The Darker Half of the Year

I don’t believe in ghosts or demons from the deep. Then again, I don’t not believe in them either. There’s insufficient evidence for canals on Mars. But I would like if All Hallow’s Eve were more hallowed, if Samhain were a thinning between the worlds, and not a confectioner’s gimmick. These days the closest we come to fear and wonder is paranoia over pedophiles and madmen next door poisoning the Baby Ruth or slipping razor blades in apples. Though, come to think of it, that’s not all that different from the Faeries leaving a changeling for a baby, or being caught up in the Wild Hunt.

Perhaps it’s the missing sense of reverence that no longer attends Halloween, and for some has gone from Christmas and Easter, that I desire. There’s nothing particularly special about those days other than that we’ve set them apart as holidays — and then imbue that day with no significance other than market day. We do the same with somber national holidays like Memorial Day. Thanksgiving we’ve left alone because there’s still Friday to shop. It’s as if shopping is the holiest thing we could possibly do.

What is it I’m looking for, exactly? Something experiential? An ecstatic moment? An imaginary romantic ideal? The annihilation of advertising? Longing for years gone by? Not year-old candy, that’s certain.

Pictures of It Didn’t Happen

Twitter and smartphones have changed the art of citation on the Internet. It’s not enough to quote something and to link. A picture must also be included of the source with the quoted text highlighted. (Then the link and attribution are forgotten.) Perhaps this practice arose because the sources are easily deleted or altered. But everything digital is malleable. Pictures can be fabricated.

This is not a tweet by Donald J. Trump.

The question arises, what can we trust? Photographs, of the non-digital variety, have been the subject of manipulation since the invention of the medium, whether for monetary fraud, such as spirit photography, or for political, like the memory hole. Some news organizations, such as the Associated Press, adopted strict usage practices around photo manipulation to ensure trustworthiness. Other publications are less concerned about objectivity in the pursuit of their art. We made the distinction: is this a representational work with a claim to objectivity? Or is it art, potentially with a claim to so-called truth? What helps guide us now?

TED Radio Hour talked the other day about our understanding of memory and new techniques for altering it. We’ve known our experience is plastic for some time: lawyers lead the witness. But these medical techniques of memory alteration are the premise of Philip K. Dick‘s 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” frequently remembered as the motion picture Total Recall (1990), and pose a quandary: Should we? What is real if we can remember a fictitious vacation on Mars? No wonder some people think Apollo 11 landed in Arizona.

Funny how the Big Questions of Life have indefinite answers, if any. What is Real? What is Illusion? What is True? The same questions troubling us long ago bother us today. Is there anything there outside of our senses? Our sight grows old and dim. Our memory lies. We forget. Perhaps the Ancient Greek word for truth is intentionally precise: not forgotten.

What’s to be believed? Our dementiaThe treachery of images?

Morning Mood

The camera can not capture what I see.

Pouring rain outside, slow and steady and constant. Leaves surfing the light breeze. The slower drip of water from the branches. A beautiful wet day, its damp chill asking for a fire. I took some pictures, but a still image doesn’t see the rain. It only exists as motion.

Perhaps this is a lack of skill on my part, less a failing of the camera than an inability to express the experience in this medium. But there is art that conveys the sense of a rainy Fall day: a more accurate, as it were, representation, a prompt for the imagination.

I’ve taken my glasses off so I can write. The visible world shrinks to my hands and pen and page; the frames lying idly by. The red of the barn and sumac define their shapes against Andrew Wyeth’s grey sky.

The gas rushes to heat water for my tea. Rain bounces on the leaves. Overhead, a plane interrupts. Even the loud noises of the world are quiet and still.

The tea is ready.

Would You Rather

I say this every time because it’s true: the pain I can deal with. It’s the vision loss that bothers me.

There’s a question — I think of it as part of a child’s game from when I was young for some reason — which body part would you rather lose? Which sense? For me it’s always been my eyes.

I cannot remember ever having seen clearly. I have sharp memories from when I was very young, before kindergarten; I don’t remember blurs. It was in elementary school that I got my first pair of glasses, and realized that the world was not painted by Monet.

For years after LASIK surgery in late 2000, I woke seeing but still groping for my glasses. The effects have since worn  off and I have glasses again, and the onset of presbyopia. The distances at which things come into focus are no longer so clear and well-defined. Ben Franklin, I understand, had  a similar problem.

First the pain. It starts as a dull ache, usually behind my left eye, enough to give warning, not that I can do anything about it. Waves at the periphery are next, and sometimes it stops there, with just the pain and the sense that the corners of my eyes are underwater. Then numbness in my tongue and left shoulder. By this time it’s best not to have plans for the day. It could get worse. Once I lost words.

Worse, the darkness closes in, right eye first, then both until I’m alone, blind. Then the agony starts.

Not today, I think. Today’s feels like it will stop here: with vague sight, numb tongue, and a constant ache to ignore.

Special Snowflakes

Number Two Daughter asked if I was writing a book. No, just my journal, I replied. It looks like a book, though: it’s bound nicely and is filling. I suppose I could write a book, but at the moment I have no ideas for a book. I do have ideas for short essays, and if I wait long enough another of the 7.5 billion monkeys will write them. There’s many a thing I’ve read where I recognize the thoughts and arguments that have gone into the work, from premise to conclusion. One of the fascinating things about history is how often ideas bubble to the surface around the same time, sometimes more than once. Sometimes they even stick.

I was told stories as a child. You are unique, they said. You are gifted. You are talented. You are handsome. You are smart. God gave you innate gifts — use them in his service.

The thing about half-truths is that they are so easy to believe. That kid is bigger than I am. His parents are bigger than mine are. He must be bigger because he was born this way. He must be stronger and faster and smarter and richer and otherwise all-around better all for the same reason. It’s no leap at all to believe that if I’m better at something, it is because of my natural talent alone. Similarly if I’m worse at something. Einstein’s a genius. Mozart’s a prodigy. Rainman didn’t need to practice math. If it’s easy, it’s because I’m good. If it’s hard, because I’m bad.

Small children know this in their heart of hearts to be true, by the time they are six, or seven, or eight.

But if they think about it, they see it’s a lie. Life is much more nuanced.

Last night at the U10 soccer practice, one of the players said, “I love the homework you give us! It’s so much fun!” Made my day. Each week along with a letter about the week’s schedule, I’ve been sending a short homework assignment tenuously tied to soccer: play FIFA, balance on the curb, run around the house, watch others play soccer. The idea being that in addition to the techniques specific to soccer, there are certain general skills that pretty much anyone can cultivate and which are necessary: attention, agility, balance, coordination, speed, and so forth.

Recently, our understanding of human performance has improved beyond the story of Conan taking his place by right of birth as king of Aquilonia. Neurology, endocrinology, psychology, and other fields have provided insight into how humans work, fleshing out previously vague assertions about willpower with details about executive function, ego depletion, and glucose; connecting the dots between illness, stress, placebo, and mindfulness; showing how learning from deliberate practice excites myelinization; how physical exertion exercises the brain as well as the body; how both muscles and learning form while the body rests after a stress; and how perspective is tied to persistence: mindset and grit.

This is something we have known before. Motivational posters have lots of examples.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. — 老子 (c. 6th Century BCE)

Practice makes perfect. — Anonymous

Slow and steady wins the race. — Aesop (c. 620 – 564 BCE)

“…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” — Not Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

My success, such as it is, was not, or not entirely, because I was gifted with being smarter, but because once I learned to read, I loved it, and so practiced reading diligently and with attentive love. I liked looking at maps, and pored over them, and so was already familiar with geography by the time it came up in school. I read the World Book Encyclopedia, because I was curious, and so was already familiar with topics covered later on in school. Later, topics caught my interest and I learned of them before I needed to, though I could more precisely say that I simply pursued my interests where they led. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn practice as a discipline.

But still the Nature vs. Nurture debate rages on, both arguing that they can’t both be right, while some people, perhaps with a naturally finer attention to subtlety, grasp that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. And this assumption, that talent is simply a gift — though perhaps it’s a confusion over the definition of the word, talent — is, in fact, my major complaint about talent identification programs, whether by parents, sports programs, schools, or employers; and the current fad of arguing over which astonishing athlete is the GOAT.

Or, to put it another way, this isn’t Highlander.

Whose Safety is Secured through Obscurity?

The rules of the game determine how it is played. And if few but the players know the rules, the spectators can be confused. They might believe in an ideal version of the game that doesn’t exist, but which they insistently tell new observers is how the game is played.

I speak of politics and the making of laws.

To satisfy this discrepancy between the taught ideal and observed behavior, I propose the following, none of which I expect to be adopted:

  • that there be one or more rooms, legislative chambers if you will, reserved for the purpose of making laws;
  • that all debate on laws be within the legislative chambers;
  • that debate cannot start or continue unless a majority of the rule-makers is physically present in the chambers;
  • that all debate be a matter of public record;
  • that all discussions outside of the chambers in which rule-makers participate be a matter of public record;
  • that, except in cases of national emergency requiring a declaration of war, all meetings of the assembly be held after sunrise and before sunset, local to the chambers;
  • that all bills pertain to one and only one subject;
  • that if a bill cannot be introduced and read aloud in its entirety before the end of a day, then the bill must be reduced in scope until said reading is possible;
  • that all votes be taken in person in the chambers in the full view of the assembly;
  • that all votes be attributed to the voter.

Much of the business of Congress is conducted secretly, alone or in small groups, under the cover of darkness, not unlike a conspiracy against the Public. And when Congress does act in public, it is naught but a performance.

But, you might ask, what about National Security? Are we at War that such an exception is necessary? Who then are we at war with?

Publish, or Die Trying

My father is a Presbyterian minister, and has been for fifty years. Sometimes I hear rumors that he’s retired, but it’s a working retirement. His labor is a calling. Each week is a new sermon. I remember Saturdays reading on the couch in his study while he wrote, first long-hand and then on the Smith-Corona. I didn’t read the sermons; they were performance pieces, meant to be heard, not read. The churches recorded the sermons, so those who couldn’t come on Sunday could hear the Word of the Lord. I doubt any of those recordings still exist, though perhaps they do in a basement somewhere. Once he mentioned that some preachers didn’t write their own sermons: they bought them from a catalog. Publish yours, I said. Perhaps, he demurred, but not for preaching. Each has a place and a time.

I’ve been a reader since I learned how, and an aspiring writer. It might have something to do with being surrounded by words and books — and procrastination. You know the difference between an aspiring writer and a writer? A writer writes. I’ve written, but what I’ve written has been small works of little discipline: e-mails, pithy blog posts, the occasional technical documentation. None of these match my ideal of a writer. (Nor did writing copy for the inside of a book jacket, which is probably why I only lasted a day as an editorial intern.) I should stay away from Platonic ideals.

This next month is November; that is, NaNoWriMo. I’m not inclined to write a novel, but writing something each day is a start.