
“NO! this is good!” responded his delighted friend.
“Oh, how could that be good my friend, I did a terrible thing to you while I
owe you my life”.
“It is good” said his friend, “because if I wasn’t in jail I would have been
hunting with you and they would have killed ME.”
Source unknown
Version 7:
Taoist Farmer stories are based on the Chinese belief that life has its ups and downs, and does not always go up. Click on the following link to read a story I wrote about the ups and downs in the lives of some chickens, and one eccentric chicken’s interpretation of whether the farmer that feeds them is good or bad.
The Benevolent Farmer? [dead link]
Here is another related tidbit: When Communist era Premier Chou En-Lai was asked whether or not the French revolution was good or bad, his response was “It’s too early to tell.” (From “The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why,” by Richard E. Nisbett, NY:Simon and Schuster, 2003, page 13). When I first read this, I couldn’t stop laughing!
Version 8:
Three Questions, a short story by Leo Tolstoy, has a similar flavor. (From “Twenty-three Tales “published around 1872. This version, translated by L. and A. Maude and published by Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York, 1907. Other adaptations: 1, 2, 3
IT once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do. And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.
In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.
But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.
Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.
To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.
All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.
The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his bodyguard behind, went on alone.
When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.
The King went up to him and said: ‘I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important and need my first attention?’ The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.
‘You are tired,’ said the King, ‘let me take the spade and work awhile for you.’
‘Thanks!’ said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the King, he sat down on the ground.
When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said:
‘Now rest awhile — and let me work a bit.’
But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said:
‘I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.’
‘Here comes some one running,’ said the hermit, ‘let us see who it is.’
The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound. When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep — so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.
‘Forgive me!’ said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.
‘I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,’ said the King.
‘You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!’
The King was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.
Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.
The King approached him, and said:
‘For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.’
‘You have already been answered!’ said the hermit still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.
‘How answered? What do you mean?’ asked the King.
‘Do you not see,’ replied the hermit. ‘If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug these beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards, when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important — Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!’
1903.
Last updated 18 November 2006
Copyright © 1998-2006 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

Thinking about old age

Why do old people so often lament the state of the world today and speak nostalgically of the world as it used to be? Is the world really so different today than it was in the historical nano-second-ago that was our childhood and youth?

I think not.

We idealize the past and demonize the present, first, because we know how the past turned out, and we survived—an outcome we struggle to believe in with regards to the future. Second, we know so much more than we did. Had I known, growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, of all the atrocities and crimes and injustice that had preceded my birth and were continuing through my early years, my optimism would have suffered. Third, we live today in a media environment that depends, economically, on a constant stirring of the pot. Chicken Little provokes clicks, views, ratings, and success. To the extent that we construct our view of the world through the media, we almost never hear good news.

In the essays attached to Christa Wolf’s remarkable 1983 novel, Cassandra, she includes diary entries from 1981 in which she and her friends debate how to live in a world that they expect to self-destruct in a nuclear war within three or four years. What’s the point, under such circumstances, of doing anything? Why go to work? Why read a book, or write one? Their discussions remind me of similar discussions in those years. I was bemused by the panicked excavation of backyard bomb shelters, fully equipped with bottled water and canned food. What folly! If there were a nuclear holocaust, the last outcome one could possibly wish for would be to survive the initial blast and have to live in the irradiated hell-scape that would result. Others around me were terrified at the mere thought of nuclear extinction. To me, there seemed little difference: whether one dies in his twenties, or in his eighties, one dies. The cause of death is incidental. As for the destruction of humanity as a whole, there would be much to lament in our extinction; but there would be much, too, of which one could only say, “Good riddance!” However we will die, the important question remains: How shall we live, in the meantime?

All such youthful ponderings of death, individual or collective, cease to be speculative in old age. “If it be now,” says Hamlet,

’tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

In old age we know that, whenever it comes, it won’t be long. It could be any moment, or it could be thirty years from now. The old question in the face of destruction—”Why do anything? What’s the point?”—seems now almost quaint. Why not?? What else should one do with life but to live it? In old age I see more clearly than ever before that life itself is the point. The morning cup of coffee, with its delicious odour and comforting warmth, is the point. It doesn’t need to mean anything; it simply is. And so am I. As long as I am here, I intend to savour every sip. And that’s not consolation—it’s pretty damn good!

Through stories we shape meaning

Gavin Francis, writing in the London Review of Books:

It’s through stories that we shape meaning, and we need to get better at explaining how pernicious and destructive the wrong stories can be.

The remark comes at the end of his review of a book about cases of mass hysteria or illness, The Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories of Mystery Illness, by Suzanne O’Sullivan.

But it resonates far beyond that context.

Unfortunately, most of us opt for binary thinking and simple stories that relieve us of the burden of critical thinking and the discomfort of ambiguity. The results are, as Gavin Francis says, pernicious and destructive.

History

Freedom, justice, education, and equality seem to have little to do with the ingredients required to produce a great civilization. Slavery, despotism, illiteracy, and inequality often help and certainly do not hinder the building of an empire. The essentials are low labour costs, abundant natural resources, abundant energy supplies, monopoly markets, military superiority, and social and political stability at home.

To concentrate all of these in a single society is difficult enough, which is why historians have no need of a calculator to count the “great civilizations.”

To hold on to them, however, is as unlikely as true love that lasts a lifetime, which is why even the greatest of great civilizations have dissolved in the blink of an historical eye.

The desire for freedom, justice, education, and equality, far from being among the essential causes producing a great civilization, appear to be the fruits of such greatness. Prosperous citizens of a dominant society begin in their affluence to acquire education, to philosophize, to yearn for freedom, justice, and equality. (Freedom and equality are incompatible, of course, as Will Durant points out in The Lessons of History: “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”) Affluence, however, produces other, less benign fruits: corruption, decadence, laziness, self-indulgence. The dissolution begins at the same moment that the greatest heights are achieved. Sophocles writes his tragedies and Plato writes his dialogues as Athens descends into the imperial despotism of corrupt oligarchs. Phidias sculpts the gods out of marble as the slaves mine silver and row the Athenian galleys into a war with Sparta that destroys Pericles’ great society in a single generation.

Most people live their lives apart from these cyclical struggles. If lucky enough to avoid being swept up by wars and revolutions, they grow from children to adults, fall in love, find ways to earn a living, raise families, amuse themselves as they can, grow old, and die. In every society only a small percentage of people (men, mostly) strive obsessively to take more than their share, using the tools available to them, whether they be spears or hedge funds. From among these narcissists and sociopaths arise the “great men” of history with their compulsions to rule, to horde, and to erect monuments to themselves.

The immediate pleasures of life lie in physical health: strength, energy, movement, eating, sleeping, and sex. Longer-term consolations come from nature, art, music, literature, and the vast corridors of knowledge in all its forms. Ironically, most science and “high art” emerges from the wars, violence, and inequalities of great civilizations. As Orson Welles famously ad-libs in The Third Man, “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed—they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!”

How many of us, I wonder, would hesitate to trade the Renaissance for five hundred years of democracy and peace? A few brave and noble souls venture into politics in the true spirit of public service to battle against the ambitious egotists who tend to dominate that world. Most people, however, simply pray to be left alone by the Caesars, Napoleons, and Rockefellers. Like Voltaire’s Candide, they long only to cultivate their gardens, happily leaving history to others. Most people, I am inclined to think, would gladly trade ten Renaissances for five hundred years of democracy and peace, if only they could.

Democracy

When it comes to selecting players for the Major League Baseball all-star teams, letting the fans vote is almost universally derided as a surrender to popular ignorance. When it comes to selecting governors, congressmen, senators, and presidents, however, the same system is regarded as sacred.

Or, as Will Durant wrote in The Lessons of History,

Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.

Machiavelli & friends: “the food which only is mine”

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and re-clothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me . . . .

Of my honesty there should be no doubt, because having always preserved my honesty, I shall hardly now learn to break it; he who has been honest and good for forty-three years, as I have, cannot change his nature; as a witness to my honesty and goodness I have my poverty.

—From Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), “Letter to Francesco Vettori.” Tr. Allan Gilbert


The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! . . .

—William Wordsworth


It was the dream itself enchanted me: . . .
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

—W. B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

Binary thinking, again

April, 2024: Now it’s Palestine and Israel. Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza, so Israel is bad; the Palestinians are the victims of these crimes, so Palestinians are good. (This reverses the binary formulation that persisted for a hot minute in October, 2023, when Palestinians committed atrocities and were therefore bad, whereas Israelis, the victims of said atrocities, were good.) At the moment, since the Palestinians are good while the Israelis are bad, President Biden’s qualified support for Israel makes him bad. One dangerous consequence among many is the possibility that a statistically important slice of American voters will conclude that since Biden is bad, they cannot vote for him, thus tipping the balance in the Electoral College and giving the presidency back to Trump, god help us. As the late Kurt Vonnegut might have said . . . so it goes.

June, 2022: I wrote about binary thinking way back in 2018, here, and not so long ago in March, here. But people keep doing it, and I keep noticing it until the itch just has to be scratched.

The latest example comes out of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It seems that some people who generally identify themselves on “the left” politically have decided that they should write and speak in support of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, because the U.S. is supporting Ukraine.

The logic is classic binary thinking: We know that the U.S. has been guilty many times in the past of neo-imperialist wars, of invading small, weak nations, of supporting unpopular and corrupt governments in those small weak nations; we know that American armies have committed war crimes; that the U.S. government has lied and covered up its misdeeds; etc. Hence, the U.S. is bad. If the U.S. is bad, then its ally (in this case, Ukraine) must be bad, too, and its adversary (Russia) must be good. Therefore, go Vlad!

Binary thinking attracts us because it is so simple, and clear, and consoling. Alas, the truth, far too often, is complex, and muddy, and confusing. But it’s still the truth. In this case, the nasty Pentagon is on the right side. Perhaps next time, the nasty Saudi leader will do something good. Or Boris Johnson will say something true, sensible, selfless, and profound. This is life, folks, and unless we simply prefer to be deluded, we have to accept complexity, muddiness, and confusion.

Frank Sinatra, by many accounts, did terrible things, especially when drunk, which was apparently pretty common. He also was a phenomenal singer. Binary thinkers have to choose: they either love Sinatra for his music and overlook his bad behaviour, or they cannot overlook his bad behaviour and so are forced to hate his music, too. The rest of us are stuck with complicated thoughts and feelings. We keep repeating to ourselves Bryan Stevenson‘s wise dictum: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

That goes for nations, too.

The government is not concerned with your health, or mine

The government—federal, state, provincial, local, whatever—is concerned with three things when it comes to public health:

  1. The economy: if businesses are losing money and shutting down, if people are losing their jobs, that’s a problem for the government.
  2. Hospitals and the health care system: if hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, if there are shortages of doctors, nurses, or beds, that’s a problem for the government.
  3. Public sentiment: if government policies are highly unpopular, that’s a problem for the government.

My health, and yours, are not on that list. If my diet is not the best, if I don’t exercise enough, if I get sick, even if I am hospitalized, these are not problems for the government. They are only problems for me, my family, my friends, and my colleagues.

A lot of people seem not to understand this. As governments in many places remove mask requirements, people think, “Ah, the government says it’s safe now for me to stop wearing a mask indoors!”

Wrong.

It’s not safe. You can still get COVID, and even a mild case of COVID can lead to long-term health problems. Or you can pass it from person to person until it reaches a senior citizen or a cancer patient who then ends up in the hospital, and possibly the morgue. And yes, you can get COVID more than once. None of that is a problem for the government: but it’s a serious concern for you, and me.

Wear a good N95 mask when you are indoors.

If Only

“If only they could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably.”

“You mean, the Spartans and the Athenians?”

“No.”

“Oh!— the Greeks and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Goths and the Romans?”

“No.”

“The Saxons and the Celts?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Moslems?”

“No.”

“The Christians and the Jews?”

“No.”

“The Jews and the Arabs?”

“No.”

“The Catholics and the Protestants?”

“No.”

“The Irish and the English?”

“No.”

“The Europeans and the Amerindians?”

“No.”

“The Iroquois and the Hurons?”

“No.”

“Hmm . . . the Han and the Manchu?”

“No.”

“The Chinese and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Koreans and the Japanese?”

“No.”

“The Japanese and the Russians?”

“No.”

“The Russians and the Germans?”

“No.”

“The Germans and the French?”

“No.”

“The French and the English?”

“No.”

“The English and the Americans?”

“No.”

“White Americans and Black Americans?”

“No.”

“Liberals and conservatives?”

“No.”

“Communists and—”

“No.”

“Monarchists and—”

“No.”

“Unions and management?”

“No.”

“Ah, I know! The Sunnis and the Shia!”

“No.”

“The Indians and the Pakistanis?”

“No.”

“The Arabs and the Iranians?”

“No.”

“Maybe . . . the Kurds and the Turks?”

“No.”

“The Turks and the Armenians?”

“No.”

“Okay, I give up. If only who could have put aside their differences and lived together peaceably?”

“Humans.”

On sickness and health: the wisdom of the ages and the COVID-19 anti-vax upsurge

First, the physician at Harvard, lecturing on Hippocrates:

The widest of all generalizations in the work of Hippocrates is this: as a rule, sick people recover without treatment.

—Lawrence J. Henderson (1878-1942), Harvard lectures, quoted in The Practical Cogitator, Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, editors (p. 287).

Second, Montaigne in his tower:

Let things take their course. Nature’s scheme, that takes care of fleas and moles, also takes care of men—if they will have the same patience to let themselves be governed that fleas and moles have. There is no use in our shouting “Giddap”; that will indeed make us hoarse, but not get us ahead. Nature’s scheme is proud and pitiless. Our fear and despair disgust it and stop it from helping us, instead of inviting it to come to our aid. Nature is obliged to let both disease and health run their course. As for letting itself be corrupted in favour of the one to the prejudice of the other’s right, it will not do so, for it would then fall into disorder. Follow Nature, in God’s name, follow it! It leads those who follow. Those who will not follow, it drags along, with their rage and their medicine too. Order a purge for your brain; it will be better employed there than on your stomach.

—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Essays, Book II, Ch. 37, “Of the Resemblance of Children to Fathers.” Adapted from the translation by Donald Frame.

The recent upsurge of anti-vaccination hysteria, often abetted by the “wellness” movement—for whom conventional medical practice is anathema—has reminded me of Hippocrates’ conclusion that the best treatment, most often, is no treatment at all. This conclusion must have been doubly true in the early days of modern medicine.

What remedies, after all, were on offer in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America? Bloodletting appears to have been the preferred treatment for almost any condition, followed closely by laxatives, emetics, and diuretics aimed at inducing the patient to defecate, vomit, or urinate his way to health. These treatments were based on the dominant medieval theory of medicine, which held that disease resulted from an imbalance of the four “humours” or essential bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Restore the balance, so the theory went, and the patient would recover. It is not difficult to see that this was medical theatre more than medical practice. When patients recovered, the doctor could take credit. When they perished, either from the disease or the treatment, or both, the doctor could sigh and say, “Alas, we did the best we could.”

More serious problems were addressed by an even more dreadful response: surgery. Surgery in the 18th and 19th centuries resembled butchery more than medical treatment. No anaesthesia. No sanitation. Doctors with bloody hands going from one patient to the next, spreading bacteria from patient to patient. This was truly barbaric and horrific.

We cannot be surprised that alternatives to such brutality arose. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, gave up his practice after concluding that conventional treatments like bloodletting did more harm than good. In 1796 he conceived an alternative approach that he called “homeopathy.” Its fundamental principle was that “like cures like.” Hahnemann took substances that were known to cause disease and diluted them repeatedly until the resulting solution was no different, chemically, from the inert ingredients that formed most of it—flavoured water, essentially. In the 19th century homeopathy became enormously popular, and one can see why: instead of being bled or purged, the patient need only drink these harmless potions, and—remember Hippocrates—most of them recovered their health!

Other pseudoscientific and supernatural alternatives to conventional medicine flourished in the 19th century: spiritualists, mesmerists, magnetizers, vitalists, phrenologists, iridologists, theosophists, etc., attracted large followings of people disillusioned not only with conventional medicine but with conventional religions. In 1875 Mary Baker Eddy, after a few years spent studying mesmerism with Joseph Quimby, published Science and Health and, in 1892, founded the Church of Christ, Scientist. “It is plain that God does not employ drugs or hygiene, nor provide them for human use; else Jesus would have recommended and employed them in his healing,” she wrote. Christian Science, as it came to be called, was an improvement even on homeopathy: no potions were required, only prayer. As always, successes could be credited to the theory, and failures explained away. Again, Hippocrates’ conclusion resonates: “as a rule, sick people recover without treatment.”

In the 20th century, while conventional medicine continued to make progress, such alternative treatments persisted. I was raised as a Christian Scientist. Unvaccinated, I suffered the most serious illness of my life in my late 30s when I contracted measles. (I escaped polio, smallpox, etc., only because almost everyone around me was vaccinated against them.) While living and working in Europe in the 1990s I saw, in Austria and Germany, pharmacy shelves filled with homeopathic remedies for every imaginable disorder. And in the 1960s, of course, as part of the anti-war, anti-establishment counterculture, Eastern religions, meditation, yoga, etc., were joined by a flood of alternative medicine and spiritual practices. Distrust of government and corporations reinforced distrust of the doctors and hospitals associated with them. The rise of cancers as populations began to live longer and as environmental pollution with various toxic chemicals had its inevitable consequences led to early forms of cancer treatment like chemotherapy that were dreadful for patients and often unsuccessful. Naturally, alternatives promising better results and less suffering were enticing.

This brief account should make the historical context of today’s upsurge of anti-vaccination sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic crystal clear. Anti-establishment distrust of institutions, fed today by the warp-speed propaganda machine of social media, joins with binary thinking in which things and people must be either good or bad. Big Pharma, we know, is a corporate rip-off racket that overcharges for their products and turns entire populations into opioid addicts. Big Pharma’s COVID-19 vaccines, therefore, are not to be trusted. Binary thinking denies the possibility that Big Pharma might lie to us in one case and tell the truth in another. Choosing simplicity over complexity, as humans so often do, many people fall into the trap of throwing out the baby, as the saying goes, with the bath water.

Modern medicine, though much improved, remains imperfect. Doctors and hospitals and insurance companies in the United States, the epicentre of the anti-vax upsurge, are profit-seekers in a capitalist healthcare system. Institutions of all sorts deserve skeptical scrutiny of their activities.

All of that is true.

It is also true that non-treatment of many illnesses, combined with whatever spiritualist naturopathic dietary hocus-pocus you wish, will probably lead to recovery as well as most over-the-counter potions that simply suppress symptoms.

It is also true, however, that mRNA vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID infections and mitigating their severity, while crystals, yoga, “natural immunity,” and anti-oxidants are not.

The common cold is not COVID-19. Recognizing the difference between them may make the difference in saving your life and the lives of those around you. If you have not done so already, get vaccinated!

American Ozymandias

(With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I met a traveller from an antique land
who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
lie in the undergrowth. Near them, a man’s
bearded face, half-buried, frowns
or sadly stares at ruins once so grand.
Shattered inscriptions can be read
whose noble aspiration rings—
With malice toward none, one said.
Whether that nation . . . can endure.
These broken words still sing,
though feebly, into the empty air.
Nothing else remains. Round that decay
the vegetation spreads, lush—yet bare—
all evidence of humans swept away.”

Arnold Nash: Reason is not a neutral principle

A historian on the American side of the Atlantic received a fitting rebuke to his implied assumption that to be outside a particular tradition made an unbiased view of controversial questions possible. In conducting the oral examination of a Mormon student who was submitting a Ph.D. thesis on a particular period of Mormon history, the historian asked the student if he, being a Mormon, considered himself sufficiently unprejudiced to write a thesis on Mormon history. The somewhat daring student appositely remarked, “Yes, if you, not a Mormon, consider yourself unprejudiced enough to examine it.” 

This implicit assumption that the rationalist can transcend all bias and achieve an impartial perspective is not limited to his dicta on religion. He feels the same way about politics. Thus he has no difficulty in rejecting the Nazi or the Marxist philosophy in the name of Reason. He fails to see that it is in the name of reason as he understands it. To those who maintain that there is no common rational ground on which the democrat and the Nazi can resolve their theoretical differences he replies, with W. T. Stace, that “in that case, our preference for democracy, we shall have to admit, is in the end nothing but an irrational prejudice.” This reply rests upon a completely mistaken understanding of the function of reason in human thought and life. Each system, whether Nazi, or Marxist, or liberal, or rationalist, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Hindu, has its own view of Reason. Reason, therefore, is not a neutral principle which can be appealed to in favour of one rather than another of the competing systems. An illuminating parallel is that of language. It is impossible to describe a language except in terms of a particular language, for there is no language which is a “neutral.” 

Arnold S. Nash, The University and the Modern World (1944), pp. 93-94

So . . . Is Arnold’s claim simple relativism? Or is he on to something here?

Epicurus (341–270 BC), a hep cat

For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to help people attain a happy (eudaimonic), tranquil life characterized by ataraxia (peace and freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of pain). He advocated that people were best able to pursue philosophy by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviors, and hypocrisy. . . . He taught that people should behave ethically not because the gods punish or reward people for their actions, but because amoral behavior will burden them with guilt and prevent them from attaining ataraxia.

—From Wikipedia

So right, so long ago, and so many still haven’t figured it out.

Turgenev on Tolstoy

In August 1856 Turgenev left for France and he met Tolstoy several times in Paris. “Tolstoy speaks of Paris as Sodom and Gomorrah,” Turgenev wrote. “He is a blend of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, and landowner’s son—somewhat reminiscent of Rousseau—a highly moral and at the same time an uncongenial being.”

—V.S. Pritchett, The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev

Montaigne’s wisdom

La plus expresse marque de la sagesse, c’est vne esiouissance constante: son estat est comme des choses au dessus de la lune, tousiours serein.

—Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Volume One, Chapter 25

Wikiquote.org offers this English translation: “The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.”

If Montaigne were writing English today, however, he would not produce such a sentence. I prefer to think he would write something like this:

A cheerful calm, constant as stars in the darkness, is the surest sign of wisdom.

Robinson Crusoe’s father on the advantages of being middle-class

“He told me it was men of desperate fortunes on one hand, or of aspiring, superior fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon adventures, to rise by enterprise, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road; that these things were all either too far above me or too far below me; that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind [i.e, the working poor], and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind. He told me I might judge of the happiness of this state by this one thing—viz., that this was the state of life which all other people envied; that kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things, and wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean and the great; that the wise man gave his testimony to this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed to have neither poverty nor riches.

“He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.”

—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719), Chapter 1

James Lovelock: “Gaia may destroy humans before we destroy the Earth”

In an article published in The Guardian, 102-year-old James Lovelock warns that the Earth may destroy us before we succeed in destroying the Earth.

Along with Lynn Margulis, Lovelock in the 1970s popularized the “Gaia hypothesis”—the idea that the Earth and its inhabitants form a single complex interactive system. I remember thinking, “Well, of course!” when I first read of this idea half a century ago, but apparently it remains, somehow, controversial.

“I don’t know if it is too late for humanity to avert a climate catastrophe,” Lovelock writes, “but I am sure there is no chance if we continue to treat global heating and the destruction of nature as separate problems.”

He also mentions nuclear power:

But we should also not become over-reliant on renewable power, which will leave us with an energy gap. We need to build more nuclear power stations to overcome that, though the greens will first have to get over their overblown fears of radiation.

To which I say . . . well, of course!

I strongly recommend the entire article. And, Dr. Lovelock: thank you!

The Vertigo Plan for diet and fitness

This revolutionary approach to diet and fitness will transform your body, and your life.

We begin with the vertigo attack—or rather, attacks. This involves at least a week of absolute misery: dizziness, followed by nausea, sweats, and violent vomiting. One’s desire to eat disappears entirely, and thus the path to a healthier diet begins. Being completely dysfunctional, you arrive one way or another in the local hospital’s emergency room. Once they have taken blood and given you an EKG to be sure that you are not in immediate danger of death (although death, at this point, begins to look mighty attractive indeed), you sit—and sit—and sit, waiting to see the doctor. During this time, you continue to have intermittent attacks, groaning piteously and finally dry-heaving (your stomach has been empty for hours now) into whatever receptacle they provide for you.

At last you see the doctor, who tells you that you probably have ordinary vertigo so it’s nothing to worry about too much, and then sends you back to the waiting room with an IV drip of saline solution (to treat your dehydration) and then dramamine (to treat your nausea). During these hours in the ER waiting room you eventually realize, through hard experience, that trying to take your mind off your misery by consulting your smartphone or reading the book that you cleverly brought with you is a grave, grave error. Why? Because every such attempt at diversion simply triggers another body-wrenching attack. Before you figure this out, however, you have more attacks, they give you more dramamine which has no effect whatsoever, and then they tell you that they want to find you a bed and keep you overnight and give you a CT scan, just in case. Sending the patient home only to have him drop dead of a stroke seems to be bad form in the hospital biz.

Depending on what time of day you arrive in the cardiac ward, you may wait several more hours (or overnight) for your first meal since . . . well, you can’t remember since when. With that meal, when it finally arrives, comes another revelation: the portion sizes are Lilliputian. Imagine eating with a child’s plastic tea set for dishes, and you will have the right idea. Miraculously, this modest, thimble-sized repast leaves you . . . quite satisfied. Then it dawns on you: however sane, natural, organic, or vegetarian your diet may have been until now, you have been eating way too much!

Assuming that your CT scan is satisfactory (“Your CT scan is beautiful!” said the nurse. “You are very kind,” I replied, “but I still feel terrible.”) you will receive another visit from a different doctor who will explain all about vertigo and what you need to do going forward, and will give you a prescription that might help you. Vertigo is a wonder of 21st century medicine in that no one seems to know what causes it, the treatment works only variably, no one knows how to prevent it, and it may recur at any moment. 

Once you arrive home, a word of advice: do not, I say, do not under any circumstances take your rest on a soft, bouncy bed. If you are like me, the jiggling produced merely by shifting your weight or turning from one side to the other will bring on another round of spinning, nausea, and sweats, and soon you will find yourself on hands and knees, crawling toward the bathroom in the dark. Take my advice and sleep on the floor. I mean it.

We are nearing, now, the fitness component of this revolutionary plan for rejuvenation. Take note of all the things you cannot do. You cannot read, or use the computer, or look at your smartphone. You cannot walk about. You cannot do dishes, or put a load of laundry in the washing machine, or clean the bathroom (though it likely needs it). It is easier to say what you can do. You can sit, with eyes closed, or lie down (on the floor!) with eyes closed. You can listen to music, or to the radio, or to an audiobook. You can nap. You can sleep. Just barely, you can eat a Lilliputian portion of food three or four times a day, to take with your pill. And . . . you can exercise! 

Yes! Lying on the floor, as you listen to whatever you are listening to, you can do leg lifts, first from your right side, then your left, then from your back. You can stretch your hamstrings, your quads, and whatever else you wish. You can lie on your back, bring your knees up, and then push your pelvis up into the air, holding it there as long as you like. You can do isometric exercises of your biceps and triceps, and of other things as well, no doubt.

When you book an appointment with the physiotherapist, you will be shown another series of exercises designed to rehabilitate your vestibular system (notice, too, the good effect of this dreadful ordeal on your vocabulary!) which you can add to your home exercise regime. 

By the time your vertigo recedes, God willing, you will have transformed your life, and your body. You will be slimmer. You will be spending one-half or one-third of what you previously spent on food. You will be strong, and supple. You will have utterly broken whatever social media addictions you may have suffered under previously, and the thought of spending any more time than absolutely necessary on a computer or a smartphone will be abhorrent. You will want, instead, to take walks, during which you marvel at the mundane miracle of being able to walk without falling down. Filled with soul-cleansing gratitude, you will marvel, too, at similar mundane miracles: flowers, trees, clouds, children, dogs, and people in all their mundane variety.

And you will owe all these blessings to the Vertigo Plan.