Except for People

Just got in from checking on my garden. The sweet potatoes are starting to send their leave up out of the ground—it happens literally over night. My bell peppers are doing much better now that I’ve transplanted them from the raised, boxed garden with its rich soil into more sandy terrain; they just didn’t take to the high-rent district! My goji bush is exploding; an odd little tree that I think (and hope) has sprung from a jujube seed continues to thrive; and the ever-screwball butternut squash have actually volunteered this spring (after I had given up on them after so many years of wasted time) and are producing plump gourds that, by all lessons of the past, just shouldn’t be there!

One can usually make peace with Nature. If things aren’t growing, there’s a reason, and one may be able to figure it out with a lot of patience—though it would have been even better to have preserved some of that ancestral wisdom which we’ve trashed along with Grandma’s sewing machine. Many times, I have the thought that a large part of our postmodern malaise is owed to our having ruptured our bonds with the soil and the seasons. Life and death, health and sickness, the stages leading to maturity, the rain that must fall so that the sun may give further life… even the electricity released by violent thunderstorms, I suspect, must be balancing out something in the atmosphere that would prove toxic if the weather were forced to be “peaceful”.

Yet all I hear and see in the human world is irksome whining about natural limitation (e.g., our paltry two genders), arrogant rejecting of cycle in favor of strict linear progression (e.g., our looming immortality as human/robot hybrids), and tasteless self-insulating in childish fantasies (e.g., the newly released Wonder Woman—and should she have hair under her arms, or not?). Plants can talk to you through how they look: my bell peppers told me that they preferred the sand when I saw them putting out new green leaves. Their language always makes sense. It’s about sun, and water, and survival, and supplying the next generation. People, in contrast, just don’t make any sense at all to me any more. Their audible language is much easier to assemble—but its message, the combined product of its words, is gibberish.

As I was walking back inside, I had the kind of thought that isn’t typical of me these days—and it came to me so powerfully that I was actually saying it out loud: “God, the world is beautiful… except for people. Except for people.” Yeah, that last part is typical “me”, I suppose, as I’ve now become; but I sometimes forget how Edenic life on this planet can be if you can just escape the clamoring, yammering apes in clothes. The alternative is well worth seeking out.

 

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Show Me the Way to Go Home

What should have been a nine-hour drive yesterday turned into eleven grueling hours for my wife and me. The cause of this was mostly the complete absence of adequate signage at critical points, or else the ambiguous placement of signs at spots where they might be beckoning you to take either of two exits or turns. At one point, I simply had to stop and ask directions (especially since the skies were clouded up and I hadn’t the slightest sense of where true north lay). The answer I received was a bewildered, “Well, I’m not sure, but… don’t you have a GPS?”

We did, actually—but the roads had changed so rapidly in certain areas that our unit couldn’t handle all the conflicting information. Sometimes the little box reminds me pathetically of that robot in the Isaac Asimov story walking circles on Planet Mercury and going crazy because the elements of its basic programming have been made contradictory. Funny how you almost feel sorry for your unit at those moments (“in 800 yards, turn left—turn right, turn right”)… after you get over being furious at it and then feeling shame because “it’s not the poor thing’s fault.”

What’s really interesting here is how fully we have already surrendered our sense of direction to the machine. For years, I’ve been hearing people say, “If this keeps up, nobody will know how to read a map.” That day has arrived. Maps are obsolete. The notion of inferring direction from the slant of the shadows at a particular time of day has grown bizarre. Even locals in small towns don’t seem to know how to tell you to get from Sunset Boulevard to the Joe Kowalski Sports Complex. “Well… don’t you have a GPS?”

And apparently the various state and local departments responsible for posting signs don’t care much about the situation, either. Seriously, I think we may be very close to the time when these government entities alert us (to nobody’s great surprise or concern) that they will no longer be squandering funds on signage. Just tell your car’s dashboard where you wish to go, and then listen to instructions—or turn over the driving entirely to the vehicle. That’s another stop or two down the road, but it’s surely coming, as well.

And the technophile will mock, “So what? Why does anyone need to know east from west? Unless your plane crashes in the Sahara and you have no bars and no radio, why would you ever need to know which way to go? Even then, after the crash, your best bet is probably to stay put and wait.”

Yeah, yeah… but what happens when you have to pay through the nose for system updates (the refusal to accept which blackmail was the specific cause of our GPS’s inadequacy)? What happens in the event of a solar flare? What happens if the data are simply wrong for any one of a thousand reasons, ranging from accident to sabotage? I don’t like the sound of a world where I must absolutely have a machine to transit from A to B.

Yet we’re already there: that’s what I learned this weekend.

Manners vs. Measures

I’ll be consumed by other chores over the weekend, so forgive me for making this a long entry.  Nevertheless, it represents just a few notes on what could well be a book. (My specific reasons for having such a spate of thoughts on this subject are substantial but also pretty subjective, and so not relevant.)

Manners are, etymologically speaking, mere arbitrary measures of behavior. If the Hoolahoop tribe blows a whistle through curled fingers while hopping on the left leg whenever one member greets another, then hopping on the right leg or failing to produce a whistle might be styled a gross breach of etiquette. Yet few instances of mannerliness are thus divorced from any sort of moral value in modern society. Most courteous behavior is also generous, charitable, protective, or otherwise beneficial to its recipients. In the same way, the Latin and Greek words mos and ethos have come to signify right conduct, not simply habitual conduct, even though these words both mean “habit” in their original tongue.

Consider some examples of mannerly behavior:

Physical Assistance: holding the door open for someone carrying a heavy load or impaired in some other way is basic courtesy. Even keeping a pneumatic door ajar so that the person right behind you doesn’t have to fight against its being sucked back in shows real consideration that costs little effort. Now, feminists over the past few decades have started to object to the opened door’s implication that they are weak and need male assistance; and as an aging man whose gray hairs occasionally attract similar homage, I can understand feminist irritation better than I once did. In such cases, however, I think one must be mannerly enough to respect the doer’s intent: accepting the “annoying courtesy” without complaint is itself an act of courtesy.

Honorary Observances: Yielding to the venerable graybeard is, in effect, an example of saluting someone for having navigated life’s shoals for several decades. Likewise, we allow our guests to be seated first if we host a dinner, and the speaker or honoree at a banquet is given the best seat at the highest table and served first. None of this implies weakness and need on the recipient’s part: it’s all aimed at giving a little bow, so to speak, before a person who deserves recognition.

Anticipatory Behavior: You remove a large hat in a crowded arena because you anticipate that it might obscure the view of someone behind you. Likewise, you shower after profuse sweating before attending a formal public event, you seek to contain unruly hair that may shed, and you cover up body parts not particularly pleasant to look at. This last, of course, is often a somewhat arbitrary measure of taste. In many cultures, a woman’s baring her breast to feed an infant is a routine and unprovocative sight; in ours, it draws stares and makes men, especially, uncomfortable (not so much because they object as because they feel themselves a little too eager to forego objection). Asking permission of one’s neighbors before lighting up a cigarette or a pipe also shows respect for the comfort of others.

Hygienic Consideration: Obviously, covering one’s face when coughing or sneezing shows a regard for others that might conceivably be required by law in situations where deadly flu is circulating. Even in less toxic circumstances, nobody wants to share your germs.

Traditional Observances: Finally we arrive at the kind of behavior which has no ethical component whatever in the more sophisticated sense. Here belongs the greeting of the Hoolahoop tribe. Practices of this order in our society include wearing a coat and tie or formal dress on the “right” occasion, putting the proper silverware on the proper side of the plate, using said silverware for the proper dish, or uttering the vapid “doing quite well” when someone asks after you as a splitting migraine explodes in your head. These acts are entirely “measure” rather than “manner”: they determine whether you are a tribal insider or a barbarian outsider. (I might comment further on how religious practices sometimes Pharisaically elicit these acts rather than others of true moral content—burnt offerings rather than deeds of mercy; but that would draw my entry out into a treatise).

Sensitive Gestures: I have deliberately put the ethically subtle after the ethically null to create a clear contrast. One abstains from cracking crude jokes in mixed company, from laughing when the mood is grave, from conversing about certain subjects when they are implicated in a present party’s loss or distress, and so forth. It’s almost impossible to teach real sensitivity, which is probably why these lapses of etiquette are the most common. Since a sensitive act requires that one divine another’s state of mind and soul, a kind of talent or special gift is involved.

Observation 1: As with the case of the door-opener who means no harm, the person who innocently commits an insensitive act should not be reproached, for the reproach itself would be rude. We cannot require that other people be able to read our minds.

Observation 2: Building on the previous point, we should recognize that sensitivity and tradition often collide in implicit (or explicit) contradiction. A person may easily violate an arcane social taboo. In that case, sensitivity would require that a truly mannerly onlooker seek to help the offender recover from his gaffe (e.g., as when a man removes his tie upon seeing that a younger, less tutored man has appeared at a function in an open shirt: this might also be style chivalry).

General Observation: When manners are mere measures, they exclude outsiders from the group and thus gravitate against the accomplishment of moral purposes, inasmuch as the bedrock truth of moral behavior is that we are all human brothers and sisters in spite of superficial differences.

Concluding Comment: If you write to me via email and I, despite many duties and preoccupations (and also an ongoing struggle to keep computers from damaging my eyes and wrists), dash a response back to you lest you feel ignored, please do not denounce me as rude if I forget to append a “Sincerely Yours”, etc. Once you’ve treated me that way, I’ll have nothing more to do with you, for you will have just slapped my face.

 

Animal Planet Peddles More Unicorns

I think “cryptozoology” is a really fascinating subject. The assumption is always made by the general public (and usually fed by professionals in the sciences, who don’t like to admit that something might possibly lie beyond their ken) that we must surely have discovered by now every life form on Planet Earth. This is an ignorant, arrogant leap of faith. Because most of us have now squeezed ourselves into “megalopolis” or into one of the concentric rings of suburbia enclosing it, we can’t imagine any weird creature’s escaping detection. One thing we fail to consider is that our collective influx into cities has left rural areas depopulated. Yes, the explosion of human inhabitants in all quarters of the globe would seem to compensate for any relative diminution in the percentage of people filling this or that corner. I doubt that this proposition is unassailable, however. Comparatively few though we were a hundred years ago, our overwhelmingly agricultural society still concentrated its strength very heavily in the boondocks. Now any drive along a rural highway (and how many of us ever take such a drive?) reveals desolation on all sides. Abandoned houses are falling apart everywhere, and seldom does any new structure rear its satellite dish in their place.

People who should find themselves in the country for some reason are also less likely now to know its sights and sounds. They can’t tell a wolf’s cry from a coyote’s or a crow’s call from a caracara’s. The situation where a tenderfoot thinks he may have seen a chupacabra when he’s only run across a large stray dog often works in reverse, thanks to such ignorance: a person might see an unidentified species and assume that it is a familiar one. Witnesses in shooting incidents almost invariably say that they at first thought the gunshots were a backfiring car. The stronger tendency of the human mind is to blend the unique into the commonplace, not the other way around.

Thirdly, the encroachment of human beings on so many once-remote parts of the natural environment can create opportunities for more resourceful species that were formerly hard-pressed. Squirrels are much more abundant in suburbia than in the wilderness. Humans have chased off or killed most natural predators (foxes, snakes, hawks) while allowing the “cuddly, adorable” little fur-ball to chew up orchards and attics unmolested. If something extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent like a Sasquatch did exist, an invasion of humans that thinned out rival predators like panthers and bears while allowing food sources like deer and squirrel to proliferate might actually improve the outlook for survival.

All of this is merely to say that I was looking forward to the first episode of Animal Planet’s Destination: Mungo last Sunday. Quite a letdown. Once again, we are treated to a showman who expensively, ostentatiously makes his way to some forgotten corner of the planet… and then spends one night in the “hot spot” to see if his infrared cameras are activated by anything larger than a rat. Bwana Mungo hasn’t even heard of the coelacanth, apparently (and hasn’t yet figured out how to pronounce the word, either). In one scene, he contacts his biologist buddy in the States to ask if the Postosuchus, a Triassic ancestor of the crocodile, might really exist today, as Liberian locals are reporting. Responding via satellite through a laptop linked to a smartphone, the suitably bearded academic tells an inspirational story. “Have you heard of the coelacanth, Mungo?” “No, never. Tell me about it.” Oh, please!

In the first place, the coelacanth’s presumed date of extermination was considerably closer to our own time than the late Triassic (by a factor of close to a thousand). In the second place, coelacanths inhabit ocean trenches and would be virtually undetectable to human beings in the normal course of events. In the third place, of course Mungo has heard of the coelacanth! I learned of its lately discovered survival into the present when I was a young boy—a professional wildlife photographer and cryptozoology enthusiast could no more have remained ignorant of the subject than a physicist could fail to have heard of a quark. And finally, biologist buddy’s fishing stories transmitted by satellite, however inspirational, are insufficient reason for Mungo to rise from his laptop feeling new confidence in his quest. He hasn’t garnered a single particle of arcane information about tropical African fauna that might be seen as assisting his search. The whole exchange is highly staged and utterly ridiculous… almost as bad as a mockumentary about mermaids.

So… my quest of credible shows on the subject of cryptozoology continues as we permanently put the Amusement Park of Mungo at our backs. I’m looking for something rarer than a unicorn, it seems. In the meantime, old episodes of River Monsters are far less a waste of time.

He Who Forges Lies About a Knave Is Himself a Lying Knave

I need to make a short “razoo” (as my grandfather would have said: ancient Texan for Italian razzia) to another state very shortly. The place where I always stay is sure to have that pompous, sanctimonious, snarky monument to journalistic anomia, Chris Cuomo, blaring away on CNN in the breakfast room; so I’m packing my ear plugs, and I will either get early dibs on the far table shielded from the TV by a corner or else graze parapatetically in the lobby.

I absolutely can’t stand Cuomo. The last time I stayed at this venue, he drove me from the dining room fuming like an overheated waffle iron. I can’t detect a tinge of equitability in how he covers news. And the rest of CNN isn’t much better. The other day I stared in disbelief as, toggling off of Netflix, I discovered some reporter hot on the trail of an “incident” involving Trump’s thrusting another head of state to the ground. The video showed one man placing his hand gently on the other’s shoulder and sliding past him in a crowded room—but the audio described…

Well, something like newly elected Representative Gianforte of Montana’s decking, choking, and pummeling of a reporter. If you or I had behaved like this in public, we’d not only spend the night in jail (and, upon adjudication, probably stay there the next ninety days), but we’d also see our professional and communal reputation permanently ruined. Here CNN has a legitimate case of newsworthy molestation; and, since Gianforte is a Republican (unlike former Florida Representative Alan Grayson, whose pathological bullying was constantly airbrushed from national headlines), his outburst is being covered around the clock.

Yet Gianforte has now been elected to the US House of Reps. Perhaps even more vexatious, the list of luminaries in the right-wing commentariat who have defended him and/or impugned Mr. Jacobs (the reporter) in knee-jerk reaction to CNN’s feeding frenzy includes Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Dinesh D’Souza, and Brent Bozell, the last three of whom can lay a credible claim to being something more than showmen (though they might not appreciate the word “intellectual”).

Overplaying its hand, as always, CNN wants to maintain that Trump essentially committed the assault—that Gianforte was only his surrogate… which is preposterously absurd, and would be emotionally disturbing even in an early adolescent. (“Mom, it was that Wally who made me steal the PlayStation. I wouldn’t have done it, but I see him cheating on homework all the time.”) I didn’t vote for Trump (or his opponent), precisely because his reactions remind me so much of an early adolescent’s, and a certain amount of this misery has been drawn down upon him by his own buffoonery. But he hasn’t tackled anybody since his highly staged, burlesque drubbing of Vince McMahon on Smackdown.

Speaking of right-wing punditry… I’m really, really, REALLY sick of Limbaugh and Hannity referring to people who made my electoral decision as establishment-Republicans who think they’re better than the working class. Trump’s entire business life has been a long tale of playing insider’s games, and his political philosophy (insofar as he has any) is every bit as paternalistic and nanny-statist as Bill Gates’ or Warren Buffit’s. This kind of “with us or against us” analysis has all the finesse and discrimination of the mob’s decision to murder Cinna the poet after Caesar’s death because one of the conspirators was named Cinna.

But again, accusing Trump of dealing out body slams to foreign heads of state as he navigates through a crowded room is just as idiotic—or attributing to him the blows that fell from another man’s fists. Such idiocy is routine in the mainstream press, and it’s also international. Peter Helmes wrote at his site, Die Deutschen Konservativen, last month of a mainstream German news story titled, “Ferguson Three Years After the Unrest—The Fight Against Racism in Trump-Land.” I wouldn’t even let such tendentious garbage as that title leak into a blog entry (quite ignoring the minor detail that, as Helmes stresses, Trump was building hotels three years ago).

And as brutal and appalling as Gianforte’s assault on a journalist was, where have we seen any story on mainstream news chronicling California professor of philosophy Eric Clanton’s assault with a deadly weapon (a padlock attached to the end of a chain) upon the heads of three Trump supporters—young students all—at Diablo Valley College? The date was April 15. Well over a month ago now. Guess we’re not going to hear Chris Cuomo covering that one.

I’m getting sooo very sick of all of this! I don’t write about politics in this space, and I’m not doing so now. I’m writing about how ashamed I feel to be a human being lately. May I please submit an official Species Change Form to the appropriate authorities for immediate consideration?

Publishing: The Grandest and Vilest of Occupations

As I prepare to put my association with The Center for Literate Values to bed, after a seventeen-year struggle to make it grow, I’m greatly relieved… but also saddened. A lot of stuff in my life seems to be getting bundled off into memory’s attic at just this time. My son is done with college and busy with a full-time job at a location almost a thousand miles away. Who knows when I’ll see him again? I can’t wait to sell this old house and move into a new one built much more to our taste… but my boy grew up here, and every inch of the property stirs its own recollections. I’m about to begin my professional swan song as an educator, and it’s high time for me to bug out before I have to do everything online in semi-robotic fashion… but I had a few successes as a teacher, and I won’t be having any of those after next April.

The Center—and its quarterly journal Praesidium—shared much with my frustrating academic career. I thought we could reach a critical mass of people and help to keep a taste for classic literature alive; but we were forced to wage this war through a website for financial reasons, and people who surf websites generally don’t care about the proper interpretation of Virgil or Ariosto. It often seemed that I was fighting the spread of kudzu across my lawn by whipping new tendrils with vines of kudzu.

I continue to write and translate, and I know now that I can’t stop. But I also know by now that none of the conventional outlets for “success” is open to the likes of me. My translation of three medieval Celtic romances isn’t riddled with neo-Marxism, feminism, or Gay/Queer Theory, but rather juxtaposes the threesome from the point of view of comparative mythology and Christian allegorizing. Try getting that published at a university press today! A novel I wrote last summer represents through fantasy an eternal punishment for wicked deeds, its vision founded in an “absolutist” (what stupid words we’re forced to use now!) vision of good and evil. Try getting some money and press lined up for that from the “creative” community!

In fact, publishers rarely accept anything in any genre nowadays from someone not previously published and successfully marketed (the same old Catch 22 as, “We can’t give you this job unless you have experience”). Now, if your last name were Clinton or Trump or Kardashian and you were willing to tell all—in broken fifth-grade prose—about the intimate workings of certain households, the rule would be waived. Otherwise, publishers want proof that you can make money. The days of a thoughtful editorial board reading over, heatedly discussing, and taking a chance on an offbeat submission probably died somewhere in the Seventies.

Even academic publishers now require a curriculum vitae (what normal people call a résumé) to be submitted with the manuscript. The reason given for the request is completely disingenuous in an age when you can research “Halifax McGarnicle” instantly on your smartphone and see if he’s all he claims to be. No, the purpose of that somewhat creepy requirement is to ensure that the University of Deadwater Press doesn’t say “no” to Professor Gastropod, the world’s leading expert on gay behavior among narwhals.

I’m more and more attracted, then, to the idea of publishing my own stuff as cheap PDF and EPUB downloads—and the stuff of others who are equally sick of the publishing racket. We would do well to make a few dollars’ profit, but we would perhaps reach worthy audiences. And the investment would be virtually nil, unlike the notorious shakedowns operated by vanity presses, whose architects never report your sales to you honestly (as I know from bitter experience). One of the things I need to find out is if software exists to inform collaborators instantly and automatically of sales—for I would hate asking authors to rely strictly on my integrity.  I’ve known outfits whose marketers do this, and then bristle indignantly if you raise a question. Even if you set a trap and catch them in specific breaches of faith, what are you going to do—pay a lawyer to recover the ten bucks you’ve been cheated out of?  How do you prove that it’s more?

The “information for prospective authors” on my site would read something like this:

Aspiring authors are encouraged to submit their work for processing in inexpensive downloads, for which they may set their own price and for whose sale they will receive 100 percent reimbursement. The objective of this system is to draw potential buyers to a site where they may view works reflecting tastes and values similar to those of the author whom they originally came to seek; so your contribution is assessed in shoppers drawn to visit, not in pennies scooped off your sales.

I hope it works. I’m running out of ideas for saving literacy—and out of years on earth to give them a try.

Postscript: Questions About Catholicism

I don’t need to say that I have had many Catholic friends, and I won’t say that I’ve had more (of the few good friends I’ve ever known) than a random sampling of the American public could possibly account for. I also understand that, while my Catholic friends share many of my own reservations about “the Church”, they don’t necessarily like to hear me review them item by item. That’s human nature. As a Texan by birth and a Southerner by lineage, I’m painfully aware of the foibles and limitations of both groups… but I can get a little irked when I have to listen to an outsider mock a drawl or reduce the Civil War’s causes to racism.

Just let me add this, then, to my previous comments. A professor of physics at Tulane named Frank Tipler wrote a book titled The Physics of Christianity that I lately read… well, kind of read. The degree of physics in the early going seemed rather ostentatious to me and was way over my head; but the point where I actually couldn’t make myself continue (for pride kept me trudging through the formulas that I pretended to half-understand) was somewhere later, where suggestions about the Christian faith—these from a devout man who’s obviously more intelligent than I’ll ever dream of being—began to depress me deeply.

Professor Tipler, you can’t seriously believe that God’s plan for the salvation of the soul is being accomplished by digital technology—that our minds and personalities will be overwritten to chips that can be transferred to an indefinite series of corporeal residences—no, you don’t truly believe that such is the eternity promised in the Gospels, do you? Is that really… it? No higher revelation of the ends of goodness? No reunion with spirits from centuries ago whose creations have awakened us? No admission to such beauty and order as even the Milky Way can only imply in the dullest manner?

I had heard before that parthenogenesis can naturally occur and, apparently, does in an almost infinitesimal number of cases. If the Holy Spirit’s fertilizing a human egg turns out to be a metaphor for a freakish but entirely explicable reproductive anomaly, then… then there’s really no role for the supernatural to play, is there?

And indeed, Professor Tipler, you argue repeatedly that miracles are merely rare occurrences rather than physically impossible ones. But the universe’s very birth from nothing is a physical impossibility, from the standpoint of human reason (I didn’t understand your case to the contrary). If our faith cannot assert that ultimate reality contains events and powers inconceivable to our temporal intelligence, then for what do we need faith?

To me personally, this one is especially obnoxious: that Jesus retained his purity because, thanks to biological parthenogenesis, he was born as sterile as a mule. Do you not grasp, Professor—you whose mind encloses so many mathematical truths that leave me at the starting gate—that a eunuch can incur no moral credit for having mastered sexual impulses? If a sage or spiritual guru never feels anger because he has undergone a lobotomy or never knows fear because he has destroyed his sight and hearing, then he’s no teacher at all and has mastered nothing.

In a Catholic context, I’ve noticed that certain behaviors tend to receive more attention than the state of mind in which they are performed. Frank Tipler, a very devout Catholic, represents some of my greatest apprehensions on this score. He has explained (at least to his own satisfaction) a universe whose physical laws permit the fulfillment of every biblical promise in terms we can understand (or might understand if we were gifted physicists). In his zeal to defend God’s realm, the Professor seems to me to have exiled God from that realm and redefined its parameters to suit the human hand and footstep.

Just as excusing the utopian crusade to create permanent peace all over the earth could well lead to a dystopian, Orwellian hell, so the project of envisioning the life of the soul through computer chips and the abstemious discipline of moral guide through hormonal privation is… well, horribly depressing. It’s cultic. It makes me want to weep for so much intelligence so abused.