Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Note for Readers

I want to thank both Readers today, for coming back to this journal and for taking the time to read my thoughts and observations. Thanks are in order, also, for your occasional comments and encouragement.

Many others keep journals and quite sensibly keep them private. Often I think I'd be better off doing the same. After all, I am keenly aware that not everything I write here is worth reading.

But unlike you, Dear Reader, I have no choice but to return here, day after day. I have to write everything that you see here, but fortunately you are not obligated to read it all.

To use an analogy that resonates with another side of my character, my hope it is that it's less like a plated dinner and more like a buffet. Just eat what looks good and leave the rest.

Thanks for eat...erm, reading!

The Riot of Life

It's not much of a meadow, really.

That is, when compared with the 'real' meadows that inspired Thoreau or Emerson or Whitman, this little patch of Texas grass and where I sit to write is quite modest, to say the least. There is no Walden Pond here.

In fact, where I sit is really nothing more than a rainwater collection pond. The city built it back when this neighborhood was developed some thirty years ago. It was designed to prevent Williamson Creek, which runs the length of the greenbelt that defines one edge of this neighborhood, from flooding.

There are many such 'ponds' in and around Austin. Ninety nine percent of the time, they are empty. Many are elaborately built concrete boxes and channels designed to funnel water off of impervious cover like parking lots. But this one is made for flood control in a neighborhood so it's just a simple ditch, really. It's about the size of a football field, with inner sloping sides about twelve feet deep.

These ponds are here in large part because as a community, Austin has been more conscious of the relationship between people and the land we live on. Here in Central Texas, we live right on top of the Edwards Aquifer, from which we derive a great deal of our water, even if we don't realize it.

It is easy to think of the water above ground, in lakes and rivers and even little 'sometimes' streams like Williamson Creek, but in fact most of the water used for agricultural irrigation, and a lot of what we drink here in Central Texas, is out of sight. It gets pumped out of the Edwards Aquifer.

These 'ponds' then, are actually collection places for rainwater. When we get a heavy rain, water collects in these boxes, channels and ditches. It builds up briefly before being filtered through the limestone below. Eventually, most of the water is passed directly into the Aquifer instead of channeling it into the waste-water collection system and from there into Town Lake.

But from where I sit, this empty 'pond' is anything but simple. This place is a literal riot of life.

The first thing I notice are the flowers. There are at least a dozen varieties of wildflowers and this is at the beginning of Summer. A month ago, during our 'Spring' there must have been fifty varieties of flowers in bloom out here. It was a record year for the bluebonnets, and they were just the first to show their heads.

The insect life is even more overwhelming. In spite of recent evidence that there are likely fewer insects in the world that we once thought, there are still plenty of them to go around.

Today is the day of the butterfly. A hundred thousand or more of the tiniest yellow butterfly imaginable pump the jagged surfaces of the flowers and grass with crazy uninhibited motion. Not one seems to be inclined to alight on a flower in the morning sunshine. They swoop and dive in the morning air as if to dry off the dew from their wings before breakfast.

These butterflies are merely the most visible of the insects. Besides the tiny yellow butterflies, there are white, brown and golden ones as well. I know that even more exotic and elaborate creatures are here as well.

As soon as I sit down, I a single miniature blue dragonfly hovers in the weeds not a foot from Loki's nose. Flies and bees and beetles are also hard to miss. The ants are here too, a zillion of them. And, don't get me started on the mosquitos, as they have already started in on me. That's just those that I can see. As a boy, I know from experience that many, many more bugs are also hard at work out there, tending to their tiny territories like indefatigable itinerant farmers.

Then there are the birds. Mostly I can just hear them, hiding in the branches of the trees surrounding the meadow, calling to one another and plotting their day's assault on the insects below. The littlest birds are already at work, darting above and through the grass jungle, snaring breakfast out of the air from the giant writhing mass that are the butterflies.

There are mammals here too, but for the moment, Loki and I are the only two that are actually visible. Loki keeps an eye out for the others, but this morning there are no squirrels, possums or even other dogs to entertain him. I have seen plenty of raccoons and even deer out here, but at this moment, they have already had the good sense to retreat to the darkest parts of the brush. The sun is rising rapidly in the sky.

There are numerous small copses of oak and mesquite that surround this meadow, but mostly what I see out here is grass. There must be a thousand varieties of grass in this tiny meadow alone. It seems boring at first glance. It is, after all, just grass. But this grass sustains all this other life, including me and Loki.

He is most anxious for me to quit writing and start walking again, but he will only have to wait a few more minutes. At eight am, it's is already hot.

As we walk, my eyes are drawn down to the flowers. It is hard to distinguish the 'wildflowers' from the grasses because so many of the grasses also have wonderful wildflowers. These flowers are either so tiny or so briefly present that we notice them only when they are in vast numbers. This morning, the flowering grasses are certainly here in number. They create a not-so-subtle background wash for those big and bright sex advertisements that are the more noticeable and similarly promiscuous wildflowers.

The butterflies are almost indistinguishable from the flowers and grass where they live and procreate. They are like flying flowers. Their shapes and colors are identical and in some ways interchangeable; they are sex on the wing.

It's all about sex and reproduction. It's hard not to notice just how intense and relentless life is, even in this place.

This is comforting to know, in such a real sense, for in the back of my mind is the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I will not poison this essay with many of my thoughts and feelings about that incident. That, as the saying goes, "is another story".

That said, however, as dismayed, angered and hurt as I am about the oil pouring into the Gulf for the past six weeks; as sick as I am to consider how much damage will be done, how much life--again, including us--that will perish as a result of this act of cowardly act of hubris; in spite of all this, I still have some hope.

Seeing this meadow--just simply being here now, to see how even this artificially sculpted and 're-purposed' landscape has been claimed and dominated by the riot of life gives me cause, for the moment, to be hopeful.

Why? Because life, that beautiful riot, is relentless.

I don't think life ever relinquishes even the tiniest morsel of the planet. This relentless drive to conquer may well be what saves even hypocrites like us from the ever bigger and even more lethal environmental disasters sure to come.

If I have another hope, it is that the foolish and willfully destructive corporate institutions of Man that bring about these disasters are not nearly so resilient as the hundred of millions of lives that they threaten.

The Gulf of Mexico will eventually recover. Let's hope that BP does not.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Deny, deny, deny

We are all hypocrites.

And no, I don't just mean those of us that claim to be pissed off about the BP Gulf oil spill while idling their SUV's in line at Starbucks. I mean all of us, and that includes me.

The simple fact is that no matter no hard we try, there is just no way that we can ever avoid hypocrisy. It could be described as a fundamental law of human nature.

Everyone is hypocritical. And not just some of the time. We are all hypocritical all of the time.

How could it be otherwise? No one ever does, no one ever can do exactly what they say they will.

Why? Because doing exactly what we say one will do is impossible. Something, sometime, somewhere always interferes with our intentions. The result is always different than the intent.

I said always, and I mean it.

What's more, we all know this to be true from daily experience and yet still we deny it daily. We all know that in every endeavor we've ever undertaken, no matter how carefully we planned, the end result was always different than the expected outcome. We always fail.

Sometimes this failure--this discrepancy between what should have been and what is--is simply too small to notice. Furthermore, it wouldn't matter if we noticed the difference or not. That's because even if it is just a matter of a fraction of a degree or a millionth of a nanosecond or a trillionth of a centimeter, all results, all end products are always different from the expectation that brought them into being.

We proceed through life as if avoiding hypocrisy was our most fervent intention. We expect to do what we say, and we expect others to live up to the ideals we think we hold dear. To be free from all hypocrisy is one of our most basic moral intentions, yet in this intention we fail, and not just often but always. In complete denial, we try again and again, daily, even hourly, as if our memory was continually being wiped, as if our most recent failure was recalled as a complete success. Deny, deny deny.

That's not so surprising, really. Denial is what we humans do.

We change our history, we change our art and we change our literature and our monuments, all to suit our denials of hypocrisy. Historians lie about their subjects--sacred or profane; artists lie about their intentions--lofty or debased; and everyone lies about sex--good and bad.

People lie without knowing or intending to. We mangle eyewitness accounts. We mis-remember our childhoods, forget people's names and make mental mistakes all the time.

Sometimes these mistakes are fatal. Sometimes the patient dies. Sometimes the plane crashes. But these kinds of things happen only once in a billion-billion times.

Or do they?

Certainly it is fair to say that the fatal mistakes are rare enough, but absent self-awareness, most of us are unlikely to emerge from the fog of denial about the hypocrisy that is inevitably present in even our most mundane actions. The problem with this arises when we punish ourselves for even--or especially--these continued transgressions. We think of ourselves as failures, weak-willed or incapable of adequate planning.

In the face of failure--both great and small--if we have any moral capacity, we tell ourselves--and others--that we will do better next time. However, even though we know that to be true, unless we change the way we think about hypocrisy, we are simply setting ourselves up for failure once again.

It's a vicious cycle, obviously--this process of denial and punishment--even if it's not always or immediately fatal. At best, wrapping ourselves in lies means that we are constantly engaging in mental self-flagellation. At worst, constant denial of our hypocritical nature is a slow form of moral self-destruction--a death by a thousand tiny cuts.

Now, self-flagellation wouldn't be so bad if the pain led us to an awareness that hypocrisy is not not so deserving of punishment as we might think. Sadly, self-destruction, on the other hand, is what actually happens to most of us.

So, what's the point?

Are we simply doomed to an endless vicious cycle? Well, perhaps. Many people are. But it needn't be that way. It's a matter of attitude and perception. If we could ever manage to convince ourselves that it's ok to be a hypocrite (most of the time, anyway), we might not be so hard on ourselves. Those cuts will heal.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On Hypocrisy

We are all

hypocrites
schizophrenics
hoarders
lovers
warriors
eaters
wearers
hunters
gatherers
born
dying

our own storytellers.

Straining Credulity

If a tree falls...

I know, it is one of those elementary mind benders, perhaps the very first paradox that I can recall wrestling with long before I had any idea that it was a philosophical pursuit. Like the notions of molecular motion and space that is really time (and matter too) the question of persistence was first posed to me by my brother Stephen, who was home from college and more than happy to blow my little but open and eager mind with these simple yet delightfully difficult philosophical concepts.

By persistence, I am referring to the notion that things, matter and the arrangements thereof, persist, or continue to exist, even when there is no human consciousness to perceive them. Two books that I am reading deal with this question in quite different ways. As a result, I am finally to a point where, if I am to have any hope of assembling my own thoughts and musings into a world view, I have to make some hard choices.

I finally have to decide if that damn tree makes a sound or not.

The first of these books is Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy where, although he acknowledges the fact that philosophical inquiry must question human perception as well as physical phenomena, he also argues for persistence and the fact that

Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world and show the strangeness and wonder lying below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.

Of course, I'll never know for sure, such is the nature of the question, but at 53, after lo these many years of contemplating those 'commonest things' I am finally ready to stand.

It makes a sound. Matter persists.

As much as I would like to believe in the anthropic principle--that is, the idea that human consciousness is in fact the defining characteristic of matter--I cannot agree with the central assumption of this principle which holds that that without human perception no thing exists.

It is not as logical as Robert Lanza and Bob Berman would like make it sound in their recent best-selling defense of the anthropic principle, Biocentrism.

They write of a "solar system and universe so exact that it strains credulity to propose that they are random--even if that is exactly what standard contemporary physics baldly suggests."

As neat and efficient as a 'biocentric' answer might be, what really strains credulity is this idea--supposedly grounded in 'common sense'--that life is no coincidence or worse, that the Universe is the 'true' or 'real' purpose of human consciousness.

In fact, common sense actually tells us that it can't be that easy. Even if the 'standard contemporary physics' does not have all the answers (that still-elusive 'Theory of Everything'), to me, the more challenging and interesting questions arise from that very sense of uncertainty.

Don't take my word for it. Many actual physicists, according to Anil Ananthaswamy in The Edge of Physics, hold simply that 'biocentricism' is nothing more than a 'cop-out' which conveniently avoids having to explain "all things from first principles."

I think that 'biocentrism' is the very opposite of a logical explanation. Even by another name, this notion sounds suspiciously like a philosophy that would replace genetics with eugenics.

Common sense, when it comes to physics or philosophy, is often just a lazy way out of ignorance.

We have only to recall that at one time, most people believed that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. Many millions or billions of people--perhaps even a majority of those alive today--believe in a sentient and often personal god (or gods) who knows them and cares for them as individuals. Many people believe in 'creationism' and deny global warming, for the same reason.

Indeed, it takes far less work to explain things as they seem to be in order to avoid actually 'straining credulity'. And yet, if credulity were the only measure, and say, evolution is still up for debate, why aren't 'flat-earthism' or 'geocentrism' still widely held beliefs? Or, are they, Mr. Beck?

For me, the question of persistence not up for debate. Say, did you hear that tree fall?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Yellow Curbs and Green Lawns

They are painting the curbs here on campus this week. Commencement time has come again.

There are two moments on the academic calendar every year that form the two defining peaks of most college graduates' academic careers: Orientation and Commencement.

At these two moments the emotions are the purest, the least encumbered by reality and fate. At these two moments, all bets are off, the world is open and the possibilities are endless.

Leaving aside the experience of Orientation not least because not every student goes through it, it will suffice to say that there is still a moment in every student's career when, newly admitted to the Institution, they are 'fresh'. They as yet have no marks, either for or against them. At this unique moment new students feel--if only for that brief moment--that the possibilities before them are, if not limitless, varied enough to inspire an unashamed excitement and foster an emerging ambition.

This inspiration and ambition, if a bit artificial, are good things, too, or there would be no chance of an average student surviving the journey on which he or she is embarking. The deep trough that is the educational experience is considerable, and rising to the peak on the other side is no small accomplishment.

Commencement, the springtime celebration of that collective accomplishment here at the University, has, as it always does, come round again. And I am, as much ever, energized by it.

Why the good mood? Well, for a few short days in May, the campus has a wonderfully festive air about it. I welcome it because it brings both an emotional change of pace and a physical renewal of our environment.

For example, every year--no matter what the fiscal situation of the University might be (and it is forever dire)-- in addition to the freshly-painted curbs, we always see the South Lawn freshly re-sodded in early May. It appears as if overnight, though I know it always takes a couple of weeks, like the assembly of the metal risers and the massive stage that also 'magically' appear on the South Mall at the same time.

The bright green new South Lawn is surrounded by yellow warning tape until the evening of Commencement. This year there is a new set of even brighter orange stanchions with shiny black plastic chains preserving the virgin grass for the parade of graduates to come next week.

Then, on the evening of Commencement, that horde will march the South Lawn into near submission as they make their collective way up to the South Mall for fireworks and blessings from the President.

By this time, all those in attendance should have already received their 'fake' diplomas on a stage in their College with their Dean, so the march up the South Lawn for the final benediction is simply symbolic. It is an important symbol nonetheless.

It's a great day for students and staff alike. The graduates get their degrees and a special moment of empowerment. We get all that great energy, plus freshly painted curbs and a slightly worn but green South Lawn for the summer. Hook 'Em!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dog and Me

There is an end to time.

Here in this meadow at dusk
with the dog
we sit apart
together in time
with time
to walk back
for dinner.

In the meadow I think:
Is the table there?

At table I think:
Is there a meadow?

We'll go and check
tomorrow
the dog and me.

If we find it
we'll sit apart
together in time
with time
to walk back
for dinner.

The Bibliotheque Humaine

Books are dead! Long live books!

Though I am, as usual, late to the party, I have begun to explore the world of e-books. The definition of an 'e-book' is still a bit vague these days, but that's what makes the subject interesting to me.

That and the fact that there are gadgets in involved.

We live in what is arguably the most interesting time to be a writer since Gutenberg, and quite possibly since writing itself was invented. And it's not just because gadgets are involved.

Technology--specifically, the internet, or cloud--has fundamentally altered the way in which writing is being produced and consumed. In the same way that the printing press marked the change from a manuscript to a codex culture, the creation of the cloud marks the change from a codex to a digital culture.

And, thanks to my Ipad, I am right in the center of it.

Well ok, I don't actually have an Ipad. Furthermore, even though the intense gadget lust is hard to deny, I really don't want an Ipad. Really. I actually want a Google Tablet.

Of course, no such object exists, yet, but it will. Come fall there will be a proliferation of e-reader devices of many sizes, shapes, thicknesses and, of course, costs, but right now, there are blissfully few. In fact, there are just four so far: the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader and the Ipad. Of these, the Ipad isn't really an 'e-reader' because it relies on transmitted rather than reflected light.

That is, three 'e-readers' listed above (there are more being introduced every day, it seems) are very much like a book in that you really can't use them without a light source. These readers use what is being called 'e-ink' to display the letters on a neutral white background. In many ways, e-ink is as close to ink on a paper page as you can get from an electric display. Although the 'page' is an electronic screen, the surface is non-glare, so the problem of reflection is greatly reduced and thus e-readers are considered to be easier and less fatiguing to use for long periods of time.

Obviously, electronic screens, whether using e-ink or non-glare glass will never have the same reflective qualities as paper, but it's far easier to read when you are not dealing with the polished glass and bright light that characterizes all the Istuff...Iphones, Ipods, the Ipad.

Now, before you think that having to have a light source to use an e-reader is an inconvenience, consider for a moment if that's ever occurred to you before with an actual book. Did you ever say to yourself, 'Gee, this book is useless because I can't read it in the dark?'

Eventually however, the difference between reflected versus transmitted light will prove to be a trivial difference. It's a preference really, as the new age of digital publishing emerges from the cloud.

Light is the common denominator. If you really think about it, this will be the first time in human history that so much light has been used to transmit so many words from eye to eye, and thence from mind to mind. Great though they have been--and will continue to be, for this essay is no book obituary--books have ever been prisoners of their own covers, bindings and the shelves upon which they sit.

I can't help but recall how books have changed, even in my lifetime.

Both Readers of this journal know that I was raised in a bookstore, the child of serious book people. But few will know that while studying at the American College in Paris in the mid 1970's, I was once permitted what my parents would have considered to be the 'ultimate' library experience: the Bibliotheque Nationale (BN). As a naive youth, I failed to understand the luxury I was afforded at the time, going to the BN armed with letters from my Professor and a Dean of the College to do some research for a paper.

Accustomed as I was to the American library system, nothing could have seemed more stringent and less conducive to doing research than trying to get a book from the BN. In fact, I couldn't really 'get' a book from the BN back then, and I'm sure it's no different today.

I came to the Library at my appointed time, with a list of the three books that I hoped to look at. I could pick just three books, and they had to be chosen in advance. There was no going through the card catalog--that simply wasn't open to the 'public'. Yes indeed, even though I had a legitimate pass to get my books, I was still considered to be a member of the 'public' and was therefore not entitled to do more than examine three books of my choice.

I entered the building with considerable anxiety, not the least of which was due to my still-poor French. I overcame this fright and made my way to the imposingly high counter at the back of a great hall. After waiting my turn (always, in France, there is a wait), I presented my hand-written list to the clerk.

He looked over my letter and me with some amusement and no small disdain, it seemed to me. I was anything but a legitimate scholar, but my papers seemed to be in order. My list was taken and I was instructed to sit on a bench nearby and wait. After a half hour or so, the clerk returned with two of my three choices. The third was simply not available, and no explanation was due me in any case. I took my two volumes to a carrel in the great hall and pretended to read them.

Now, today, I have no memory of what the books were, though I do know I was writing a paper on Romanesque sculpture in southern France. What I recall most was the marked difference between my experience at the old BN, and going to the newly opened public library in the Centre George Pompidou. Many Parisians openly hated the 'Beaubourg' (as it came to be called derisively) because it looks like an industrial plant rather than a cultural center, but many more secretly hated it for the change in culture that it represented.

Public libraries, as we know them in America, at least, do exist in France, but were most uncommon when I was there. A public library such as that which opened in the Beaubourg in 1976 was a relatively new and even 'radical' concept for the French at the time.

And, although there was some real fear among the aging intellectual elite of 'La France' that homeless bums would take up residence in the library or worse, that the 'unwashed' public simply couldn't be trusted not to carve up and mutilate the books once permitted to handle them freely, in fact neither of these--nor any of the other--dire consequences resulted from this uncharacteristic French loosening of control.

As an American college student, used to 'free' and 'public' libraries, I was amused at what seemed to be a non-event. After all, I reasoned, we've had them for years, thanks to Dale Carenegie, right?

Perhaps, but now, years later, I see that, although our libraries are indeed public, even with all their open and free catalogs, most of the knowledge, most of the information, most of the power in those books is still locked up almost as securely as the dusty tomes in the back rooms of the Bibliotheque Nationale.

By creating the cloud and populating it with words, we will have finally wedged open the great door to La Bibliotheque Humaine. We are at last allowing light-- reflected or transmitted--to fall upon the words we all own. Questions of commerce and copyright will be forever changed of course. But, whether we know it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, these words, all of them, are our human legacy and after many centuries they are inexorably emerging into the light.

The power of words is not and shall not henceforth be restrained by mere ink and paper.