December Songs

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

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Attention Shoppers!

Restlessness

Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.1

Attentiveness is not alertness, which is a restless scanning. Attentiveness requires time, intention, and focus. It is a meditative thoughtfulness about something. It is in this meditative thoughtfulness that we encounter, and discover, our soul; the core of our being.

Attentiveness is in short supply. We live in a restless time, poised to check and respond to the many digital alerts, messages, and prompts that ping, ting, and ding on our phones, watches, Fitbits, computer screens, televisions, and dashboards. Our waking hours are saturated with the presence of a virtual world, beckoning us to something more urgent, more important, more vital than our being in the present moment. Some even place their phone on their bedstand, just in case…

Sin and Shopping

If attentiveness is a form of prayer, then what is sin? St. Paul describes the experience of sin: “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”2 Why do we feel compelled to violate our highest ideals? Religious spiritual traditions answer: The Devil. And how does the Devil manage this? By appealing to the desires of the flesh, which are sins against the commitment and command to live a life of the spirit. Sin offers the alure of euphoric oblivion, of being transported beyond the drab humdrum of daily concerns. No wonder sin is so appealing. 

Secular humanist traditions do not share the metaphysical beliefs of most religions, but much wisdom resides in religious concepts that can be meaningfully translated into a humanist framework.3 St. Paul’s description of sin provides a succinct description of the experience of addiction: We feel compelled to do what we know we shouldn’t. The devil, like the religious Devil, tempts us by appealing to desires, needs, and interests that are against our best interests. This can take many forms for different people. One source, however, invades the life of nearly us all: cyberspace.

Cyberspace is not inherently devilish. The digital world is seamlessly woven into almost every aspect of our lives and has been magnified during the pandemic. Workplaces for many have shifted from office to home. In-person contact with friends and colleagues, attending church services and schooling, business meetings, social gatherings, meet-ups, babysitting, with people near and far, are now conducted through Zoom and FaceTime. Limitless entertainment, recreational, and educational activities are available in podcasts, e-books, videos, streaming, gaming, news reports, weather updates, etc., etc., etc., all at our fingertips. And shopping. We can buy almost anything, at any time, with a simple “click”. It is hard not to delight in this dazzling world.

Our ubiquitous virtual experience, however, is largely governed and orchestrated by corporations whose only aim is profit. Many of these corporations offer what appears to be free services; email, doc sharing and storage, search engines, community messaging, etc., etc. It seems free because we fail to appreciate that we are paying with our most precious resource: our attention.

Others within the virtual world also seek our attention, where profit is measured in influence that can be leveraged for financial, political, and personal gain. The internet is an attentional economy. This virtual world is a modern midway with carnival barkers employing “clickbait” to snare our attention. The bait beckons us, flashing punchy, brief phrases, provocative imagery, and eye-catching banners that offer promises to fulfill desires we often didn’t know we had; to be enlarged by our participating in groups of “friends” who “like” us; to have our life changed by a purchase—to be transported, however briefly, beyond mundane daily life. The momentary hit afforded by a simple “click” triggers the desire for more. And more. The aim is to create addiction.

ATT *#/ EN +@% TIO &^+ N !

The alluring payoffs of the attention economy carry hidden costs. We check our phones, on average, every 10 minutes, spend less that 2 minutes for 70% of these sessions, and webpage visits typically last less that 10 to 20 seconds. Phone prompts, even if we ignore them, can disrupt attention and negatively impact performance on ongoing mental and physical tasks. Even the mere presence of a phone can lead to poorer performance. Media multitasking is common feature of web browsing and, surprisingly, can lead to a decrease in effective multitasking in other contexts, as individuals become more prone to distraction by irrelevant material.4 Restless, unsettled, alert, we scan the world, but have difficulty giving anything our full attention. Perhaps most importantly, our attention is in danger of being hijacked, as our minds are lured to the addictive tug of “more.”

Greatest Hazard

We cannot escape the cyber world we live in; cannot hold our breath, plug our ears, or close our eyes and hope it will go away. Even if we could, most of us would not want to.

Attentiveness is what has been eroded and attentiveness is what needs to be reclaimed. Attentiveness, not to a virtual world, but to the one we live our lives in, the one pressing on our skin, the one with cries and laughter, with flowers and weeds, with loves and friendships. These may lack the immediate buzz-hit of the fast-moving virtual stream, but that stream threatens to sweep us away from life, away from ourselves, numbing us to the awe and mystery of being here, now, alive. We are imperiled and much is at stake. Kierkegaard, that early Casandra of our modern age, warns:

“The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be noticed.”

May you find peace in this frenzied holiday season.

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Old Dog, New Tricks?

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”                     

Old Dog

My first, almost reflexive, old-doggie response to this cliché is to disagree. “What do you mean!? How old is old? 50? 65? 80? Some can be demented at 60 years and others, at 80, can be sharper than many 20-year-old’s.” Once my indignation subsides, I am painfully aware of the daily reminders of the inescapable reality that the body ages, the mind slackens, and energy wanes. Information goes in, but doesn’t stick. Recall is diminished as I root around for a familiar name, word, or past event. Attention wanders. Complex reasoning is a trial with failure a common outcome; even no-so-complex reasoning sometimes befuddles. Focus is fragmented: “What was I just doing?” “Why was I doing it?” “Where did I put it?”1

Dementia. I have witnessed family members, friends, and acquaintances fall to this dreaded outcome. The tragedy is twofold, afflicting both the sufferer as well as their family and caretakers. Dementia is one of my biggest fears and, I know, also is for many others of my generation. Diminishing capacities are not only a source of concern, in themselves, but another, more general level of anxiety pervades: “Is this a sign of dementia?”

Research on the normative patterns of cognitive decline with age helps, somewhat, to normalize what I am experiencing. Normal declines include: information processing speed and reaction times; keeping multiple thoughts in mind at the same time; memory of recent events; remembering to do things in the future; screening out distracting information, multitasking, sustaining attention; recalling words, names, places; thinking abstractly, making complex decisions, reasoning, solving new problems, and regulating behavior.2

Quite a comprehensive list! Should I be relieved that these are “normal?” It certainly suggests that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Well, let’s look at some things that remain relatively stable or improve with age: Vocabulary and comprehension of language remain stable. Procedural memory, which is how to do things, like ride a bike, ice skate, swim, drive a car, also remains stable. Older adults have a lifetime of stored information to draw on when making decisions and responding to problems and situations. They also are quicker to recover from negative experiences, less reactive to stressful interpersonal encounters, more positive in their outlook, and, surprisingly, happier.3

So, when the elderly get in a car accident, which is much more likely, they will be able to talk about it fluently and be less emotionally reactive. They retain the ability to drive, but their mental and physical reaction times are slower, they forget where they are going, get confused, distracted, lose their attentional focus, and have diminished perceptual acuity making driving at night, in the rain, snow, etc., challenging. This is hardly reassuring. And it does not make me happier…

Old Tricks, New Tricks

The diminishment of my facilities poses a new challenge: How do I manage to continue effectively performing old, necessary tasks? Answer: New tricks must be learned. Most advice about coping with aging focuses on diet, exercise, and activities. Much less is offered about specific behavioral strategies to deal with everyday tasks that have become more challenging because of cognitive decline. Here are some that I have discovered.

“Houston, we have a problem.” The first, necessary, and most important step is to admit there is a problem. Nothing can happen until this admission is made. This can be difficult, for it means admitting that I am old, vulnerable, no longer as capable, and on the noticeable downward slide into the grave. Yikes!4

Speed Kills. This phrase has been used in reference to auto safety. It also applies, metaphorically, to the elderly. Diminished processing speed and attentional focus, greater distractibility, attenuated multitasking capabilities, etc., etc., can create serious problems when performing even routine tasks at the formerly habituated speed. I chant to myself, “Speed Kills”  to slow myself down when, for example, paying the bills, collecting my belongings at the gym as I prepare to leave, or trying to save time by doing two things at once. Chanting is especially important while driving when “Speed Kills” is not metaphorical. The challenge, of course, it to remember to chant…

Remember You Won’t Remember. I know I will not remember. When I do remember that I must mail a letter, write a bill, etc., I arrange the environment to remind me: The letter goes in front of the door exiting the house, the checkbook is placed in my shoes, etc. Also, yellow sticky notes placed in unusual and unavoidable spots. ”In place of memories, memorandums.”5

New Tricks for New Tricks

Believe that old dogs can do new tricks. It is easy to get discouraged in the face ever diminishing abilities and conclude, “I’m too old” or “Why bother.” One of the biggest obstacles to learning new tricks is thinking, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” You can. It just takes more time, requires more repetition, more written notes to aid memory and focus, more practice, and more patience.

Adjust expectations. I will not write a novel in a new language, become a concert pianist or an IT expert. Time and ability impose limits. But I can, if I chose, learn a new language, acquire skills at the piano, or setup my own blog site. New tricks are possible within the compass of my energy, abilities, and interests.

Seek joy. I have less energy to sustain prolonged, intense tasks. This means it is absolutely essential that the new tricks I undertake, tricks not necessary for my welfare and health, bring me joy. Joy is my “Geiger counter” to detect those tricks that are worthy of my precious, dwindling, and ever more limited energy. Joy creates energy, passion, engagement in the world. Joy is what keeps me motivated to keep at it, to seek mastery—but at a level that does not seriously diminish joy.

Coordinating activities to maximize joy. I simply cannot sustain focused energy as I once could. Furthermore, if I attempt complex tasks when my energy is low, problems, frustration, and mistakes abound. Not much joy in that. So, I try to match my tricks with my schedule; difficult ones in the morning, and reserve the afternoons and evenings for less taxing and more entertaining activities, like reading novels, listening to baseball games, talking with friends.

One Big New Trick for an Old Dog

The new tricks above involve developing specific cognitive and behavioral strategies to cope with the loss of old tricks. A completely new challenge also arises that requires a new trick: The trick of making peace with old age. This is unlike other tricks; it does not entail learning new skills, acquiring more know-how, or improving proficiency. It requires a new attitude towards oneself, one’s life, one’s past, one’s future. It involves acceptance.

Acceptance is not surrender. Surrender is passive. Acceptance is much harder— it calls us to  actively embrace our plight. This challenge encompasses humility, forgiveness, and gratitude; to live vitally in the face of impending demise. I have witnessed family, friends, and acquaintances grow old and have learned from each. Some I admire greatly, and they have tutored me how to approach my end. Others offer a cautionary note to the dangers, traps, and pitfalls that I could so easily succumb.

So, can you teach an old dog new tricks?  Depends on the dog.

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Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
—Billy Collins

Mind and Body Problems

Mental illness has ravaged many a life, ruined many a family, and has dramatically increased during the pandemic. Most of us probably know someone—a loved one, family member, friend, or colleague—who has been afflicted.  

Hidden within all this suffering is a long standing, seemingly intractable, philosophical quandary residing at the center of Western philosophy since the 17th century: The mind-body problem. This Gordian knot was prompted by the rise of science, which permits only physical causes and effects. The problem is this: How can a material, biological entity that obeys the laws of the physical world (our body) give rise to our rich, subjective, deeply personal experience of the world (our mind)? The debate ranges and rages across a wide landscape. Are we, for example, only body and our mind is, at best, an epiphenomenon? Or, alternatively, can we only be sure of our immediate phenomenological experience—our mind—and our body, as a physical entity, is a mirage?

This debate appears to have little to do with our everyday lives; simply another pointless intellectual game played by philosophers.1 This debate, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. Many will likely make decisions that have life consequences, sometimes life and death consequences, without realizing that they are determined by unexamined assumptions about the mind-body problem.

Mental Illness

Mental illness. The mind-body problem adheres in its very name. The term, mental illness, is a concatenation of mind (mental) and body (illness). The term also encodes a presumed resolution to the mind-body problem. Illness is the subject, the noun. Mental is the descriptor of the subject, an adjective. It identifies the type of illness. To reverse the order, “illness mental”, makes no sense. Illness is not an adjective. Because human distress, anguish, and dysfunction are defined as an illness, a physical affliction of the body, then the identification, diagnosis, cause, and cure must be treated as all illnesses are; as a medical condition.

Pills and Power

The illness approach to mental suffering gives “ownership” to MD’s; to psychiatrists. The manual for identifying and diagnosing mental illness (the DSM) is issued, and frequently updated, by psychiatrists; new illnesses are identified, some deleted, and diagnostic criteria added and amended.   

Understanding and treating mental illness underwent a revolution in the 1960’s. Prior to this time, identification, diagnosis, cause, and cure were predominately determined by Freudian trained psychiatrists. The revolution was sparked by the discovery of medications that ameliorate symptoms associated with profoundly disabling types of mental illness; neuroleptics to treat psychosis, antidepressants for depression, and mood stabilizers for bipolar disorder.

The chemical actions of these drugs were investigated with the aim of uncovering the pathophysiology responsible for the illness that the medications address. This research led to “chemical imbalance” causal models of mental illness. So, for example, neuroleptics, which contain dopamine, was hypothesized to offset an imbalance in dopamine presumed to cause psychosis. Similarly, antidepressants, which inhibit the uptake of serotonin, was hypothesized to prevent an imbalance of that neurotransmitter presumed to cause depression.

Given the severity of impairment of these illnesses, and the prolonged Freudian treatments using medically dubious means (talk) with uncertain results, these discoveries flashed on the scene as miracle drugs. Psychiatry was upended. The Freudian-based approach was replaced by a medical model anchored in physical causality, symptom-based diagnosis, and treatment by medication.

In addition to the obvious and profound benefits of relief of suffering, other important consequences followed from the positioning of mental illness within the body-causes-illness medical model. Insurance coverage is now routine, lifting the huge financial burden of treating these illnesses, and billions of federal dollars are now dedicated to research investigating the bio-medical causes and cures of mental illness. Medication is the default option typically used to treat mental illness.2 While philosophers debate the mind-body problem, it appears to have been solved in the laboratory.

Flies in the Ointment

Despite the success of medication and its widespread use, however, a host of troubling difficulties plague foundational aspects of the medical model of mental illness. Three are especially noteworthy.

Causality. Decades of research has failed to support the premise that specific biochemical deviations in the brain correspond to particular mental illnesses. Furthermore, symptom amelioration can be accomplished with drugs that do not contain the hypothesized chemical causal agent.3

It also has become clear that psychological stress and trauma can precipitate all manner of mental illness, from PTSD and anxiety disorders to schizophrenia and depression. Both body (biology) and mind (psycho-social) can predispose, prompt, or give rise to mental illness. Causality is a complex entanglement of body-to-mind and mind-to-body interactions. The nature of the entanglements are fuzzy, vary among mental disorders, and even vary among individuals sharing the same illness.

Diagnosis and Cure. Mental illness does not share essential diagnostic attributes of physical illness. Question: How many mental illnesses can be diagnosed using biomedical indices, including brain scans, genetic markers, blood tests, body scans, laboratory assays of bodily fluids and functions, identification of pathogens, etc.? Answer: None. Not one. Furthermore, the illnesses themselves are not identified by medical or biological symptoms. The symptoms are all psycho-behavioral. And cures consist of the reduction of the listed psycho-behavioral symptoms. Diagnosis and cure fall entirely within the circumference of “mind,” not body.

Treatment. The treatment of mental illness is a much researched area and the complications are head spinning. The best practice, empirically supported treatments vary for types and severity of illnesses, and can differ between individuals and circumstances. Medications can certainly be effective, but they are not a panacea. Indeed, for many, if not most, of the 157 mental disorders listed in the recent diagnostic manual, medications are not the most effective treatment. Instead, behavioral and psychological interventions often are, and they come with the added benefit of no long-term side effects.4

Mind-Body and You

The debate about the mind-body solution to mental illness ranges widely and rages on. It has not been solved. Confusion, dispute, and debate about all aspects of mental illness, from identification, to diagnosis, to cause, to cure, indeed, to the very legitimacy of the term “mental illness” itself, highlight the intractable nature of the issue. This is not simply a philosophical debate, and cannot be waved off as irrelevant to our daily lives. It is a dispute with life-altering consequences. Should you find yourself in need of treatment, you must choose your solution, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Be informed. Choose wisely.

Wrinkles

W. H. Auden

Wrinkles

Wrinkles. When I look into the mirror I see accordion folded eyelids, furrows, north-to-south, in my cheeks, baggie eyes, sagging mouth, lined forehead, and spots of brown, large and small, splattered across my face. 74 years of life displayed on my face.

Mother Teresa

Rebecca

Rebecca is the daughter of a neighbor who, when she was young, I would meet as she walked her dog in our neighborhood. She always was a sunbeam; engaging, mature beyond her years, thoughtful, and I delighted in our chance meetings. Rebecca’s life took her to Columbia University, where she received a degree in English, which was followed by a Master’s degree at Oxford, a Ph.D. at Berkeley, and then a position at Princeton. Obviously brilliant. But much more than that. She was kind, made life-friends at every stop, and possessed a generous spirit and a deep commitment to education.   

Rebecca died, this August, of a rare cancer. She was 37 years old.1

Wrinkles. I gaze into the mirror and I see wrinkles. No longer smooth-faced, filled with youthful promise, but old.

Lincoln

Richard

Richard was my best friend in high school and college. We were joined at the hip; he was the yin to my yang. We lived together for several years and joyfully participated in many youthful antics that are the source of fond memories. Richard had no enemies. He was affable, smart, funny, and unpretentious. He conferred humorous nick-names on me that many of our friends adopted. In our later years he still referred to me by one of his favorites: Bag.

Richard died 9 years ago. He has missed the last 9 years of his daughter’s growth into adulthood.

Wrinkles. I peer into the mirror and see wrinkles. Time’s signature on my body, alerting me to the time, past.

Maya Angelou

Bill

Bill was my best friend for 50 years. He was a pilot in the Korean war, a flight instructor for the Air Force, an accomplished classical musician, and returned to school to complete a Ph.D. in psychology at 48 years of age. His father died when he was 14 and he had a special sensitivity and understanding of the struggles of youth. He touched the lives of several generations of young people, both aspiring pilots and troubled college students. We spent many, many hours in conversation for many, many years. He changed my life. Profoundly. He is grafted onto my very being.

Bill died 3 years ago.

Wrinkles. I examine myself in the mirror and see wrinkles. Creases of laughter, grief, worry, joy carved into my skin.

Einstein

Roland

Roland graced my life with his friendship for over 35 years. He was a Marine lieutenant for 2 tours of combat duty in Viet Nam, returned and acquired a Ph.D. in French philosophy, and became a widely published professor. We shared much: Firstborn sons, born into blue-collar families, surviving in rather rough neighborhoods, and the first to attend college of anyone in our extended families. And we loved baseball. We sought wisdom, solace, and understanding to life’s dilemmas and challenges by reading, discussing, and arguing our way through the works of some of the West’s greatest thinkers. We also were both haunted by death.

Roland died last year.

Three dear friends and  a remarkable young woman. Dead. Gone. Forever.

Wrinkles. I contemplate my image in the mirror. I am grateful for having lived long enough to have known these fellow travelers, and to have my face etched with wrinkles. And, as my journey’s end rushes toward me, I am comforted by my wrinkles.

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Shakespeare Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

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December Songs

encroaching darkness
meadowlark sings
December Songs

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haikus
scrawled across the void
Kilroy was here  

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on the porch
friends talk and laugh
into darkness

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ticking clock
parcels life’s concerns
3 AM

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blue eyes blink
love’s
morse code

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vanishing act
spring. summer. fall.
winter.

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sinews of self
bind
past-present-future

                      

Weeds

Butterfly Milkweed: A Weed?1

What is a weed? I am not a gardener and have always found the question puzzling. As I gaze at a garden, it is never obvious which are weeds. The definition of weeds explains why: “Any plant that grows in an unwanted place…”2 Weed is a moral term. The world is partitioned into the “wanted” and the weeds. We do not simply plant a garden, we also impose a moral grid on the earth. And we do not do this alone. We may not care about what plants spring up in our patch of earth—but others do. Try not weeding, mowing or tending to your lawn. Community ordinances in most urban areas prohibit the proliferation of weeds and you could receive a citation. Even if the ordinance is not enforced there are consequences: Weeds lower property values and raise neighborly ire.

Good friends of ours are native garden enthusiasts and offered to do ”missionary work” on a small patch in our small backyard. They carefully designed and planted a garden of native plants with beautiful flowers that bloom at different times and also attract birds, insects, and butterflies. They told us that we would have to weed the garden. I was surprised, as I thought “native” meant “no weeding necessary.” Despite being native, the division endures: the “wanted” and the weeds.

The day after the garden was completed, I watched a bunny munch away in our precious, newly planted patch. I was horrified! I quickly went to the garden supply store and bought sturdy two-foot high chicken wire to protect the plants from marauding rabbits. I began thinking of these intruders in different terms. They are no longer bunnies or even rabbits. They are varmints, pests, felons.

“Varmint”

It is not lost on me that the words “varmint,” “pest,” and “felon” are all moral terms applied to undesirables who have trespassed into my space. It is also not lost on me that my moral compass about rabbits swung from “cute-harmless” to “objectionable-destructive” when I altered my values about our small plot of earth. And it is not lost me that claiming it to be “our plot” is the height of god-like presumptuousness. I am, of course, not alone in making such a claim. Every square inch of this entire continent is “owned” by someone or some collective entity.

One of the reasons we must fence out rabbits is the lack of predators. Rabbits proliferate and hop around our yard with impunity. They do this because most rabbit-predators are more objectionable: wolves, foxes, wild dogs, feral cats, raccoons. Those that prey on rabbits from the sky, including hawks, kites, falcons, merlins, eagles, and owls are of limited number because of urban habitat degradation. Rabbits thrive because the larger communal moral grid banishes or inadvertently diminishes their predators.

Grass

Civilized Space

The “civilized space” in many urbanized areas is typically neatly partitioned into garden and lawn. The garden is an enhancement, a beauty mark set off from the grassy green lawn. Grass. My puzzlement about weeds is accompanied by my loathing of grass. My father bought 250 acres in the rugged, forested mountains in the Southern Tier of New York State when I was 12 years old. Our weekends were spent clearing large areas of natural growth, making trails, planting—and mowing—grass. This is not how a teenaged urban boy wants to spent his weekends. It is where my loathing of grass was fostered.

Turf grass is America’s biggest irrigated crop; more than corn, wheat, and fruit orchards combined. Over 1/3 of urban water use goes to lawns and up to 60% of this is wasted. Lawnmowers use gas and pollute—over 17 million gallons of gas are spilled filling lawnmowers. Grass is environmentally unsustainable in many parts of the country, especially the Southwest, where climate change, drought, and fires renders grass an extravagant folly. Nonetheless, grass still flourishes in many of these areas, where the extravagance of grass is not viewed as folly, but a badge of wealth and privilege. The moral compass has not yet swung from privilege to folly, but movement is afoot: Las Vegas, for example, has banned certain types of grass, water rationing is in effect across the Southwest, and fines have been imposed on those using water for their grass.

A grassy, manicured, weeded lawn is a moral imperative for much of the rest of the country; a communally enforced aesthetic. It is a moral esthetic imported into this country in the 19th century from England, where the large manor houses and palaces are fronted with huge lawns. Americans now front (and “rear”) their “estates”, mimicking the privileged class of Old England. The pernicious grip of grass-fed entitlement reaches across continents and centuries.

The moral compass about grass will be harder to swing in these water enriched areas, but early signs suggest the needle is starting to move. The environmental advantages of native gardening are many: Native plants are hardy, do not require fertilizer, need less water, reduce pollution, promote biodiversity, and are beautiful. Native gardening is becoming a booming industry, sale of native plants has dramatically increased, and standards for certification of native gardens have been established. Posting a sign of certification provides moral standing to a yard that might otherwise be judged as a neglected eyesore. On my small street alone there are several yards that are covered with plants, not grass, and another with a certification notice.

Gardening is inescapably moral, having consequences for the birds, insects and butterflies, the plants and animals, and the planet that cascade from our decisions about what constitutes a weed. Grass is a weed.

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Abracadabra!

Consider. . . . . . . . . a tiger.

If I were speaking this, you would experience a silence after “Consider”. And when I eventually spoke again, you would then think of a tiger. Out of the anticipatory silence, the word conjured this remarkable creature—so utterly removed from your immediate experience—into awareness. The word “tiger” is “magic”. It “tricks” you into inhabiting an imaginary experience that overshadows the concrete reality that directly presents itself to your senses.

Language untethers us, liberates us from the immediate, allows us to reference distant things beyond our immediate experience; time travel forward to eternity or back to the Big Bang; contemplate zero and infinity, tennis and tigers, unicorns and utility bills; think about, and conduct, a “dialog” (!) with ourselves. Words have the power to charm, to evoke, to cast a spell. Words—puffs of air—are chants that enchant.1

We dwell within a reality that is conjured into existence through words. We typically think of enchantment as the experience of being transported into a state of wonderment apart from the mundane reality we navigate in our everyday lives. But our everyday world is defined, orchestrated, governed by words, and our body is habitually attuned to respond to these air-puffs. We dwell within the word meanings; they are grafted onto our brain and viscera evoking immediate, sometimes strong responses usually so automatic we are unaware of how we are being organically influenced and swayed. We live this enchanted life, walking, talking, thinking, feeling it—mesmerized. We experience it so directly and unquestionably that we think those who might suggest we live in a dream world slightly mad.

Collective Spell-Casting

This conjured reality is essential for our individual and collective survival—so essential that our brains are hard-wired to acquire and use language. We are, fundamentally, a social species, born so helpless that we must rely, for many years, on the intense care and attention of adults if we are to survive. As adults, we also cannot survive on our own; we must communicate and collaborate with others. Language makes this possible. Miraculously, our biology primes us, in our early years, to rapidly acquire words, regardless of the language.

Words are cultural covenants that exist before and beyond any individual, enabling those who share the word to inhabit a common intention. We speak through these covenants, breathing life into these ready-made forms, using them to express our personal meanings and intentions. When we “give our word” we make a promise to honor the shared intention of the word. And we “give our word” whenever we converse.

Power of Nonsense

Words are nonsense. Say a word over and over, fast. Doing so strips it of its power to charm, draining its meaning, exposing its sonic absurdity. Learning a foreign language has the same effect only in reverse. It is an act of faith that the nonsense sounds we try so hard to master will, in the right linguistic context, exert their magic. I spent many months laboring to learn basic French in preparation for a two month visit to France. When there I finally was able to utter the rehearsed sounds. . . others responded—as promised! I experienced toddlerhood, saying sounds and being startled and delighted to see others respond to me. It was an “abracadabra” moment.

Words are power. My French gave me power to participate with others in a meaningful way and navigate the simple cultural pathways of everyday engagements. My thrill derived from the remarkable power of words to reach beyond myself and animate reactions in others. I was initially elated: “I can speak French!” Over time, however, I became aware of just how limited I was. Culturally, I was a babe. As I fumbled my way through exchanges, I was met with kindness—not unlike that accorded a young child. I became aware of my vulnerability. I could not command adult authority, could not understand much of what was said or happening around me. I became concerned of being cheated, duped, mislead, and worried that if I was to find myself in a disagreement or situation of some personal consequence, I was a toddler. l discovered what it is like to be a “foreigner,” a migrant, an immigrant, an “alien”. Powerless.

Writing

Now consider writing. The sound-stream of words frozen into visual images no less absurd than the sounds themselves. Time is stopped. The author is disemboweled, a non-present presence made manifest. The words of those not only absent but long-ago dead can now be conjured, speaking to the those now-present and to those yet-to-be-born. Immortality. Unimagined places, ideas, experiences, lives, and so much more, whispered to us across the chasms of time, space, and death. Writing is magic. And those who can read and those who can write—conjurers. No wonder the written word has oft been considered sacred.

So, dear reader, as you read this you bring me to life in your life. Words and writing, conjuring, allowing us to share these personal, private moments together. You—alive. Me—who knows?  Abracadabra!

Holey-Moley—Pointless Absurdity!

“What is the meaning of life?
Golf.”
“Golf—That’s absurd!”
“Precisely.”

Golf

Golf is the most gravely serious of sports. Tournaments occur in very exclusive, private clubs typically off-limits to the general public, attire is country club conservative, caddies carry the golfer’s clubs and serve up the desired club for each shot, the crowds are silent during play, commentators offer their remarks in whispered voice, and players adhere to strict codes of honor and etiquette.1 Each golf course is unique and specially designed with obstacles of various types to challenge the golfer; narrow fairways, strategically placed bunkers, sand traps, trees and water obstacles, fringed tall grasses and plants to make it “rough” on a player who strays there, and tilted, undulating putting greens with difficult cup placements that prevent simple straight-line putts to the hole.

Miniature

Golf is a sport ripe for parody. And miniature golf delivers, upending the serious solemnity of golf. It is played on very short holes, requiring only a putter, using a colored ball, and real-world course challenges are replaced by manufactured funhouse obstacles. You can putt your way through a Victorian house and partake of microbrewery refreshments while navigating holes based on a labyrinth board game and a duck shooting gallery; play in the basement of a funeral home with death-themed holes including a coffin, of course, and guillotine hazards; or stroke away on a glow-in-the dark course with underwater themes of mermaids, sharks, and giant clams.

Holey Moley!

Rotating Hotdog
(with Mustard)

A good friend of mine who is a golf enthusiast told me about a series he watches, “Holey Moley.” It is a very bizarre show involving “golf.” Participants compete on a course with a variety of unusual “super-sized” obstacles similar to those found in miniature golf. What makes “Holey Moley’ unique, however, is that the players must run a gauntlet of crazy obstacles after putting, such as crossing a narrow plank over a pool of water while jets of water are sprayed across the plank to knock the player off, or mounting a giant rotating plastic hot dog. All the while, commentators make jokes about the competitors, about each other, and poke fun at the entire enterprise. Fans are loud and raucous, players come from all walks of life, prizes include a dorky, checkered green jacket (a wink at the Masters Tournament’s Green Jacket), and sports celebrities encourage contestants by, among other things, playing a tuba. It is riotous fun.

Playful Upending

Humor, jokes, puns, satire, and parody derive their force by upending our assumptive frame of expectations. We are surprised, delighted and, perhaps, shocked because our anticipations about how things are, or should be, are overturned—in a playful way. The playful upending occurs because we are “just kidding,” “don’t really mean it,” which allows for transgressing without consequence.

Deep truths can be stated or hinted at while “just kidding.” Indeed, these playful romps are subversive, allowing us to explore alternative possibilities and truths, safely. Laughter is the joyful delight of “playing with the world.” Jokes, satire, and parody unmask the taken-for-granted. Humorists often are the ones who offer the most biting and penetrating observations of contemporary morals and mores, politics and religion. They are our modern day tricksters and fools who, throughout the ages, have poked fun at kings and princes, mocked the sacred and the cherished, sneered at tradition and convention.

“Holey-Moley” is a parody of miniature golf, which is, itself, a parody, multiplying the absurdity quotient and leaving in its frothing wake a wink about of the absurdity of golf itself: “All this serious effort just to hit a ball into a hole! Why bother playing golf—such a pointless enterprise?!”

Pointless Absurdity and Despair

The absurdist mask and garb of the trickster and clown can be frightening if you fail to see the humor; that is, if you see the reality the mask is unveiling—that the assumptive ground beneath our feet is unstable.2 Life is golf writ large: “All this serious effort to what end? Why bother playing life—such a pointless enterprise?!”

Many of us have experienced bouts of pointless absurdity, the sense that it is all a silly waste of time. Although this experience is quite common and usually brief, it can be, in the extreme, a heavy, pressing weight of angst, depression, and despair. Ironically, there also is an appeal to this stance toward life—it affords a measure of detachment from the injuries, cares, turmoil, and disappointments of life. “If is doesn’t matter, it can’t hurt.” “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” “If I don’t love, I won’t grieve.”

Play The Game

Golf affords a path out of this existential despair. In my experience, those who are most likely to say “All this serious pursuit just to hit a ball into a hole! Why bother playing  golf—such a pointless enterprise!?” are those who do not play golf. That is because once you play the game, open yourself to the divots, roughs, and hazards, you also experience the joys of the game: the satisfying smack of the club-to-ball, the shots out-of-the-rough-onto-the-green, the putts-into-the-hole.3

“Play the game” is the answer to the question, “Why bother to play the game?” whether the game is golf or life. The challenge, of course, is why, and how, should you begin to play a game that is obviously pointless? This self-perpetuating spiral offers no apparent exit. But if you have no games in your life, no loves, no joys of even he smallest kind, this too, is a self-perpetuating spiral—of despair.

Overcoming pointless absurdity in both golf and life is the same. The first step is the biggest—getting up off the couch; a willingness to “give it a try.” It is important to seek momentary joys, not life changing transformations; to take pleasure in the simple act of taking action, not criticize all efforts as a failure; to embrace divots and flubs as part of the game, not proof of inadequacy; and to find an understanding and knowledgeable coach who can teach how to “get a grip”, ” take a stance”, and “get into the swing” that increase the joys of playing.4

The answer to pointless absurdity—and despair: “Tee it up.”

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Haiku Nocturnes

do not go silent
into that good night
sing, sing into the dying of the light1

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waning hours
naked
amidst the stars

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murmuring voices
gentle rhythms, beeps
ICU recovery2

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nursing home pilot
labored breathing
graveyard spiral3

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chattering stardust
oblivious to
oblivion

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pressing daily concerns
mundane flotsam
mind desperately clings

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dwindling candle
light flickers
shadows

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better mourned
than burden
lifted

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pathetic gestures
of importance
infinite darkness

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going under
fist above water
clutching vitae

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hardest challenge last
surrender
everything

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encroaching darkness
noted with
fading lamp

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Creative Genius

Leonardo. Michelangelo. Newton. Mozart. Einstein. They have altered the shape of Western civilization; some of whom, while dead for over 500 years, we know by their first names. We venerate them, hold them in awe—we have even pickled Einstein’s brain in the hope of someday grasping the source of his brilliance. Their contributions are so extraordinary that when we hear the term, “creative genius,” our first association is likely to one of them. Indeed, one of the synonyms for genius listed in the Thesaurus is “Einstein.”

The term, “creative genius”, is freighted with intimations of the divine. Creation is a sacred act. All religions have creation stories about our origins to explain the miracle of our existence so as to answer the most haunting existential question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Something appears, inexplicably, beyond our imagination, and we are left only to wonder. So, too, do we wonder about the unfathomable acts of creation by people like Leonardo and Einstein. The word, “genius,” also intimates wonderment and suggests supernatural origins: The Latin origins of the word refers to an “inborn deity or spirit that guides a person through life.”1 And we do confer a quasi-deity status to them.

This deification, however, misleads. Although, indeed, remarkable, these individuals could not have conjured their creations without the benefit of being in a very special place and time, afforded opportunities, and being embedded in a deep and extensive socio-cultural network that not only gives rise to the occasion for their creative acts, but also provides the means for their execution.

Newton’s Law of Gravity

Newton is reported to have discovered the law of gravity after observing an apple fall from a tree. Miraculous, indeed. But if Newton was an Eskimo, I can confidently say: no Newtonian discovery.  Same for Mozart and the rest of the pantheon of creative geniuses. Not simply because the Arctic lacks apple trees or pianos, and certainly not because Eskimos lack the capacity for such genius. Consider Newton’s law of gravity with its bizarre jumble of letters and numbers. What the hell does this mean? You need many years of very intense, specialized schooling to grasp its meaning. Or, take a score of Mozart’s music. Again, impenetrable, except with years of specialized study.  

Each of these geniuses profited from the good fortune of opportunity and circumstances. Newton was educated—a extremely rare and privileged opportunity—and was a professor at Cambridge University in the 17th century. At the time, England was the driving force of the scientific revolution, and Cambridge was the white-hot center of English science. A similar pattern of good fortune and opportunity is found for the rest of the quintet of geniuses.

We venerate these individuals but fail to venerate the remarkable cultural networks, contexts, and opportunities that provided the soil for their individual genius to arise and flourish.

These notable individuals are not apart from the rest of us, but are the apex of the creativity that is our human birthright. Our survival as a species depends on our inborn capacity to create and share ingenious discoveries that are drawn from and, in return, profit the larger community. Genetic mutation enables biological adaption, but the process is very slow; many generations long. The creation of new, adaptive innovations, in contrast, can occur in leaps and gain widespread use within a generation. Human adaptation occurs primarily through memes, not genes.

Our lives are densely packed with the gifts of the long history of human ingenuity, almost all by nameless individuals. The simple screw affords an example. Who invented the screw? We don’t know. When was it invented? Again, not sure, maybe ancient Greece, maybe ancient Egypt. Our world is literally held together by screws; by this original innovation created by unknown, ingenious individuals passed to us from long ago.

What is true for screws holds for sewing needles, bread, chocolate, and most of the rest of what compose our modern lives—-all products of nameless creative geniuses. We are part of this ongoing history, making our contributions, some far reaching, most more local. We each contribute to the network in our own, often humble way. It takes a village for a Newton to thrive. For a screw to be invented. And to create a village.

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