The Three Fates

We had Chinese food last week. Which means we got fortune cookies.

3 Cookies

I feel like they should be singing “Three Little Maids from school are we . . .”

Three fortune cookies. For the two of us. Now, on some level I take that as a judgment passed by the restaurant on the quantity of food we order — “Jesus, there’s no way only two people could eat this much! Must be three of them.” (They’re half right, by the way; two people couldn’t eat that much at one sitting. We also had enough for a leftover lunch.) — and on another level, I think it likely that the person who put the box of food together reached into the barrel of cookies and grabbed a random handful.

But it could also be fate. Maybe there are three paths my future could follow. Maybe there is one path, and these mark three momentous moments along the way.

I decided I was going to write about it, to bring you along as I discover what the Fates have in store for me, what my future holds. What is my fortune?

Plus, yesterday I found two pennies — one head’s up, one head’s down. I’m taking that as a sign that the future hangs in the balance, that it could go any way; now is the time to chart my path through these rocks and shoals, between this Scylla and Charybdis.

I'm probably going to use this image a lot.

I’m probably going to use this image a lot.

 

And these little cookies will be my map, my compass, my guide.

"Filled to the brim with girlish glee . . ."

“Filled to the brim with girlish glee . . .”

 

I don’t think it’s a good sign, by the way, that they have little cartoon pandas on them. I hate pandas.

(I like this one.)

But they are from New York, and so am I. So maybe that balances, too.

Now: which one first? Which shell holds the pea? Where’s the red queen?

Middle one? Sounds good. Here we go.

Dammit! No pea. This game sucks.

Dammit! No pea. This game sucks.

 

ALL progress? Are you sure about that, Cookie Panda? THEN WHY AREN'T YOU DIFFERENT FROM YOUR TWO FRIENDS?!?

ALL progress? Are you sure about that, Cookie Panda? THEN WHY AREN’T YOU DIFFERENT FROM YOUR TWO FRIENDS?!?

 

Hmm. All progress occurs because people dare to be different.

Okay, I like that. I like the idea that progress can be made, and that people can be different, and that it takes some daring to do that, both to stand out and to move forward. I hope that this applies to me. I know that I am indeed different, and probably different in a manner and on a scale that goes beyond the “Well, everyone’s different, aren’t they?” I think I am probably different in certain areas where most other people conform. I am an artist. I am childless but for my animals. I have been in a devoted relationship for more than half of my life. All of these are probably outside of the status quo, and they are some of my defining characteristics.

Do I create progress? Am I progressing? I think I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago; I know I’m a better teacher. Is it because I’m different?

The cookie says so.

All right, off to a good start. Let’s see what’s next. Left side, or right side? Hmmm — right is more common, right-handed being more frequent than left; so let’s be different and make progress. Left is right!

Big bucks no Whammies no Whammies no Whammies . . . .STOP!

 

"It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right. . . I hope you had the prime of your life."

“It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right. . . I hope you had the prime of your life.”

 

“Be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of life it may occur.”

You know what I like about this? It’s in the future tense. I like that. It means I haven’t hit my prime yet. It’s still ahead of me. Yeah, that’s cool.

But wait: that means that everything I’ve done up until now has not been good enough, has not been connected to my prime. 41 years, and I haven’t stopped sucking yet? That seems less good.

Let’s go straight to #3. I noticed that panda was grinning at me. Maybe he’s just screwing with my head. Let’s try — crap, he’s smiling too. Are these all tongue in cheek? Has my prime already occurred, and I didn’t recognize it, and now the cookie is rubbing my nose in the long slow slide into mediocrity that is my future? Maybe the first cookie was saying I haven’t been the impetus behind any progress, because I’m not different enough. Dammit, why didn’t I get more tattoos and maybe some ear gauges?

All right, Right Cookie: hook me up.

DUSTY SMASH!! . . . a small sugar cookie that never did nothing to nobody.

DUSTY SMASH!! . . . a small sugar cookie that never did nothing to nobody.

 

Changed that cookie's destiny, didn't I?

Changed that cookie’s destiny, didn’t I?

 

Seriously? What are you trying to say, that — I’m in charge of this? Are you telling me that what comes is up to me? That however I interpret these cookies is the answer, that if I see them as negative, then they are? And if I see them as positive, they are? And that whatever I choose, I can also change, at any time, and doing so will change the path I am on?

IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE SAYING?!?

Fortune Change
Huh. You know, I like that. That’s a good cookie.
Or maybe they were just trying to tell me chocolate skiing vegetable, all along.

Good to know my lucky numbers are 14, 21, 16, 42, 32, 11, 49, 32, 28, 38, 7, 43, 29, 37, 38, 39, 16, and 35!  Surely there's a lottery ticket somewhere with that many options.

Good to know my lucky numbers are 14, 21, 16, 42, 32, 11, 49, 32, 28, 38, 7, 43, 29, 37, 38, 39, 16, and 35! Surely there’s a lottery ticket somewhere with that many options.

 

The Wisdom of the Ancients has been spoken.

No Art, No Peace

I am generally opposed to the standardization of education (which puts me, amusingly, in line with much of the GOP), but here’s a wish: if schools had all used the same curriculum when I started teaching that they use now, then Toni and I might have known better than to move to Oregon.

We’ve talked about this before, about whether moving there was a mistake. Because Oregon was bad for us. There were some good things: we made some friends; we bought a house and learned some of the treats and tricks of homeownership; it was a good home for our dog, Charlie; and we found our beloved mutant cockatiel Duncan there. But for the most part: the school where I worked for ten years was badly run and badly funded; the community was largely an ignorant backwoods that offered rednecks and mudding as its entertainments, Wal-Mart and Fred Meyers as its shopping; the weather was – I need something beyond “bad” here. Because the issue with the weather wasn’t that it was wet, or that it rained a lot; I grew up in Massachusetts, where it rains and snows and sleets a lot, and Toni is from the rainy section of California, so rain is not the issue. Bad weather is not the issue. But the weather in Oregon is not just bad; it is tortuous. The clouds descend, and seem to wrap around the world, from horizon to horizon; and then they do not leave for the better part of a year. There is nothing at that time in Oregon – not people, places, nor things – that is not coated and permeated with mud or mold. Everything is cold, everything is miserable; the natural world seems to want to curl up and disappear into itself, and you want to go too.

We spent ten largely unhappy years there, and came out no better than we went in, having gained nothing but – character. I’ll say that; Oregon builds character. Oh – and I won teacher of the year. And almost had my teaching license stripped from me in a four-year bureaucratic ordeal worthy of Kafka or Orwell, that earned me the new title of “morally reprehensible.”

We don’t regret moving to Oregon, because there were good parts, and because every place has bad parts. But it would be a good world if we had never moved there. And that world might have existed if I had taught William Carlos Williams’s poem “Raleigh Was Right” back in Escondido, California, in 2003.

The poem is the third in a series, which forms a conversation between three (Actually several; but three are directly connected to this) poets separated by about 350 years and an ocean – and by death. The conversation started with Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” a poem in which a starry-eyed (actually sheepy-eyed) shepherd asks a nameless woman to come live with him and be his love. As an inducement he offers her a variety of gifts, all drawn from the natural world – beds of roses, a cap of flowers, a kirtle embroidered with myrtle. He also says they will sit on rocks and watch the shepherds feed their flocks, which tells you something about this guy’s standard of entertainment. The poem is a quintessential example of the pastoral tradition, mythologizing the Good Old Days Back in the Countryside, when everything was simple and everyone was happy sleeping on beds of roses and watching sheep eat. Marlowe got ripped for his youthful idealism (and his writing style, but that’s neither here nor there) by the older, jaded explorer/pirate/courtier/poet, Sir Walter Raleigh, who wrote “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” Raleigh’s poem has that nameless woman rejecting the shepherd’s advances because she can’t take the naivete represented in an offer of love that comes with a cap made of flowers and the chance to sit on rocks; she also tells him that she thinks he’s full of crap (“If all the world and love were young/And truth on every shepherd’s tongue/These pretty pleasures might me move/To live with thee and by thy love.” The key word is “if.”) and she wouldn’t take his offer if he were the last man on Earth. Raleigh won the argument, mainly because both poems were published several years after Marlowe’s death (Which, I have to say, pretty much means that Raleigh loses the moral argument. Because arguing with a dead man is pretty low. But I won’t stoop to repeat his mistake. I’ll let Dr. Williams do it for me.), but that wasn’t the end of it; poets from John Donne to Robert Herrick to Ogden Nash have piled on to poor dead Kit Marlowe, mocking his poem and his theme. William Carlos Williams seems to have been the exclamation point, the last one to stick his nose in and say, “Yeah, what he said!”

But the aspect of the poem I am thinking of is not the whole nymph/shepherd/Marlowe/Raleigh thing. It’s the reasons Williams gives for siding with Raleigh’s nymph against Marlowe’s idealistic shepherd. These are good reasons.

Williams starts his poem with:

We cannot go to the country
for the country will bring us
no peace

This is why the nymph won’t go with the passionate shepherd and be his love: not because he’s an idiot, or because the gifts he offers will eventually fade and die (Which is the main reason why the Nymph says no in the Raleigh poem); but because he’s wrong: the countryside is not a wonderful place full of roses and dancing shepherds’ boys. It is a place that will bring us no peace.

Williams goes on:

Though you praise us
and call to mind the poets
who sung of our loveliness
it was long ago!
long ago! when country people
would plow and sow with
flowering minds and pockets
at ease –
if ever this were true.

The image of the countryside as a place where people can live simply, but also well, and be happy and also satisfied with their lot in life, is archaic, and probably apocryphal. “Flowering minds and pockets at ease,” the image of Thoreau at Walden, with his educated intellectual philosophizing and his life of rich simplicity – except Thoreau lived on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property, close to his family and their resources, so never had to worry about paying rent, or taxes, or coming up with money for repairmen, or doctors, or all of the other things that mean people who work for a living – like farmers and shepherds – don’t get to “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Believe me, when we lived in Oregon and needed to find a way to pay for a new roof for our house, we would have loved the chance to simplify; but that wouldn’t have kept the rain from reducing us to a chilly pile of rotting mildew. We needed $7000 for that. And it wasn’t simple.

The last stanza is the one that stands out to me, because recently Toni and I, because we are still dealing with money issues, since we are still somehow not wealthy – I don’t know why my teacher’s union dropped the ball on getting me my cushy overinflated salary, but I have never managed to get my chance to suck on the public teat – talked about living like an artist on an artist’s income (This is akin to feeding one’s self from a garden grown in a 10-gallon fishtank), and these were the lines that came to mind, and brought this blog into existence.

Not now. Love itself a flower
with roots in a parched ground.
Empty pockets make empty heads.
Cure it if you can but
do not believe that we can live
today in the country
for the country will bring us
no peace.

If ever there was a time when two people could live on a teacher’s salary, or even worse, two artists’ income, it is not now. (The lines about love don’t apply to me – that really is Williams picking on Marlowe, and also on his own era, World War II, and saying there ain’t enough love in the world to make a shepherd and his love happy in the countryside. Toni and I don’t have much, but we do have love.) It was not 2000 in southern California, and it really wasn’t in 2004 in St. Helens. Because in that tiny town out in the boondocks, especially after the economy collapsed in 2007 and shot out all of the equity we might have been able to save in the house we had bought in 2005, there was utterly no economic opportunity, particularly not for artists. We couldn’t sell art, we couldn’t sell our expertise; there was no chance to do anything but try to get by on a teacher’s pay. While the whole country was looking to cut teachers’ pay. And that made everything worse.

Here’s the reason: empty pockets make empty heads.

No matter how thoughtful, philosophical, and intellectual you are; no matter how deep your inspiration flows, no matter how energetic is your muse: when you have to worry about money, about paying the bills and buying food and finding $7000 you don’t have so you can pay for a new roof – you will not be able to think very much about art. We moved to Oregon partly so that we could focus on our art; it didn’t happen in the way we wanted it to, we couldn’t be as productive as we wished to be, and this is why. Because empty pockets make empty heads.

I hope that now, here in a place with a lower cost of living, that we will be able to cure this problem. But what I know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is this: do not believe that we can live today in the country. For the country will bring us no peace.

Christian Marketing 101

This poster is on the wall of a church near my house.

Silly Christian

Where do I start with this?

First of all, who the hell created that image? Look at the size of that kid compared to the size of that cereal bowl. Look at how short his arms are. Look closely at the spoon: what the hell is in it? It’s not a letter; if I had to guess, I’d say it was a puppy, or a baby porcupine, crying out in anguish as it’s about to be chewed and swallowed — along with, apparently, that kid’s tongue. And that font! Who picked that font? I know it’s tempting to make the font match the words, to have fancy words in fancy script, and therefore to make the word “silly,” y’know, silly — but to have it off at an angle like that makes it seem like it has no association with “Christian.” Which makes it seem like it’s more of a commentary on the poster or its message. Apt, wouldn’t you say? And “fear” is apparently big, green, and outlined in white. So fear is a highway sign?

Next I have to come at the punctuation. You need some. You don’t have any, not until the exclamation point at the end, which seems to take emphasis away from where you put it with your graphics: on “silly” and “fear.” (Are you understanding now why these font choices were poor? Your punch is at the end of the tagline. Where the exclamation point is. Not up at the top.) Here’s why that lack of punctuation earlier is an issue: without an obvious break between “Christian” and “fear,” it’s reasonable to assume that your statement is: “Silly Christian fear is for pagans.” Which makes sense, but isn’t what you mean to say. If you intended it to be a break using the graphics, why did you put fear up at the top with “silly Christian” instead of down at the bottom with the phrase it is a part of? And again with the Silly graphics: using graphics to punctuate, it could just as easily read: Silly! Christian fear is for pagans.

And the cereal. Just to be clear, the reference you are making is to Trix cereal. That’s the one that had the tagline, “Silly Rabbit! Trix are for KIDS!” Trix look like this:

Ermahgerd! TWO stickers?!?

 

Do you see how they are nothing but round puffs of sugar, dyed various colors never found in nature? Right. (Though looking at the box, I will give the Christians this: that kid and his cereal bowl are in about the same ratio as this rabbit and his.) There are no letters in Trix. Why are there letters in your bowl? If you’re going to make the reference, get the reference right.

While we’re on the topic of the reference: why are you making this reference? I remember the rabbit, sure; I thought he was funny when I was a tyke. Maybe you were different, but — I wanted that rabbit to get that goddamn cereal. I got pissed off at every obnoxious little kid who pulled away that cereal bowl and delivered this line. Never failed to irritate. And this is the memory you want me to reminisce over? This is? And if your version of it is “Silly Christian, fear is for pagans,” then doesn’t that mean that Christians are analogous to the rabbit — are the sugar-jonesing, addiction-addled wackadoos who will do anything to get their fix — er, I mean, their Trix?

That bunny is not well.

 

So let’s imagine that you meant that. Because this cereal this “pagan” kid is eating (Right? Because the kid is eating the cereal. Hang on: is that kid eating the cereal? His tongue’s hanging out and he has a crying woodchuck in his spoon — but that rabbit got pretty damn close to a mouthful of “frosted corn puffs” many a time. So is that the Christian who thinks he wants the bowl full of Jesus-choking fear-cereal, or is that the pagan who’s actually enjoying his infernal breakfast treat? Who knows? It’s not like either one would make much sense.) is spelling out all the terrible, terrible things that await the pagan kids who shlork that crap down, all of which is denied the desperate Christian-rabbit. Death. Satan. Separation. Poverty. Trials. And, for some reason, God, past, and future (Though it really looks a lot like “paste.” Maybe it is “paste.” THE PASTE OF THE DAMNED!). So now I’m entirely confused. Is it that the pagan eats the “death” and “poverty” letters, and the good Christian gets to eat God (Well, that wafer, after all . . .) and the past and the future? Or maybe the past is bad, and the pagan gets that — but the future is for the Christian?

Or maybe it says “pasta.”

Bless His Noodly Name.

 

So here’s what we’ve got: a message that, if it isn’t saying “Silly, Christian fear is for pagans” or “Silly Christian fear is for pagans,” both intended to warn pagans away from the fears of Christians (Good advice, that.), is apparently telling us that Christians are willing to go to any lengths to grab a big bowl full of fear, which will contain both death and Satan, as well as God and all of time, both future and past. Which, when you get it in the spoon, will look like a terrified hedgehog.

Yup. That would bring me in to listen to the sermon. Who knows what that preacher’s next reference will be?

Might I suggest?

 

Silly Christians. While fear may be for pagans, so, apparently is sense.

(Just had a totally disturbing realization. You know what Trix looks like, if you ignore the color? Bunny poop. Frosted bunny poop. Maybe that rabbit was playing us the whole time . . .)

The Truth About Beauty

[V]erse is ‘made.’ But the word ‘make’ is unsufficient for a true poem. ‘Create’ is unsufficient. All words are insufficient. Because of this. The poem exists before it is written.

That, I didn’t get. “Where?”

T.S. Eliot expresses it so – the poem is a raid on the inarticulate. I, Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, agree with him. Poems who are not written yet, or not written ever, exists here. The realm of the inarticulate. Art” – she put another cigarette in her mouth, and this time I was ready with her dragon lighter – “fabricated of the inarticulate is beauty. Even if its themes is ugly. Silver moons, thundering seas, clichés of cheese, poison beauty. The amateur thinks his words, his paints, his notes, makes the beauty. But the master knows his words is just the vehicle in who beauty sits. The master knows he does not know what beauty is. Test this. Attempt a definition now. What is beauty?”

(From Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell)

I read this to my class the other day. And then I stopped and challenged them as Madame Crommelynck, the aged Belgian artiste, challenges her protegé Jason, the 13-year-old would-be poet: define beauty.

Here’s how I picture Madame.

My students couldn’t do it either. They did try, and they were annoyed with me when I disagreed with their assertions, but their answers didn’t work, not entirely. One said, “Every thing is beautiful,” because someone, somewhere, perceives it as such. I asked her if murder could be beautiful, and she said it could, to someone. But I beg to differ: I think anyone who considers murder “beautiful” is also murdering the word “beauty,” making it entirely meaningless. The same goes for any other extreme example: if we broaden the meaning of the word so much that it includes everything, then it means nothing. One argued that beauty is the “absorption of enjoyment.” I took that, like the previous attempt, to be too broad, too all-inclusive; I said, “Have you ever REALLY had to pee? When you finally get to go, isn’t that experience enjoyable?” He nodded. “But it isn’t beautiful,” I argued, though he continued to defend his definition, using enjoyable now as a synonym.

There’s nothing beautiful about that.

He was smart: he used a turkey sandwich as his example, saying that eating a turkey sandwich when you were craving one is a beautiful experience; in the right moment – around 1:00 in the afternoon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when you have leftover turkey and some good bread – I would indeed take that as proof, and have my answer. But I don’t believe enjoyable is the same thing as beautiful. Enjoyment is too simple to include all of beauty; it’s like saying that life is breathing. Sure, that’s part of it, and an important part; but it is unsufficient.

turkey-sandwich

I give you the ‘Murrican turkey sandwich.

 

 

Several of my students gave some permutation of Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, arguing that there is no intrinsic quality of beauty, but only what we construct through our individual subjective perceptions. I agree with that, but it is also true that there are certain sights, certain experiences, that are considered beautiful by many people, even people that have otherwise nothing at all in common: the night sky, a lullaby, love. There is such a thing as beauty, and we respond to it not as individuals with unique subjective perceptions, but as human beings with a shared consciousness and universal experiences: because we are all alive in the same sense, with the same five senses in the same universe. Madame Crommelynck agrees:

When beauty is present, you know. Winter sunrise in dirty Toronto, one’s new lover in an old cafe, sinister magpies on a roof. But is the beauty of these made? No. Beauty is here, that is all. Beauty is.”

Beautiful?

But Madame and I differ on this: she also tells Jason that beauty is immune to definition. I disagree. She gets into Platonic forms, saying that the potter that has made a beautiful vase has made the vase where beauty resides, but not the beauty itself; that’s true, but unfair, because the beautiful object has captured beauty, it reflects and contains beauty, and that is as much as human creation can ever do. It’s not our fault that the universe existed before us, and so too did whatever ideal that we call beauty. When we make a piece of beauty, something that echoes in its limited physical or experiential form the immortal beauty that resides in the inarticulate – the beauty that is – then our efforts, too, echo the first creation of existence, the coming into being of beauty as a potential quality. It is fair to say that we have made beauty if it is fair to say we make anything.

Our disagreement on this is easy to explain, though: she is speaking to a student. Teachers have to lie to students. When my math teacher told me that you can’t take a big number away from a small number, she was lying, because it wasn’t time for us to study negative numbers yet. When teachers tell students they cannot use the word “I” in a formal essay, it isn’t actually because one cannot use the word “I” in a formal essay, it is because there are various bad habits that writers have (The tendency to rely too much on subjective opinion rather than on evidence, for example; something that I do all the time. But it’s much harder to say “This is true because I think it is” when one cannot say “I;” the line “This is true because one thinks it is” or “Some people believe this is true” doesn’t have nearly the same pizzazz. Not nearly the same beauty.) that can frequently be eliminated by this rule; and if teachers set the rule like the word from on high, carved in stone by a burning bush, then they don’t have to get into the explanations about the bad habits. It’s simpler and keeps the teacher from losing too much time arguing with the students. Madame Crommelynck wants Jason to stop trying so hard to make his poems beautiful; she tells him, “A touch of beauty enhances a dish, but you throw a hill of it into the pot! No, the palate becomes nauseous.” And then, more beautifully put, “You belief a poem must be beautiful, or it can have no excellence. […] Beauty is not excellence. Beauty is distraction, beauty is cosmetics, beauty is ultimately fatigue.” She doesn’t want to explain precisely what beauty is, how we can identify it, what it means; she just wants him to stop thinking about it. So she tells him an absolute rule: beauty cannot be defined.

Well, Madame, I don’t believe in absolute rules (Except when I do.). I tell my students they can use “I” in an essay, and they can start sentences with “and” and “but” and “because,” and they can take big numbers away from small numbers, dammit!

And we can define beauty. Even if the words may be unsufficient.

Here we go.

Let’s start with basic principles. Beauty is abstract, but like love and unlike cliche, it can be experienced concretely: it is detected by the senses, most frequently but not exclusively sight for we humans. This means there is a biological, physical element to it. Just as love is, on some level, a chemical reaction in the brain that offers a survival advantage, so is beauty, at least when applied to another of one’s own species. A beautiful shrew, to another shrew, is one that represents a survival advantage; it is an advantage for the survival of one’s genes, not one’s own precious self, but the instincts are all about that DNA.

Now that’s a beautiful shrew.

So beauty in a Darwinian sense is a list of physical attributes (physical because concrete, detectable by senses) that represent a good breeding partner: symmetry of form and features, traits that connote health, traits that represent child-rearing strengths. Marilyn Monroe was beautiful because she was symmetrical, had healthy skin and hair and teeth and eyes, and had curves that showed good baby-making potential.

Plus, if I may quote Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job: “I mean, [she] got the badonkadonk out back and some fine bajoopbadangs up front, know what I’m sayin’, dog? Buss a rock wid a playa?” Word, Mr. Moore. Word.

See? Look how symmetrical.

Beauty is more than that, though. Because sunsets and symphonies and the smell of rain have nothing to do with child-rearing.

I’m going to take this as the point where humans and animals diverge. Not because I can say with any surety that animals don’t enjoy the sunset for the sake of the colors and the patterns in the sky, but because without language, I can’t be sure that they do, nor why they do. My dog loves to chase the innumerable tiny lizards that scatter across the desert where we live, but is he appreciating their coloration, the quickness and grace of their movements? Or is he thinking about how good they’d taste on a cracker?

And if he is, is that not beauty? The turkey sandwich argument speaks to this: deliciousness is a form of beauty detected by taste rather than sight, isn’t it? So there must be some element of beauty in a turkey sandwich, in a delicious lizard-on-Ritz hors d’oeuvre?

I would say so, but again, I think that it is the simple, animal form of beauty, the survival beauty, in most cases. I’ve eaten a lot of turkey sandwiches, and generally speaking, they are more often satisfying than beautiful. The potential for beauty-beyond-survival is there, certainly, but in the sense I want to explore now, it usually is not.

The abstraction of beauty is, so far as we can know, an exclusively human concept. It is difficult, because we are merely bald apes, to mark clearly the line between humans and animals, but one of the best lines is abstraction. Animals tend not to imagine things separate from their immediate circumstances (though some of them do, it seems) and humans do. The reasons why we do can be simple survival strategies; because imagination makes humans better hunters and gatherers than other animals, thereby justifying our oversized noggins and the weak, ungainly bodies attached to them. But to create abstract ideas, for abstract reasons? That, so far as we can know, is uniquely human.

For years now, I have associated this activity of abstraction for the sake of abstraction with two names: truth and beauty. Humans, I have said, are the only living things that seek truth and beauty for their own sake. We wish to discover new truths, not because they offer a practical survival advantage, but simply because we wish to know truth; we create beautiful things, and seek beautiful experiences, simply for the desire to experience them. I think of this as art, because I am an artist married to an artist, though others may call it science or faith or love or whatever entirely human abstraction you wish; there are many other ways to name the pursuit of abstraction. Regardless, I would argue – I have argued – they all come back to truth and beauty. Those are our defining ideals, we humans.

But now I think that these two ideals are really one and the same. “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” as Keats said to his Grecian urn. (And now I have to include the Simpsons reference: when the family goes to visit the military academy where they will be sending Bart for disciplinary reasons, Lisa observes a cadet in a class reciting that line as if responding to a drill sergeant – “BEAUTY IS TRUTH, AND TRUTH BEAUTY, SIR!” She gasps in joy at the thought of actually discussing poetry, something that never happens back at ol’ Springfield Elementary; but then the instructor, sounding and looking just like a drill sergeant, shouts in the cadet’s face, “But sometimes the truth can be harsh and disturbing! How can THAT be beautiful?!?” After which Marge comments, “Well, he sucked the life right out of that.”)

“Gentlemen, welcome to flavor country.”

The two ideas, truth and beauty, have always been closely linked. In science and math, a good solution, a true theorem, must have elegance to be considered worthwhile; in art, a beautiful piece must have some reflection of truth, of reality, of genuine human experience. This is because they are, I would argue, one and the same experience; two sides of the same coin, with the only distinction being how they are taken into the soul.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his “On Self-Reliance,” described the experience of truth as “that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.” He described a sensation of instant awareness of genuine truth, the vibrating of a heart to an iron string. He was talking about epiphany, the moment of clarity, what teachers (rather unfortunately) call the “Aha! moment.” There is a sense of rightness about truth that marks it as such, because a truth is echoed and repeated in everyone’s human experience, and all the truth does is give a name to what we already know. Home is where the heart is. The love of money is the root of all evil. Haters gonna hate. These truths don’t need to come with examples, because every single one of us can supply them from our own memories. That is the ring of truth, the gleam of light that Emerson talks about: when we make a connection between the statement of truth and our own personal subjective knowledge, and recognize both that the thoughts and experiences of others are actually relevant to our own lives, despite the appearance of perfect isolation that comes with being a human soul trapped inside a cage of flesh and bone, and also that our lives make sense, have reason and symmetry to them: that we are as true to life as others are to us. There is a greater world, and we are part of it; that is the truth, and what we recognize when we come across actual truth, and know it for what it is.

But here’s the thing: that’s what beauty is, too. That same ring, that same jolt, that moment of clarity and recognition, that awe: that is the experience of beauty. Think of what you felt when you first looked out of an airplane window and saw a mountain wreathed in clouds.

Think of what you felt when you first heard Pachelbel’s Canon.

When you smelled your favorite perfume, or let fine chocolate melt down your tongue. Think of a time when you genuinely hugged or kissed someone you love. This is what beauty feels like: when you feel your connection to the greater world, to all of the people before you who felt what you feel right now. You feel as big as the sky, as ancient as the stars: you can feel your heart expand to contain all of the other hearts that have felt what you feel, that are feeling what you feel, across all of time and space. You know that what you are feeling is right, and that it makes sense: you know that this feeling is true.

I would put it like this: truth is an intellectual recognition of one’s place in the order of existence; beauty is the emotional recognition of the same. Beauty is the truth of the heart.

MERCE Review

M.E.R.C.E.
by J.P. Hart

I teach Advanced Placement English, and so I spend a fair amount of time involved in deep, close reading, of great and grand literary works, Shakespeare, Homer, Emily Bronte. I just spent a month poring over every sentence and every word of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, examining the diction, the syntax, the figurative language.

So it is a real relief when I can read a book that’s just — fun. MERCE was one of those books.

If you’re looking for a paranormal romance/thriller, this book has what you want: there is the damaged and vulnerable heroine whose pain hides her awesome power; there is the dark and brooding hero who is brought out of his shell by the heroine’s love. There is the all-consuming threat of evil that intrudes on their idyllic bliss, and there is the deadly fight over the fate of the world. There are secrets being revealed in nearly every chapter — secrets about the nature of the characters, about the nature of the world, about the nature of love and friendship and family.

There is action, both pulse-pounding and darkly frightening. There is humor, both sarcastic and absurd. There are twists, some a bit predictable, others entirely out of left field. There are some lovely details, and some excellent writing. There is an EXCELLENT dog, which is always a plus. Sure, there are flaws: some of the chapters cut off in strange places, and some of the writing needs some polish; the romance moves a bit too quickly into total trust and harmony and the heroine moves too quickly into full-on badassery; the terrible, traumatic events of the past are left behind a little too easily. But this is a fun, quick book, by a writer with talent, and as the first book in a series, it’s worth checking out: if you like these characters, you’ll like reading this book, and probably the ones that will follow. I’d give it around 3.5 to 4 stars.

The First Step

You almost got me. Almost.

I came this close to throwing in the towel: I actually posted a blog entitled “I Surrender.” And in it, I did so. I said there was no hope, no chance, no point. I accepted defeat. I ceded the field of battle to the enemy. I walked away.

But then I thought about it. I thought about how, even in my acceptance of defeat, I acknowledged that I have had some success in this fight. I thought about how important this argument is: quite literally, it is about life and death. I thought about how the last piece I wrote focused on the importance of never giving up: never give up your dreams, I said. Try, try again, I said.

I took down the white-flag-blog-post. I thought about this argument, and I realized, first, there is another aspect of it that should be examined, which I could examine, so that I wouldn’t just be saying the same old things over again, and expecting different results. I realized, second, that even if I don’t have anything new to say, I should still say the same things, say them again and again, say them loudly and repeatedly and, above all, reasonably; make it harder for the other side to shout me down with their inanities and their absurdities and their lies. Maybe it won’t work. But I should try.

And I thought: the hell with it. No retreat, no surrender. You can have my argument when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

So, once more, no matter how futile it may feel at times, because it is a fight worth fighting, because it is as important as life and death, let’s talk about guns.

First: for all of the people who, after this latest tragedy (If you’ve already lost track, or if there has been another shooting that I have not heard about yet, I am speaking about the ten deaths in Roseburg, Oregon.), are claiming that we should be talking about anything other than guns, you’re wrong. You’re just feeling what I was feeling, that there is no way to get this country free from its addiction to guns. But doing anything other than confronting the problem head-on is just enabling the continued destructive behavior. Praying for those who lost their lives, while admirable and surely comforting, does nothing to prevent the next atrocity. Focusing on mental health is ineffective, partly because those who commit atrocities are not consistently identifiable as mentally or emotionally unstable beforehand (though they surely are identifiable after the fact, which is what makes this such an effective distraction from the underlying issue), and partly because the key to changing the effectiveness of mental health treatment in this country is to stop thinking of mental illness as an illness, which goal will not be achieved through looking at mental health through the lens of atrocity. Examining the underlying callousness, or lack of empathy, or unconcern for human life, that plays a part in atrocities, although it certainly is a reasonable target at which to aim, is not a short-term solution, and so shouldn’t be the only target. While we are considering what may cause a man’s indifference to the suffering of his fellow man, let’s also do the obvious: let’s make sure that those who are indifferent to the suffering of their fellow men cannot shoot those men.

All right: one thing at a time. Let’s look first at my description of this country’s attitude about guns as an addiction. Definition, please, O Almighty Google?

“Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

From the American Society of Addiction Medicine

That sounds about right. Our country is unable to consistently abstain from guns: no matter how many atrocities, no matter how many data sets show that guns are not safe to own, we still own more than any other country, per capita and total. We show impairment in behavioral control — certainly true; between accident, intentional homicide, and suicide, guns caused almost 34,000 deaths in 2013 alone. Craving? 300 million guns are owned by about 50 million households. When you already have a gun for each hand, a gun for each foot, and one for your mouth, and you think, “I should really have one more,” that’s a craving. Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships? And does this behavior result in disability or premature death? Of course it does. That’s the point.

How does one deal with addiction? First, we have to recognize the problem. We need to talk about it, and keep talking about it. We have to keep paying attention to gun deaths, both in specific and in general. We have to confront gun owners with statistics and facts. We have to treat guns as what they are: murder machines. We can’t shy away from it, we can’t ignore it and hope it goes away — and we can never give up. I will try to remember that.

We do also need to examine the underlying factors that cause the problem. In this case, here in America, I think the reason for gun ownership is fear. We fear our government, and we fear crime. It would be great if we could address the causes of that fear — eliminate crime through drug legalization and the reduction of income equality; reduce the fear of government through reducing the military, increasing government transparency, and improving political education — but what we need to do first is recognize our fear, and recognize that our reaction to it is irrational and harmful. Just as alcohol doesn’t fix the problems that drive people to drink, guns do not fix the problems that drive people to shoot. Good people with guns do not stop bad people with guns. Columbine had armed law enforcement personnel on campus. The Navy Yard shooting and the Fort Hood shooting were both on military bases. There were armed civilians at Umpqua College, and yet they did not stop the atrocity — and neither, for all of his genuinely admirable heroism, did the army veteran who tried to stop the shooter. Chris Mintz was shot seven times trying to keep the killer out of the classroom, and yet the killer got past him into the classroom, and murdered several other people inside. Is there a better argument for the particular deadliness of firearms than this?  People say that, if guns were banned, killers would use knives. Do you think a murderer with a knife would have gotten past that guy? Neither do I. The shooter did, because guns are murder machines, and they are very efficient and effective. That’s why people use them. It stands to reason, then, that removing those murder machines would make murder less efficient and less effective, and therefore rarer. Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that the goal of everyone, including, in theory, those who want everyone to carry guns everywhere? Isn’t the argument against “Gun Free Zones” exactly this, that those places increase the likelihood of murder? So how can the removal of the murder machines do anything other than reduce murder? I know, I know: if we ban guns, only criminals would have guns, and if a criminal wants a gun, he’s going to get a gun. Gun bans in other countries have proven both of these tropes to be false. People make the same claim about easy access to illegal drugs, but that isn’t true either: right now, sitting here, I have no idea where I could safely buy crack. I know exactly where I can buy a firearm. The same goes for 99% of the population of this country. As sincerely as I oppose the war on drugs, I have to admit that it has made it harder to get those drugs than it would be if they were legal; can’t gun owners admit the same thing about a comprehensive ban on firearms? Just so we know we’re all on the same page, thinking rationally, and dealing with reality? Here, I will concede this: a comprehensive ban on firearms would violate the Constitution as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court, and it would infringe on the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners. I’m not suggesting a comprehensive gun ban for those reasons. Can’t we all admit that, even if it is illegal and probably immoral, a ban on firearms would at least be effective in making guns harder to get, regardless of what other problems it would cause? Let’s at least face reality, okay?

Here’s some more reality people don’t want to face: even apart from atrocities, people do not use firearms to protect themselves from crime. Every claim of how often they do is based on one — one — thoroughly discredited random phone survey, performed by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz. (See here) It’s exactly like the link between vaccinations and autism, except the people who accept pseudoscience as reality in this case are more numerous. And armed.

 

Here’s the thing I’d like to address. It’s this notion of self-defense. I want to know what, exactly, gives someone the right to kill another human being. Why do we have the right, morally and legally, to use lethal force in the name of preventing the use of lethal force? Or even worse, the right to use lethal force to prevent non-lethal force? Even to prevent property crimes? I can legally shoot someone who is breaking into my house in order to steal my stapler. Can anyone defend that rationally?

I recognize that we have the right to defend ourselves, or another human being. But do we have the right to kill? If I can stop someone from killing me without killing them, isn’t that the extent of my right? Even if murder is necessary to prevent murder, how do we know that someone is intending our death? How can it be that I have the right to shoot someone simply because he breaks into my house? Someone breaking a lock or prying open a window does not put my life in danger. Even someone attacking me does not necessarily put my life in danger. People do not want to take the chance that an intruder is not an attacker, or that an attacker is not intending to kill; but that is a matter of convenience and egotism: it is only more convenient to assume that an attacker is intending lethal harm and therefore lethal force should be applied in stopping him; and it is mere egotism to say that my life is more important than an attacker’s just because he’s the attacker. I mean, seriously? Our moral argument is “He started it?”

Someone intending harm should be prevented from doing harm. But it seems to me that using lethal force to prevent that harm is, quite literally, overkill. If there are non-lethal means of preventing harm, aren’t those means the extent of what is justified? As soon as the attacker is no longer intending to kill me, I am no longer defending myself. Right? So if I punch him in the face, and he decides, “Never mind, I don’t want to kill this guy,” I am done defending myself. And if I punch him again, now I am the attacker. Now he should have the right to defend himself against me. The scenario as I describe it is absurd, yes — but how absurd is it to assume that anyone who breaks into my house is intending to inflict lethal harm on me? And without that intent, what is the justification for using lethal force to stop him?

The fact that I have a gun shouldn’t mean I am right in using it when I could use a Taser just as easily. Aren’t non-lethal means of prevention of harm available to citizens? Things like good locks, alarm systems, access to police? Self-defense weapons like pepper spray and stunguns? Martial arts training? Guard dogs? Neighborhood watch? How about a bat?

As far as I know, the only argument against these things is that they are less effective and/or less efficient (meaning “slower”) than guns in stopping an attacker. No: I suppose there is also the argument that “bad guys” deserve death. We Americans relish playing Dirty Harry and Wyatt Earp, blowing away the “bad guys,” thus making the world safer by ensuring that they won’t attack anyone else ever again, and putting a notch in our gunbelts. But apart from our comic-book-vigilante fetish, it is just this point: stunguns and pepper spray are not as effective as guns, partly because they require someone to get close enough for the attacker to fight back, and they do not cause as much harm as quickly as does a gun, and so the attacker may still harm the defender.

I refuse to accept that someone threatening me, or even worse, threatening to take my stuff, is deserving of the death penalty. If we believe that, why don’t we kill everyone who commits any crime? The best indicator of future crime is past crime; the best indicator of future violence is past violence. Shouldn’t we be lining schoolyard bullies up against the wall and putting a bullet in the back of every head? Ditto for every kid who shoplifts, or tags a wall, or smokes a joint? I also refuse to accept that the simple fact that I own a gun, but not an effective non-lethal means of self-defense, justifies my using the gun; when my explanation is “Well, it’s what I had in my hand,” I lose the argument. “Honey, why did you give me a ball of pocket lint and a used wad of gum for an anniversary present?” “Well, it wasn’t like I could just go to the store and buy flowers! You said, ‘Happy Anniversary,’ and I had to react in a split-second!” Or maybe this: “Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist you pay for your purchases with actual money, not this piece of paper with your grocery list written on it.” “Hey, man — you can’t expect me to get out my wallet, find the money, pull it out, count it, and then reach all the way over there to hand it to you! You could have given away my purchases half a dozen times by then!”

Self-defense should be limited to what is required to end the threat. Not the easiest means of ending the threat, not the fastest, not the most viscerally satisfying of my bloodlust; only what is necessary. Anything beyond what is necessary now makes me a greater threat to my attacker than he is to me. If I shoot an unarmed man, or even a man armed with a weapon less dangerous than my gun, then I am become the attacker, not the defender. Anyone who uses a gun to kill when it is not necessary is a murderer; isn’t that the standard we use for police? Aren’t we enraged to the point of riot when that standard is not upheld? And yet we think nothing of a homeowner with a gun safe full of weapons unloading on an unarmed burglar who was trying to score drug money?

Of course, those who own the guns almost certainly disagree with me; they probably think that police are justified and right in killing unarmed civilians who merely seem to pose a threat. (Though those gun owners should consider this issue when arguing that our government is a threat, as well; isn’t it this very standard that allows them to be such a threat? Maybe there is a solution to both problems . . . ) But here’s the thing I have to keep in mind: I have to remember that argument, particularly in a debate like this one, is not simply intended to sway the zealots of the opposition. It is intended to provide points of consideration for the rational, regardless of their initial position in the debate. So for those of you who are rational, consider this. How much offense is necessary for defense? How much harm can one do in the name of preventing harm?

How much harm must we do to each other, and ourselves, for the sake of clinging to our prejudices? How many people have to die before we recognize that we have a problem, and we need to deal with it?

Addicts must change their lives: they have to change their way of thinking, their understanding of themselves and their behavior, their concept of their addiction and what it does for them. They must avoid the people and the places and the activities that served in the past as triggers for their addictions. They need to work, and keep working; they can never ease up, not ever. We are addicted to guns. There are a lot of things that need to change before we can quit the guns; we can’t go cold turkey, that I will concede. But just because it’s hard to accomplish doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do, nor that it shouldn’t be attempted. 34,000 deaths a year beg us to do what must be done. Think of how many people you know. Think how much it hurts when one of them dies. Recognize how many orders of magnitude that is away from 34,000 deaths. Recognize that that number occurs in this country every year.

Let’s take the first step: admit that we have a problem. And let’s do the work.