December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Truth and Trust

Compelling memories of something I am sure happened to me—there was little doubt because the recollections were so vivid and detailed—have proven to be wrong. My memories inaccurately conferred a reality to my experience that was false. I know my memory was faulty because others, who were privy to relevant information, informed me I was wrong. The reason for these errors was that, while I may have vividly recalled the particulars of an experience, I failed to remember the context of it; whether somebody told me it, I thought it, or I dreamed it. We can ascertain the veracity of our recollections by consulting independent sources to confirm if, in fact, it really occurred, and if it occurred as we remember it.

It is a bit disconcerting how convincing our sense of truth can be, how real it seems, and how wrong we can be. Trusting our experience, exclusively, can lead us astray. Ascertaining truth requires additional, independent corroboration. Of course, this is not always possible, and of course, we need not doubt every memory. But the possibility of these misattributions alerts us to the need, when circumstances arise, to trust other sources to confirm the reality of a situation.

The relation between truth and trust runs much deeper than the veracity of our personal memories. It is the foundation of virtually everything. Is the earth flat? A surprising number believe that it is, indeed, flat. Why? Because they do not trust the sources of the information that support this truth. They rely on direct, personal experience, which reveals that the earth is obviously flat, as anyone reasonable person who has observed the sunrise or sunset over the straight-edged horizon can attest. 

Why should we believe otherwise? Most of us do so because a large body of scientific knowledge, astute deductions, and many practical activities (i.e., oceanic shipping, air travel, etc.) proves otherwise. We trust other sources of truth outside our own immediate experience. But what if we don’t trust them? After all, most of us are not scientists and would be hard pressed to provide the facts proving the earth “round”. Even if we could, the argument would rely on secondhand information; facts that we, ourselves, have not directly collected but derived from trusted sources.

Is global warming occurring? Doubts arise when the supporting sources for this conclusion, scientific evidence, are challenged or dismissed. Many believe that global warming is a hoax perpetuated by liberal elites. If the sources are not believed, then these doubts are not eliminated by simply providing more facts. If a single individual, with little cultural authority, disbelieves, they may be considered misinformed, misguided, or perhaps, delusional. If disbelief is voiced by someone with cultural authority, like the President, or groups with access to cultural power, like the Koch brothers, Mobile Oil, or Arch Coal, then the source of the facts becomes the focus of dispute and the argument turns, not of facts, but on, “Who do you trust?”. And “Who do you trust?” turns, not on facts, but who we believe will protect us, understands us, shares our values and our moral universe.1 2

When not only critical scientific findings are challenged, but the foundational sources of a culture’s authority, embodied in fundamental institutions—-those governing order and law (Department of Justice and Federal courts), managing our fiscal integrity and security (Federal Reserve and Security and Exchange Commission), protecting our collective security (FBI and CIA), insuring food and water safety (Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency), and providing disaster warning and assistance (National Weather Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency)—-then we face a deep, ruinous crisis of faith.3 When these sources are challenged by a leader with the cultural power to hold sway, then the leader can become the oracle of truth and the savior of a nation in tumultuous times.

If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.

Puzzlement, and condescension, often occurs over how an entire culture, especially a highly educated one like the Germans, can come under the sway of a despot; be swept into in a collective delusional frenzy of madness and violence resulting in an epic, world-wide catastrophe. How can this possibly happen?  We Americans, champions our own exceptionalism, are experiencing how.

Between Sunlight and Darkness

We find ourselves in the place where the life-giving source of all, the sun, appears daily, yet we cannot bear to look at it for more than a few heartbeats; a truth so strong that it blinds. We are also shadowed by the event that will end our existence, forever. Death. There is no escape. It will happen, and could happen, any moment, without warning, looming over us—the promise of no-more.

We carry on as if these elemental, pressing weights do not exist. We live a dream, travel along our everyday paths, oblivious to these existential truths, elevating the mundane to pseudo-cosmic significance. The soporific effects of habit and routine confers regularity, familiarity, and banality to our daily round. We do not do this alone. We are born into the ready-made world of culture that confers established meanings, practices, rituals and rites to stabilize the flux. These group habits, which exist before and beyond any single individual, provide comfort and assurance that our world is mastered, that all can be explained, that there is ground beneath our feet. The rhythmic incantations of habit and culture arrest time, confer predictability, and provide a home in an uncanny universe. Our eyes are diverted from the blinding light of being, and death is forestalled, moved to the cheap seats in the balcony, while we play-out our predictable days. And this must be so, for to be alive to the truth of existence with every tic-tock would be a frenzied, paralyzing, madness.

But our burden, and our gift, is that we can be aware of our plight. We grasp the fundamental truths of our existence in a primordial way: fright, anxiety, angst, as well as wonderment, awe and bewilderment. These are the wellsprings that urge us, compel us to find our way between sunshine and darkness. Bestowed with consciousness, we are creatures of the in-between. It is terrifying and thrilling. Our challenge: to avoid being pulled beneath the waves by the under-toe of habit; keeping our heads above the surface so that we may sing our song, reveling in finding ourselves here, now, alive in the jaws and splendor of life.

Haiku Potpourri

summersaults, baseball, balloons
gravity
at play

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in sleep
she mumbles
my name

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old records
familiar tunes
songs from the dead

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...hea...mur...rt...mur...

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3 AM hard rain
beats on the roof
of my brain

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city rhythms
horns, sirens, shouts
urban rap

*

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blown from their perch
autumn leaves
dance1

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summer solstice
empty classrooms
thresholds

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privileged 
to observe
my decline

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eclipsed sun
stars appear
aging

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Bridges and Tide Pools

Movement

Movement. New York City is MOVEMENT. Swarms of people animated by the most primal forces of modern life: Money. Capital. Goods. Information.  Indeed, New York is emblematic of modernity, birthed and fostered in the New World at the dawn the modern world by the two nations at the vanguard of this new world order.1 Founded as New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company, one of the first modern corporations, it was the port of entry to the vast, uncharted territory possessing untold potential for trade, profit and wealth. A blank slate, free of the historical and cultural encumbrances of a past, New Amsterdam was created and built for the sole purpose of commerce; an outpost of an emergent mercantilism and a founding site of nascent capitalism.2 New York remains true to this founding mission.

A trading port, New York shares the characteristics of all great trading centers; a cross-road of cultures, customs, peoples, all seeking goods and profit, requiring collaboration for barter and exchange. Traditional norms, social mores, and moral strictures are swept aside by the onrushing flood of commerce. Unburdened by a settled past, New York, in a New World, made for an especially dynamic, unfettered hive of activity; a New World Sodom and Gomorrah, where capitalism, and unconventionality, glow white hot, side-by-side.  

The movement that is New York may not appear obvious to those unfamiliar with the city. The towering forest of skyscrapers give the appearance of landed stability and permanence, but this is an illusion. Mostly consisting of banks and structures dedicated to commerce, they are, actually, relay stations; nodal points in a dynamic system that appraise, assess and transfer. And they all are located on an island. Indeed, New York is actually an archipelago scattered across river and ocean. Four of the five boroughs—Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens—are located on islands, and the fifth, the Bronx, is separated from most of the rest of the mainland by a mighty river, the Hudson.3

The Bridge

Throgs Neck Bridge
Connecting the Bronx and Queens

Water is the life-blood of the city—the origin source and a propulsive force of New York’s movement; arteries of trade and transportation, which also constrict landed trade through a capillary network of bridges and tunnels. Anyone traveling by wheels in to, out of, or within the city is acutely aware of these chokepoint on movement that are a source of raised ire—and blood pressure. Over thirty-three bridges and tunnels connect the New York City area; none more iconic than the one to Brooklyn.

Everyone loves the Brooklyn Bridge. Everybody. I, of course, knew of the Bridge long before I ever visited it, but its appeal puzzled me. I love bridges, especially modern ones, whose clean, spare geometric lines compose stirring visual harmonies; soaring expressions of the mathematics of gravity-defying suspension. But the Bridge is old. Old bridges are, perhaps, worthy of historic notice, but they often are chunky, Lego-blocks of inelegant functionality, frequently serving railroad transport. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed almost 150 years ago, in 1883, after 14 years of arduous, dangerous labor.4 It was the first steel suspension bridge and also, at its time, the longest. It welded the bustling metropolis of Manhattan with the growing suburb of Brooklyn, leading to their political union 12 years later.

Brooklyn Bridge

My puzzlement disappeared with my first strides onto the Bridge, when I discovered that it not only spans a river, it unites medieval and modern architectural beauty. Its massive stone pillars echo the cathedrals of 12th and 13th century Europe, and include huge, arched stain glass windows—without the glass!— that confer a soaring grandeur to these bulwarks of stone. The curved shapes of these ‘windows’ also echo the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Oz, in all its muscular, angular, glass-shimmering beauty, beckons through the stone portals of the Bridge. Attached to the medieval buttresses are the cables, wires and structural webbing of modern bridges. These impose a grid on the skyline that echos the geometric shapes of the buildings on the shore, and the cables that swoop to the top of the pillars reinforce the urgency, and the promise, of journeying to Oz. Augmenting this beauty is the rumble and hum of cars, trucks and busses that run on the deck below, reminding that New York City, from its inception, is a hub of commerce. The Bridge has been the object of obsession for many artists and now is also for me. My favorite image is one by Joseph Stella (one of many by him).

Joseph Stella
Brooklyn Bridge

Subterranean Carnival

Coursing unseen, underground, is another river of movement. The New York subways are noisy, crowded, grimy and disorienting, reflecting the city itself—gritty, bold, and ebullient. It is a world unto its own, a subterranean conduit channeling the bustle and surprises of the city that delight, disorient, disconcert and captivate; all available for a mere several dollars entrance fee.

Be prepared for anything: buskers of great talent and virtuosity, drummers, singers, dancers, upright pianos, brass bands, acrobats and gymnasts cavorting through car isles, hawkers of everything imaginable (and some beyond imagination), preachers, prophets, doomsayers, beggars, desperately needy sprawled next to pinstriped Wall Streeters, mutterers, drunks, school children, concert goers, construction workers, the mad and crazy ranting while librarians read, and the speech, dress, and skin tones of every country in the world. And much more. This may seem a dangerous place, but it is remarkably safe, as is much of New York.5

A Tide Pool

Traveling in a subway car evokes the experience of tide pooling, where the receding tide leaves vivid micro-cultures of arresting creatures who have been trapped in the residual pools of water. As the tide cycles, the inhabitants are washed out to sea, replaced by a new constellation of life.

Similarly, each car is a human tide pool. At each subway stop, some arresting life forms are carried away in the outgoing tide of riders, and a new micro-culture is created by the incoming surge.

Subway Reflections6

The subway is also a fun house. I like to sit at the end of a car and look back at the windows where multiple reflections make it difficult to discern whether going forward or backward, whether the images are from this car or another car, from the left or to the right. Changing speeds, and trains running parallel or in the opposite direction, furthers the experience of vertigo and a thrilling disorientation of movement and images.

This embodies the spirit and experience of New York City: The thrilling disorientation of movement.

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Freud was Right!

Sigmund Freud

Freud was Wrong!

No, Freud was not right! Many basic tenets of Freud’s theory have been completely disproved. To name several: Psychosexual stages. The Oedipal complex. Belief that repressed memories from the first year of life can be unearthed. Sexual fantasy about intercourse with a parent is responsible for hysteria.  Even more damning, his methods and procedures cannot be called scientific, his evidence lacks scientific credibility, and what is offered as evidence was sometimes fudged, if not outright fabricated. Not surprisingly, Freud is absented from contemporary psychological pedagogy, theory and research. Claiming, “Freud is right!” is akin to shouting, “Long live the king!”; historical curiosities, both.

Key features of Freud’s theory, in addition to being wrong, are repugnant to modern sensibilities. Misogynist perspectives are integral to the theory and to the man. To name but a few of the more egregious: Penis envy. The moral inferiority of woman. Only psychosexually mature women can achieve vaginal orgasm, while orgasm by clitoral stimulation is evidence of stunted development. “Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.1

Cash Value

And yet…and yet…Freud’s influence is pervasive, profound and enduring. This may appear misguided and misinformed given the systematic disproval and pervasive disregard of his work. But his influence is deep, personal and subterranean—dare I say unconscious— insinuating itself into our daily thoughts, beliefs, decisions and conduct.

William James coined the term Cash Value to describe criteria to assess the merit and truth of an assertion or belief. Cash value is used metaphorically, meaning “does the assertion have practical utility; does it have real-world consequences or is it merely empty words?”2. Freud’s work is freighted with immense metaphorical— and literal— cash value.

Edward Bernays was the nephew of Freud. His mother was Freud’s sister and his father was Freud’s wife’s brother. Born in 1891, and brought to the United States with his family in the first year of his life, Bernays injected his uncle’s insights into the very marrow and bloodstream of American culture, altering its pulse and functioning—along with the rest of the world. He did so using the unique means and methods of American culture to achieve its most valued end: Cash. Life magazine named Bernays one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.

The Darkness that Sells

Dark forces surge through us, compelling us to think, act and scheme to satisfy our primal impulses, all outside the bright lights of consciousness. Reason is a weak voice, easily overwhelmed by our desires, or employed, along with various other means, as a defense to protect us from awareness of the real, base motives that drive our thoughts and actions. This is Freud’s foundational vision of the human psyche. It is unflattering, if not repugnant, and not widely embraced. But it is a vision with inestimable cash value; one exploited by Bernays.

Edward Bernays made his fortune, fame and lasting influence by convincing people to buy things they don’t need, selling harmful products parading as health and beauty, rousing individuals to eagerly embrace slogans, and compelling them to surrender their individuality to the passions of the herd. He is considered to be the progenitor of public relations and is called “The Father of Spin”. He published a seminal book, Propaganda, that became Joseph Goebbels’ guidebook for his many Nazi propaganda campaigns, including developing the Fuhrer cult and orchestrating the genocide against the Jews.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda Poster: “He is Responsible for the War”
US Holocaust Memorial and Museum

Bernays became a highly sought, and extravagantly paid consultant to a number of leading businesses. His many successes include helping the American Tobacco Company to sell cigarettes to women, advertising them as glamorous “torches of freedom”; and aiding the United Fruit Company to sell bananas, and after the newly elected president of Guatemala threatened the business interests of United Fruit, Bernays persuaded the CIA and the US government—through rumors, innuendos, and manipulation of the press about a growing Communist menace—to overthrow the his government.

After World War II, Bernays rebranded ‘propaganda’, calling it ‘public relations’, giving it a more favorable spin. However labeled, his intent remained the same:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Bernays; Propaganda

We are more firmly in the grip of the subversive forces of marketing, ‘public relations’ and propaganda than ever. Social media, and the entire electronic universe within which we are submerged, that invades the inner most regions of our mind, are shrewdly engineered using Freud/Bernays-inspired principles to compel our attention, impel us to embrace unexamined and unwarranted conclusions, and propel us to act passionately in ways that exploit our unconscious desires—and, also, meet the explicit aims of the social engineers.3

This is a worldwide phenomenon. We are a mob. Or mobs. Twittering, tweeting, Facebooking, “liking”, chattering, texting, Instagraming, Photo-shopping, rumoring, instigating, provoking, inciting, lying, messaging, massaging, insisting, imploring; “truths” swirling in clouds blanketing the globe, marketed, managed and mined for profit—political, economic or otherwise.

The Darkness that Lurks

We, at least many of us in the US and the West, have lived in relative peace and prosperity for the last 75 years. This, a long quiescence, after nearly a half century of paroxysms of savagery, slaughter, mayhem and madness that consumed nearly the entire human race. A period that has been tamed and denuded of its horror; disconnected from us, neatly archived as World War I, WWII and the Great Depression. But archiving does not eliminate, or even diminish, the impulses that lurk in the human heart that gave rise to this bloody history. The political, economic and international structures that helped establish and maintain this quiescence, as well as the beliefs, routines and practices that buttressed public life and private affairs, are being torn down; tossed overboard. They may presage a growing whirlwind and coming storm of civilizations and their discontents.4

Freud was right…beware.

Hatred

See how efficient it is,
how it keeps itself in shape–
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.

It is not like other feelings.
At both once older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons that give it life.
When it sleeps, it’s never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength; it feeds it.

One religion or another—
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another—
whatever helps it get a running start.
Just also works well at the onset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Hatred. Hatred.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.

Oh these other feelings, listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood draw crowds?
When has compassion ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.

Gifted, diligent, hard working.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?

Let’s face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You cannot deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.
Hatred is a master of contrast—between explosions and dead
quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
its leitmotif—the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.

It’s always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it is blind. Blind?
It has a sniper’s keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.

Wislawa Szymborska5

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What is Sacred?

Sacre-Coeur

What is sacred? Some would point to the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Sutra, the Vedas. Some would say the sacred resides in their churches, their temples, their synagogues, their mosques. Some would say it is located in Mecca, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, in the Ganges, in Lumbini, in stupas, in the moon, in the sun. Clearly, what is sacred is based on the particular religion and its attendant teachings, practices, values, beliefs and history.

Temple Pagoda

Sacred and Mundane

Religion is the assumed frame for addressing the question, as scared is associated with the holy, which, in turn, is defined and understood within a religious context. The term ‘sacred’ is derived from Latin, meaning ‘to set apart’; a partitioning of the sacred from the mundane. The set-apart of sacred from mundane in most religions involves the separation of “this world” from a transcendental, supernatural world. The transcendental world is before and beyond this world and the source and origin of the sacred.

This partitioning is established and maintained by cultural-religious practices, worship services, dress, ceremonies, rites, and rituals that serve to mark the boundaries of the sacred from the habits and customs of everyday life. They also offer a well-worn avenue, complete with signposts, guides, and guardrails, for entry into experiencing the scared.

Sacerdote Diacono

These states, sacred and mundane, embody two different modes of being: One of awe, reverence, fear, and humility; of being in the presence of the unfathomable mystery and ineffable powers of god (or gods). The other, in contrast, of concerns and experiences of the quotidian and the commonplace. One extraordinary, the other ordinary. One transformative, the other commonplace.

This World Sacred

The set-apart, however, need not require a supernatural presence or origin. The sheer overwhelming presence of the world, the miracle that there is something rather than nothing, that it exists, that we exist, evokes the experience of the sacred. There is another world and it is in this world”.1 The sacred does not shine through this world from a source outside it—it is the world, itself, shinning.

This experience of the sacred shares much with the religious experience: It is not logical, not rational, not cognitive, but a state of being; of awe, reverence, fear, humility; of being in the presence of the unfathomable mystery and ineffable powers of the cosmos. The set-apart for this world sacred, however, is not found through established religious rites, rituals and practices.

The experience of the mundane is the product of being socialized into a ready-made world of routines and habits, familiar meanings and cultural rituals, that render the world obvious, given and straightforward.  And it must be so, if we are to keep from being overwhelmed by the angst and terror of finding ourselves in a world that is beyond understanding; that beneath our feet, firmly planted in the habits and rituals of daily life, lies the yawning void.  Experience of this world sacred, for those well secured to the “straightforward” world, requires breaking open the commonplace to glimpse the miraculous of this world that is papered over by the mundane.2

Experiencing This World

Whereas religion provides culturally established rituals and ready-made avenues for experiencing the sacred, no such sanctioned signposts or well-worn paths exist for experiencing this world sacred. The experience of this world sacred can come unbidden; surprising, shocking, disorienting, alarming, delighting, frightening us.

The encrustment of the mundane can also be punctured through science, which delivers head-spinning discoveries and mind-busting conclusions; our wildest dreams could not conger anything as bizarre, and contra the mundane, as quantum mechanics, black holes, or an infinite, expanding cosmos.3 Science teaches: The world is not only stranger that we imagine, it is stranger that we can imagine.4

Art, music, dance, poetry, theatre all, too, can shock us out of our mundane stupor. Seeing rather than looking; listening rather than hearing. A soup can, a splash of red, a face, a bird’s trill—anything, really—can be transformed to an experience of the sacred with the proper openness and reverence.5

Also, meditation— practicing to be present, alive to the experience of this moment without preconceptions—is another way to be present to the mystery, alert to the epiphany of the ordinary, alive to the holy and the numinous that is the world.

Some may object to this use of words “sacred”, “holy” and “numinous”, either because they fail to incorporate religious metaphysical referents, or because they reverberate with such connotations. But the power of these words does justice to the power of the experiences. No single religion owns these experiences. Indeed, their presence across religions underscores that they are fundamental human experiences resulting from our plight of finding ourselves alive within the Mystery of an unfathomable cosmos. And the challenge, for those of us for whom the sacred is This World, is to stand in the face of the Mystery, without explanation; astonished.

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box Morality

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, these are giants of moral virtue, courage and commitment. They devoted their lives, sacrificed their lives, for the cause of justice and the greater good. When we think of living an exemplar moral life, it is these lives that we look to because of their engagement of big issues that affect big changes in a multitude of lives. They overshadow our small, insignificant lives, lived in the alleyways of common life.

An equally long shadow is cast from the methods typically used to understand the nature and development of morality. The study of moral development has, for decades, used moral dilemmas to determine one’s moral stage of development. For example, the question is posed, “If you were poor and your parent had a life-threatening illness that required a drug that you could not afford, would it be acceptable to steal it?” Analysis of the reasoning involved in the answer is used to determine individuals’ “moral stage”. Philosophical inquiries into the basis and origins of morality and ethics typically pose similar moral dilemmas to expose underlying moral reasoning and values. These approaches assume that morality is exposed in events of great significance, and that reason and logic are the gateways to identifying and codify the rules of ethics.

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box

I call the beliefs that morality is manifest only in the lives of great personages or in life-altering situations “Big Box” morality. It is presumed that from the flat, quotidian landscape of life, morality arises and is made manifest in singular lives and in life-defining moments. It is here where moral character is revealed. And this presumption is misguided. These singular lives and defining events, while important, are merely more pronounced features of the rich, dense moral landscape that comprise all our lives. Morality and ethics are not Big Box items. Nor are they derived from reason or deducible from logic. They are conditions of being, like breathing, where our every action is inescapably a moral one. We are, fundamentally, constitutionally, inescapably, moral.1 Not “Big Box”, but mom and pop morality.

mom & pop

I place my mother with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale in my moral pantheon of individuals I admire.  My mother, of course, is not Big Box. She, instead, underscores the absolutely essential contributions of the unheralded moms and pops. The moms and pops are all of us, not just parents, not just adults. Our lives are embedded within the moral matrix of family, friends, and communities, great and small, whose accumulated commitments form us, nurture us, bind us at the nuclear level. Moms and pops are the hands that reach from the past into the present, that constitute, stabilize, and guide us through life, and reach, though us, into the future. This occurs, not at moments of acute crisis, but at the at the everyday, ground floor of human action, care, giving and exchange.

Our daily life is a moral one, and it is only the moral currency we have earned in our life’s journey that matters:

Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last. … A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?. 2

Tribute and Remembrance

Mom

I offer this tribute to my mother and, by association, to all the moms and pops, whether parents, adults, or children, who form the collective web of moral regard that binds us together.

When my mother died we found this Bible verse, Psalm 86:11, on prominent display on her desk:

Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle in all the events of life—in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted.

Let me put myself aside, to think of the happiness of others, to hide my little pains and heartaches, so that I may be the only one to suffer from them.

Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so see it that it may mellow me, not harden, not embitter me.

That it may make me patient, not irritable, that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow, haughty and overbearing.

May no one be less good from having come within my influence.

No one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble for having been a fellow-traveler in our journey toward eternal life.

Teach me O Lord, your way.

This is how she lived her life.

She died 5 years ago, on Good Friday, April 19, 2014.

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Field Notes: Mets

Mets is the moniker, the nickname, for the Metropolitans; a 4-letter word, a curse for the baseball team sharing the same city as the Yankees. The Mets are the yang to the Yankees yin. The Yankees are baseball royalty, aristocracy, old money. The Mets are baseball peasantry, commoners, Bernie-Madoff-bankrupt nouveau riche.1

Clowns and Costumes

Mr. Mets
New York Post

The Yankees eschew clown-mascots. The Mets’ mascot is Mr. Mets, addressed as Mr., presumably, because it dignifies the mascot; a mascot most famous for giving the finger to his fans. With a smile, of course. He was not fired for this, of course. It is noteworthy that his actions were provoked by merciless taunting from…Met fans,2 who insulted Mr. Mets’ mother (the Mascot’s mother!! And the actor in the mascot suit took personal offense?!). The press noted that Mr. Mets was not, technically, giving the middle finger, as he only has 4 fingers.

Banker Pinstripes

The Yankees wear banker pinstripes. No garish colors, or any color, here. No gaudy script across the chest to announce who they are. Just the simple Yankee logo, known worldwide; no further identification necessary. The Mets are bedecked with the colors, blue and orange, of the two teams, the Dodgers and Giants, that fled New York for greener fields of green, and whose departure left festering scabs of disappointment, loss and despair on their New York fans. The Mets keep fresh the scabs of disappointment, loss and despair in the colors that garb them, their play on the field, and the ineptitude of their boardroom. The Yankees are admired. Fans aspire to be Yankees. No such distance separates fans and team for the Mets. The Mets are us—failure, foibles, follies and all. Fans love the Mets.

Colors of Despair

Morality and Baseball

I love baseball, and love it for many, many reasons. One is because it is a morality play, where good and evil engage in mortal combat. There is a clear winner, a clear loser, and the outcome uncluttered by ambiguity. However, what makes baseball (and other sports) maddening, and despairing, is that good does not always triumph. No guarantees of victory by the righteous are issued in the sphere of baseball; it is not a Panglossian “Best of All Possible Worlds”. Indeed not, as the unrivaled success of that most evil of empires, the Yankees, attests.

Yankees’ out of Uniform

Anthropological Fieldwork

Since I have retired, I have undertaken an odyssey to visit all the baseball parks. My compulsion is not simply to see the parks, but to embark on anthropological journeys into exotic subcultures, each with their own unique architecture, food, attire, rituals, rites, heroes, history, emblems, songs and settings. And fans.

The Mets fans are fierce and tribal. Foreigners, especially National League East coasters from the competing divisional tribes, are greeted as invaders, and met with intimidation, jeering, taunting, vociferous challenges to their parental origins and legitimacy, and symbolic—and not so symbolic— threats. Warriors, asserting territorial sovereignty and protecting the sacred turf of home.

I visited the Mets stadium in the midst of a pennant race, at a game pitting the first place Washington Nationals against the beloved second place Mets. At stake was first place, and it was August, when standings and games get serious. I traveled to the stadium on the 7 train, crowed with boisterous, noisy Mets fans dressed in team shirts, hats, and the jerseys of beloved heroes. One of the most popular heroes is a current player, Noah Syndergaard, who dressed himself up as Thor, cape and all, and tweeted a picture of himself doing power swats.

Noah Syndergaard aka Thor
@noahsyndergaard

When I exited the 7 train, I walked a gauntlet of alcohol addled young men, shouting, dancing, posturing, posing, joking, and laughing; greeting the arriving throng with beer-can salutes and profanity laced exhortations. It was immediately clear: “You are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”! Or St. Louis.

The highlight (or lowlight) of my visit occurred before the game even began. A physically disabled boy was given the honor of throwing out the ceremonial “first pitch”. He was positioned about 30 feet from home with the Mets catcher poised behind the plate to receive his toss. The child gave a mighty effort and the ball bounced several times before reaching the catcher. Immediately, instinctually, reflexively, in herd-unison, the stadium erupted in a loud chorus… of boos!

I was dumbfounded and paralyzed between laughing hysterically at the absolute absurdity of what had just happened, and horror at what had just happened. As an experienced field researcher, I can offer this advice to any intrepid traveler who may plan to risk a visit to this most volatile tribe: Don’t wear pinstripes. Never volunteer to throw out the first pitch.

Baseball, Oh Beloved Baseball…

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Origins of Ethics

Morality Unspoken

The words were never spoken in my house. Never once uttered. Indeed, they were assiduously avoided, as if saying them would change everything, call into question the very meaning of the words. But never, for a day, for a moment, did I ever feel unloved. They were of a different generation, my parents, a generation less psychological, one less in need of constant reassurance, one both more and less direct. I never longed for them to say it, never felt deprived, never in doubt, for even in their displeasure, censure, and anger, I knew.

There is, of course, merit in saying the words, “I love you”. Few other words have such a life-altering impact as these. But the sinews of love, the binding strength of love, is in deeds, not words. This is why, before and beyond anything we utter, our deeds go forth in the world, and why I know that I, myself, am able to love—because my parent’s deeds live on in me.

My parents love for me, and my sister and brother, did not spring from their religious beliefs, was not contingent on church affiliation, not derived from “Thou Shalt Not” imperatives. They could have left their church (they did), changed religions, or become non-believers and their nurturance, protection and care for their children would have remain unaltered. Their commitment to our welfare was deeper than religion, more primal than creed.

Ethical Indebtedness

We do not choose our children. They are born to us, miraculously, and we are entrusted with their care. Our face-to-face encounters with our children are asymmetrical; our children are completely vulnerable to our response, completely dependent on our care. They expose us to the mystery of life, and their helplessness alerts us to the ever presence of harm, injury, death. Their life depends on our simple, daily acts of feeding, giving and care. We love our children, not for what they can do, or what they provide, but because of who they are, their irreducible uniqueness; specific beings who are bound to us, who have a moral claim on our being.

This moral claim entails love. If our “care” for children is merely functional, simply dispensing nutrients, offering basic shelter, and providing the bare essentials necessary for survival—“care” without love—our offspring wither and die.1 Every culture, in every historical epoch, shares these human truths. Our love for our children, and the attendant acts of care, are hardwired.  And this must be so, if our species is to survive.

The ethical circle of regard encompasses more than our children. We are a social species and our individual and collective survival depends on our communal acts of care, cooperation and sharing. This, too, is hardwired, from the specific brain neurons dedicated to human facial recognition, to neonates’ innate ability to imitate others, to toddlers’ preverbal appreciation of fairness in exchanges, to young children’s spontaneous acts of compassion toward someone in distress.

Ethics does not appear only when creeds are uttered. Morality is not confined to those who profess certain beliefs. We are beholden to others, dependent on one another throughout our lives. We are, fundamentally, ethical beings. Our daily, in-this-moment journey is a moral one, and every action a decision about how to comport ourselves in the face of ethical demands engendered by being with others.

Ethics and Cruelty

Picasso’s Guernica
Museum Reina Sofia
Madrid, Spain

Human history, however, or even a cursory glance at the morning headlines, reveals a frightening range of human cruelty, casting a shadow over assertions about the fundamental ethical nature of human life. Our primordial ethical indebtedness does not prevent murder, rape, abuse or the many other forms of malevolence or, for that matter, the petty acts of greed, dishonesty, and selfishness that pollute our daily life. Overwhelming evidence indicates that more than ethical kindness beats in the human heart. But human cruelty does not obviate the centrality of ethics in human life. Rather, our ethical relatedness exposes human cruelty, allows us to grasp it as such.

Ethical Humanism

Ethical Society St. Louis

I am a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, which is a humanist, non-theist religious community. We are often queried by our more traditional religious friends of how we can be moral without a creed; how we can be ethical without a belief in a higher power. These questions are posed to us by those from a variety of different religious traditions, beliefs and practices. Our answer: The multiplicity, diversity, and sometimes contradictory ethics of the many religions spring from a common human ground of ethical regard. Or, more simply: “Deed Before Creed.”2 3

Bombers & Butterflies

Tucson Postcard

Air and Space Flight

We visited the Pima Air and Space museum during our stay in Tucson and I expected to be mildly interested. Instead, I was deeply touched—surprisingly so. As a kid I was consumed with books about WW II pilots and air combat, and when I saw the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B 29 Superfortress and the P-51 fighter, I choked up. The bombers were so brutal and so beautiful, and what was especially gut-grabbing was the ball-turret under the fuselage of the B-24. Strapped into a space with NO wiggle room, a casket waiting to happen, barely visible amidst the tubes, gears and gadgets, the gunner was literally a breathing extension of the weaponry.

The bombers were industrial—not one concession to comfort or human concerns—WAR was the architecture writ large in every detail. On the B-17 and B-24, neither was pressurized and they frequently flew at altitudes of 20,000 feet or higher. They had doors that opened for gunners with machine guns so the crew endured sub-zero temps at high altitudes for hours.

There was a special hanger for the B-17 and the day we were there a vet who flew 28 missions in 1943 was there to talk about his experiences. 95 years old and he looked and talked like someone in their 70’s. He had interesting stories, but even more noteworthy was we were in the presence of someone giving voice to frightful happenings so long ago; the last echo of a past age.

The B-29 Superfortress, which is what dropped the A bomb, was the largest and most impressive of these planes.  It turns out, they were very dangerous—for the air crew, because the engines had a propensity to catch fire, and accounted for more losses that enemy fire. The problem was known from day one, yet they continued to make 4,000 of them. Why? The calculus of war— its strategic importance (long range, high altitude, pressurized, heavy payload bomber) outweighed the known casualties that would result from the design. We protected civilians of opulent prosperity have been spared these types of grim calculations…as those who have been in combat know only too well.

Flight in Air and Space

The previous day we visited the Tucson Botanical Garden, a gem of artistically arranged plants from several desert regions (with local bird accompaniments). What proved to be the surprise of our visit was the butterfly house. To prevent any errant escapees, a guard was stationed at the double-doored entrance to escort visitors in, and a guard manned the exit of the small enclosure, scanning those leaving for any hitchhikers, before allowing them to depart through double-doors.  Entering—what a sight! Amidst blooming orchids, tropical plants, in jungle-like humidity, were hundreds of winged, near weightless apparitions, filling the air. The fluttering yellows, reds, whites, browns, blacks and iridescent blues evoked an ephemeral, dream-scape. We stayed here for a long time, holding our breath, as the butterflies flitted about in their erratic flight—prompting me to ask; what kind of body-music animates these whimsical paths? Certainly not the one-two, one-two, that organizes our movement.

(An attempted hitchhiker)

Flight

Flight of the butterfly, flight of the B’s. Both lifted by the same currents— one, a bejeweled, vulnerable expression of life; the other, a steeled fist, tasked with ending it.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

(See Jessica Plattner’s stunning paintings of themes related to “Bombers & Butterflies”: http://www.jessicaplattnerart.com/home.html)

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