Closure, Of A Sort

Posted on February 7th, 2022 in Personal | No Comments »

Originally posted on October 24th, 2021

Recently I found myself alone with a deceased person, in their house. The occasion was the loss of a close family member, someone I had grown up with. They passed away suddenly and, for reasons I won’t go into here, I ended up spending nearly 24 hours at their home with their cremated remains. It was somewhat surreal. First, I arrived at their house in the dead of night after a long transatlantic flight and had to almost break into their house when I found I only had one of the two keys needed for the front door. As luck would have it, the side door into the garage was unlocked and then the door into the house only had a single lock – the key I had.

So I spent the night alone and would remain so until nearly midnight of the following day – almost a full 24 hours with only memories and ashes for company.

I should explain that once upon a time, I also lived in that house, along with other family members, all of whom have now passed away. I was the sole survivor, even though I was not the youngest (the recently departed was). Every room, every drawer held a memory of a much happier time, when we were all together and looking towards the future. Now I stood in the middle of a building with no more tomorrows for anyone other than myself.

It was a difficult thing, and felt like I was invading their privacy by going through closets and opening bedroom drawers. I found many things that surprised me, and would have to remind myself that the owners were all dead and gone; I had every right, and indeed a need to go through their most intimate keepsakes. Other family members had been there before me and started to sort through paperwork, etc., so the house was disheveled. But a great many personal items were untouched and had been for some time – a watch on a nightstand, a razor still in place, a toothbrush, worn from use. Despite the untidiness, it felt like the former occupants could come back at any time and resume their lives, even though I knew that was never going to happen.

The experience left me sad, and tears were frequent. I miss them all terribly and always will. But it was also a transformative experience. I began to see this house as a place where time had stopped at the moment of the last death. In many ways, the person whose passing had brought me back to this place had refused to accept the loss of the rest of the family and tried to preserve the place as a shrine or a museum to their memory. Deep in my heart I felt the same way and understood the feeling. I too wished to keep it all as it was, as I remembered it from when I lived there. But the more I looked into drawers and cabinets, the more I examined the piles of receipts and small objects d’art, the more I came to realize I could not do that. I had no desire to be the custodian of dusty relics of days past. I was alive and had my own path to follow.

Many of the objects I found scattered on endtables and countertops were things like nail clippers or bottles of pills; remote controls or key fobs, etc. Items that all of us have in our own homes. And these are the things we use as we live our lives. But when we are gone, these items serve no further purpose, other than as remnants of our need to keep moving forward in time. Now they had no use, and no function other than as clutter. The entire house and all of its contents were static, unchanging and waiting for a future that had ceased to be.

I knew then that I could not keep things as they were. It was time to let it go, all of it. I would take some items as mementos, such as photo albums or small keepsakes, but the rest would have to be sold, donated or thrown away. It pains me to think that someone’s memories or personal treasures could wind up in the trash, but it will happen to almost everything all of us own someday. I can’t burden my descendants with the care of things that belonged to people they’ll never know. And that includes the house itself. For decades, it was a home, a happy place, a refuge for us from the trials of life. Somewhere to return to, someplace to entertain visitors or escape from the world. Now it was just a house, a structure falling into disrepair. It needs to go to a new family who will turn it into a home once again. My heart will always be there, but with the passing of the last inhabitant, it’s time to let it go, as it once came to us.

And then there were the cremains. I admit that my morbid curiosity got the better of me. If I didn’t look, I’d wonder for the rest of my life about it. The ashes were placed with no ceremony upon the TV stand, in a rather well-made cloth bag from the funeral home. I took it into the kitchen and placed it on the counter. Inside was a cardboard box with an identifying card naming the deceased. Taking the box out and opening it, I found a clear plastic bag closed with a golden tag. The remains were clearly visible through the thick plastic. Lifting it out, I was surprised at the heft. I had never seen cremated human bones in person before and marveled at the view. The ashes themselves were a light colour, slightly tan with a light pink appearance. No sign of burning or singeing anywhere, with sizes from grains of sand up to small rough-edged granules. It was hard to believe this was a person I had known nearly all my life and had spoken to only a few months previously. Now there they were, dead; burnt, crushed and ground into a near-powder, bagged and tagged, ready to be placed in the urn (which was in a box on the dining room table). I poked the bag and wondered what part of the body this or that large particle of bone once was.

Eventually I put the bag back into the box, the box back into the cloth bag and returned it to the TV stand as I had found it. I would take it out again later and look once more, as well as take a few photographs. But often as I would wander around the house, I would also lovingly pat the bag and speak to it. Several days later I would be back, possibly for the last time, and leave flowers next to the bag, in the deceased’s favourite colour (the same colour as the urn). I also visited the cemetery where the ashes would ultimately be interred, with the other former occupants of the house.

I don’t regret looking; it can’t be any more odd than seeing the body of a loved one at a viewing while they lie in repose in a casket. I mourned and will feel the pain of loss for some time to come. As everyone who has lost someone will know, the pain never really goes away; you just keep going on with it as a part of you. It’s all that can be done. You cannot live in the past. As I mentioned previously, you would become the curator of a museum of memories. The family I grew up with is gone; I have a new family now and share my life with them.

Relating my experiences to the people around me, the word “closure” came up over and over again. I don’t know if I really have a sense of it. A life interrupted feels unfinished; it’s hard to button that up and put it away in the mind. Although I can say I did make my peace with some aspects of it, such as coming to terms with giving up the house, and the cold reality of seeing a loved one as really and truly dead. I definitely turned a page (if not a chapter) in my life. But is that “closure”? It’s uncertain; perhaps in the long run it will turn out to be just that. But for now, I know I am still grieving over the loss of not only a close relative, but a huge part of my own life, also gone forever.

Since my return, I’ve thought a lot about that day, that entire trip. I can recall the smell of the house, the silence, the feeling of emptiness in rooms full of ‘things’. And the memories, everywhere. It was the busiest empty space I’ve ever known. I have deep existential dread about my own demise and leaving so much behind. It makes me look at my own collection of nail files or scribbled notes and wonder about the day when someone will have to decide what to keep and what to throw away. I wonder if they will also find closure, of a sort. I hope so. I hope I do, too.

To The Moon

Posted on February 7th, 2022 in Personal | No Comments »

Originally posted on July 16th, 2019

As I type this, today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 liftoff. The first moon landing holds a special place in my heart, as I grew up only a few miles from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. My uncle worked at the Cape, and many of my classmates had family who also worked there. Indeed, the main reason many of us were even there in the first place was due to the space program.

It was an exciting time, being a young boy in the heart of such an amazing location – warm, sunny Florida with astronauts and launches on a regular basis. I had many models of the Saturn V and the lunar module. I knew the details of the flight, the steps required from launch to splashdown. And now we were on the edge of the big one – the real landing.

I never had any doubts; with the total faith of childhood, I knew everything was going to be fine and soon the landing would be a reality. It was another hot, bright day; we were in the house, watching Walter Cronkite prepare us for liftoff. As with previous launches, the plan was to watch until the rocket cleared the tower, then rush outside and wait for it to come up over the trees. And that’s exactly what happened. I remember quite clearly, standing on the driveway beside my house, watching the white-hot point of light moving steadily upwards into the sky. After a minute or two, the contrail would change, the light would flicker; first-stage separation and second-stage ignition.

I stood there, a little boy watching a moment in history, and I remember saying to myself, “I must not forget this.”

The weight of a half-century has nibbled away at that memory, but the core of it remains. I was there. I saw the launch with my own eyes. When it finally faded away from view, one would take a moment to look at the exhaust plume rising up from over the horizon, slowing being pulled apart by the winds, then rush back inside to let Cronkite guide us through the rest of the launch, now invisible to the naked eye (but not quite the long-range camera view).

A few days later, the go-ahead was given and down Armstrong and Aldrin went, to a rendezvous with history. When Eagle touched down on the Sea of Tranquility, we were there, along with most of the rest of the world. I was impatient, and didn’t quite understand the delay. We’re down, open the hatch and let’s get going! But it took several hours to go through the checklist, get suited up, and all the other requirements we couldn’t see.

Finally, the external camera was deployed, and we could switch from the CBS simulation (a man in a suit crawling out of a mockup LM) to a live transmission from the moon. The fuzzy black and white image that is now so well known began to take shape. Neil made his way down the ladder, spoke to Houston, then announced he was going to step off the LM now.

And thus, we all passed into a new age. I got to stay up late that night and watch all of it. I don’t remember going to bed, but I must have been very tired. I do remember thinking how sorry I felt for everyone who would be born afterwards, how they missed this epic moment.

Many years later on another Apollo anniversary, the three astronauts came back to Florida and were in a motorcade. My aunt and I went to the mall and stood alongside the road watching as they drove past, each one being driven in their own convertible, smiling and waving yet again at the assembled throng. It was the first time I had ever seen any of them in the flesh, and as Armstrong rolled by, I yelled “Neil” so loudly that he turned and looked in my direction, still smiling and waving. But directly at me.

A few years after that, I was on my way home from work one afternoon when I heard on the radio that Buzz was in town, signing copies of his science-fiction novel. The bookstore was only one or two blocks from where I screamed at Armstrong several years before. I immediately drove to the bookstore and purchased a copy just to get a signature. Who would turn down a chance to meet Columbus or Magellan?

I waited in line and when my turn came, Mr. Aldrin asked my name. He signed and I extended my hand, which he graciously shook. Then he returned the book to me and that was it. I still have it. Between my name and his own, he wrote “Ad Astra” – To the stars.

Now of course, it is a half-century later since that one small step. Half the people who were in the room with me that night are gone, including my aunt. Walter Cronkite and Neil Armstrong are gone as well. My own wife and child were born into a world in which man has always been to the moon. I am part of the last generation to have experienced a time before that ever happened. It’s like looking in old encyclopedias at artist’s depictions of the planets, whereas now we’ve photographed them all (even Pluto!).

When I watch the old footage, the tears well up; I’m not only watching a defining moment for the Human species, I’m watching my own past. I can see a little boy who could look up at the moon before it ever had a footprint upon it. Time rolls on in its relentless way, but it can’t change the fact that I was there the night it all changed forever.

The End And Beginning Of Time

Posted on February 7th, 2022 in Metaphysics | No Comments »

Originally posted on November 13th, 2018

The first 13.7 billion years went by in literally a flash. The Big Bang, the formation of the Sun and Earth, the stirrings of life, dinosaurs, cavemen, the pyramids, the Crusades, WWII; it all happened instantaneously. The first things I remember experiencing were short moments, with no real recollection of any gaps in between. Memories strung like pearls on threads without interconnecting. It all seems like centuries ago now. It wasn’t until I was about five years old that things began to link up in a way they had not previously. I became aware without being aware that time was moving very slowly.

Minutes and seconds would pass then as they do now, but hours, days, weeks, months, years – they all took the longest time to move through their now familiar rhythms. As a boy I would play for ages. Go to school for ages. The days were nearly eternal, Summer months like eons. Christmas would come and the house would be transformed into a gaudy delight of brightness and colour; the tree would go up, presents would appear and it would go on and on and on until I couldn’t stand it any more. When it was finally done, it would be forever before it would happen again. After periods of time so long I couldn’t name them, it would be Summer again, and the days would drift lazily by once more.

As I learned more and more about events that took place before my own birth, it would seem to me that time raced forward in a gigantic rush, like a runaway train, barrelling down through millennia until it reached me. My existence was somehow enough of an event that time itself would crash headfirst into it and like the most unimaginable collision, suddenly stop dead in its tracks. It was only in the aftermath of this incomprehensible meeting of the most unstoppable force and the most immovable object that the great train of time began to slowly shuffle forth one more. Tamed and humbled, the once raging river of eternity was reduced to a mere trickle.

But what I failed to appreciate was that time had momentum on its side.

Over the years of my life, I became aware that my power to contain time itself would weaken. Eventually I noticed that the days were now not quite so long as in my youth; Suddenly it would be Monday or Saturday again. Was it really a week ago? Not just a few days? What happened to my long, glorious Summers? A few weeks and now the cold of Winter is biting already? It is Christmas again? I look back in alarm at the years that have literally slipped away from my grasp. Where did that decade go? What have I done? Where am I now? I recall events that seem to have happened only a few years ago, and find it stupefying that it’s been twenty years or more. What? My own childhood now seems to have almost passed into myth. But I was there, dammit!

People I knew and loved are now dead and gone. I know it will only get worse. The laughter of once close companions is replaced by quiet. The days are a blur now. I get up, and suddenly it’s dark again and time for bed. Time is exacting its cruel revenge upon me for holding it at bay for so long. The scales are continuing to tip in its favour. Eventually I will lose completely. My death will be the last remaining check on its inexorable progress and once I am gone, it will resume its breakneck pace. Much like the moment before I was born, the moment after my passing will cause not just billions, but trillions of years to fly by in the briefest of intervals. An eternity may pass in the merest fraction of a second. The death of the Sun and Earth, the collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda, even the heat death of the entire Universe and the decay of the proton will arrive almost simultaneously with the end of my life. Time will be freed from the shackles placed upon it by me and will run riot until the passage of it in itself becomes a meaningless concept.

The greatest frustration is that just as before, I will not be aware of it all. I wish that after this cosmic blink of the eyelid, I would somehow have knowledge of what had gone before, but I don’t have any real hope I will. It will have to be enough to know now that when my grip on time is finally loosened, all that is to come will flow by just as fast as what had flown before. And for a small interval between two great voids, I alone had the power to tame that mighty torrent, if only for a while.

Goodbye, Old Friend

Posted on February 7th, 2022 in Personal, Politics | No Comments »

Originally posted on April 12th, 2018

For quite some time I have watched with dismay as the United States has sunk under the morass of the GOP/Trump administration. I’ve held off on commenting, partly because no matter how low the bar has sunk, we still don’t seem to have reached bottom. Where that will leave us, I shudder to think. I’ve also been following the unfolding story with a mixture of shock and alarm. I hope I can look back on these times and feel that sense of relief one has when narrowly missing disaster. Even so, it will take a long, long time for the nation to recover. It is worse than Watergate; at least then you could count on Congress to do the right thing. Now they are just as complicit as the president in destroying the idea of being governed by laws.

But as bad as all this is (he typed, hoping that the upcoming November midterms will offer up some relief), it’s not what I wanted to talk about. It’s how this bigger story of a county that is falling from within is played out in microcosm as a story between two people. One is myself, and the other is friend of mine of over forty years acquaintance. I was not much of a political person when I was young, which is not uncommon. It’s only in later years that I began to take a stronger interest. I’ve always been a keen newshound, however. I mentioned Watergate at the beginning; I grew up reading about it as it happened. I didn’t understand much about it at the time, but since then I’ve come to know more about what it was and what it meant. I find myself at this point in my life as someone who casts a critical eye over proceedings as a Liberal as well as an atheist. Certainly some people’s idea of their worst nightmare.

The other person in this story (let’s call her ‘Cheryl’ to avoid having to say ‘my friend’ every time I refer to her. Not her real name, obviously.), is as I said, someone I’ve known for many decades. As is common for long-term friendships, we’ve had times when we were very tight and times when years would pass with little real communication. But the shared links and bonds were always there. If I had to describe Cheryl to someone, I would say, ‘Trippy Hippy Chick’; we were first brought together because of our common love of music (specifically, music of the 60’s). She was conservative in her manners, but always seemed to embody the ideas of peace and love that partially defined that era in the mid-20th Century. She didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs, but she was still ‘groovy’, if outwardly square, to use the lingo of those times.

After many years and adventures together off and on, Cheryl eventually married, moved a thousand miles away into the hills of Appalachia, and settled into a job, having a child and living a middle-class life. We wrote, but only managed to get together once in person after that. I met her child, then we settled into a pattern of Xmas cards and the occasional letter or email. Like many friends, she was there, but tucked into a box in my mind. She divorced, remarried, her first husband passed away early, she was estranged from her child for a time, and such is life. Her child is now grown and married to a seemingly good person. Cheryl’s second husband (‘Barry’) is no longer able to work for medical reasons, and seems an angry, bitter man who thinks Christmas is too commercial (but he’s not religious). So much so that he won’t allow Cheryl to have a Xmas tree or any decorations during the holiday season. Her excuse for all this is that ‘he hates clutter’. Draw your own conclusions.

Cheryl uses a computer at her job, and therefore has said to me more than once that she doesn’t like to use one at home. Which means emails have always been rare (I assume they have a toilet at work too, but that doesn’t stop her from using one at home, I would hope). So at the beginning of this year, I decided to sit down and write her a letter, print it out and mail it to her. Cheryl and I have a long history of writing letters back and forth that predate the Internet; it’s not a difficult thing to do, but it’s not something I do much of any more. Anyway, it’s easy enough to embed photos and images as well, making it more than just a wall of dry text. I ended up with seven pages of Word-generated content and mailed it off to her up in the hills where she lives.

Some months later, much to my surprise and delight, I received four pages, filled front and back with her loopy handwriting that I know so well. It was chock-a-bloc with comments and observations about the things I had said, discussion about shared interests in music and television, and updates on what she’s been doing recently. Just the kind of thing you’d expect in a letter from an old friend. So far so good.

But there were also difficult parts. The last two pages she even prefaced by saying I wasn’t going to like what she had to say. And boy, was she right. The upshot is that my trippy hippy chick friend has turned into a diehard Republican conservative. She thinks that Trump is doing a great job (although she’s not happy about his tweets). The recently-passed GOP tax ‘cut’ has put more money into people’s pockets, Trump’s policies have been an economic boom for her area and ‘Obamacare’ has caused Medicaid to send premiums skyrocketing. It pains me to even write this nonsense. Long ago, Cheryl got a degree in journalism which she never put to good use. But I would assume that even back then, they taught ‘ethics’ as part of what a professional journalist must know. So it was a literal shock to read that she thinks the media are ‘hush-hushing’ all the good Trump is doing – because they don’t like him! If you can’t see what’s wrong with that, you might as well stop reading now.

Other tidbits included some Democrat bashing: Since they’ve had control longer over the country since we were kids, why haven’t they done more to fight poverty? If you count Eisenhower, who was president when Cheryl and I were born, then up to the end of Obama’s term, Republican presidents have actually held sway longer than Democratic ones. And in comparison to what Lyndon Johnson did with his plans for a ‘Great Society’, what did Ronald Reagan do for the poor? Trickle-down economics? She seems unaware that the tax cuts she thinks so highly of are going to expire in 2025, unless you’re wealthy or a corporation; then there will be a nasty tax increase to compensate for the lack of revenue that the rich will no longer have to pay. Cheryl’s not exactly rolling in dough, with a disabled husband and a job where she’s not able to advance any further. But she’s happy to pay the taxes for billionaires and businesses? Nor does she seem to understand that the rise in Medicaid prices is because Trump tried and failed to repeal the ACA, so he and Congress started slashing anything they could instead (such as the individual mandate), and many insurers dropped out of the market because of the instability of the system.

While all of this is simple stupidity, worse was to come. She then described the plight of a group of Ethiopian refugees who were settled in her area (an area not known for ethnic diversity, I should mention). She complained about them receiving ‘unfair’ housing benefits ahead of ‘native’ residents (which is apparently a Democratic plan – hook immigrants on benefits and they’ll vote Blue ever after), then went on a diatribe about them:

“Now we have people here who want to turn this country into “Anything-But-America”, hate everything America stands for, & are working tirelessly to push agendas that divide us instead of uniting us.”

While I don’t doubt some immigrants do feel this way (as do many native citizens, unfortunately), it’s a bit of a stretch to characterize all of them as being guilty of this. She compares this to her own great-grandparents, who were (Jewish) refugees. They ‘honored’ their roots and worked towards the American dream, she says. I’m sure they were not looked upon with suspicion, or tended to associate with people of a similar background at first, just as these Ethiopians no doubt do now. I wondered if she would have felt the same way had these people been from Scotland or Norway. It’s difficult to feel that her distrust is based largely on their skin colour.

It sickens me to think that someone I’ve known so well for so long has been drinking deeply of the Fox Propaganda Kool-aid. I had mentioned to Cheryl that I was an online subscriber to both the New York Times and the Washington Post; her response was that if I:

“…indulge only in progressive publications & websites without researching the other sides, you’re just going to remain locked into your off-the-charts ideology… which sadly it sounds like you are entrenched.”

She didn’t mention how she gets her news, but I doubt it includes many “progressive publications & websites” to give her a balanced picture. But this would obviously tie into her belief that the media in general are not reporting the actual facts, since so many of them “don’t like” the president. If I’m reading them, then I must not be getting an accurate view of things. I suppose since so many media outlets are reporting the same general stories it must mean it’s a conspiracy of some sort; luckily she’s getting news directly from an outlet that provides a more direct, unvarnished point of view – that the president is actually doing a great job.

Since receiving this letter from Cheryl, I’ve had to spend a great deal of time mulling over what she’s saying to me. I’m obviously stunned to discover that she really does think like this. I’m sad, angry, confused and feel somehow let down. We are both children of the Sixties and I don’t understand how you get from Love is all you need to Make America Great Again. I find now that when I peruse my “progressive publications” and there are comments along the lines of “How can people continue to support this?”, I feel a wound being reopened, again and again. I know someone like this. How can this happen?

Eventually, I started to compose a reply to Cheryl. I spoke first about my family, what we were doing, how we were. I touched upon music and TV shows we both enjoy. I talked about her child. But after all that, I had to veer into deeper waters. I spoke about Barry and how he seems to have turned into a recluse, taking his anger out on her. I went through many of the ideas she espoused to me, and explained how I felt about them; correcting factual errors in her perceived viewpoints when required. I took exception to her comments that the media at large are so biased that they would be failing to do their jobs properly, and that if anyone is ‘entrenched’ in a bizarre ideology, it’s certainly not me. I moved towards the only conclusion I could. I told Cheryl that I regretted writing to her and opening this huge can of worms in the first place. But now that what’s done is done, I’m saddened by her ignorance and her racism. I feel I don’t know who she is any more. If she felt that she did not see fit to reply any further, that would be fine with me. And then I printed the letter out and mailed it.

What will happen next, I have no idea. Will she write back or simply fade away? I’m of an age now where I know I need to prepare myself for the end of long-standing relationships on account of death. I hope when my distant friends pass away, I’m notified somehow, just as I hope my remaining friends are told when I’m gone. But to lose contact with someone I’ve known for nearly a half-century over political views is yet another casualty of the current administration. I have watched this monster attack the Constitution and the rule of law (aided by a corrupt and pathetic Congress). It has made me angry and worried for the future. But this abomination has now had a personal impact. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that Cheryl and I would have reached the end of the road over someone like Donald Trump.

To Boldly Go

Posted on February 7th, 2022 in Personal, Politics, Religion | No Comments »

Originally posted on September 7th, 2016

“We work to better ourselves, and the rest of Humanity”
– Jean-Luc Picard, “First Contact”

As I write these words, we are two months and one day from history being made with the 2016 Presidential election. Two candidates who have polarized America in such a way as to lay open deep wounds, which may never heal in my lifetime. Eight years ago, I supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama; now I’m not so sure. Clinton’s position seems to paint her as a moderate Republican rather than a progressive Democrat. Charges of corruption and the influence of deep-pocket Wall Street donors paint a less flattering portrait of her than I saw back in 2008. Her opponent is a puffed-up tycoon who appeals to the populist vote by saying whatever he thinks will work at any given moment. The fact that he’s running neck and neck in this election speaks volumes to the depths in which both parties have lost touch with voters, and how decades of under-funding education, promotion of belief over science and the rise of jingoistic blind patriotism has finally come home to roost, with a vengeance.

Throughout the United States, I see the fall of empire, the dissolution of a dream. The great experiment of a new nation is beginning to fail. A government exposed as corrupt and totalitarian, run by career politicians who will say anything to maintain their grip on power in order to keep being fed by wealthy special-interest groups. A populace who pay lip service to the ideas but year by year lose interest in the vigilance required to maintain their liberties, distracted by glitter and sheen and vacuous indulgences. Dumbed down by a faulty education system that is continually challenged by lack of funding and under constant attack from those who wish to impose their ‘faith’ over facts. Graduates who care barely read or write, were told Moses was a historical figure, cannot make change and never taught the basics of reproduction, or how to protect themselves from the consequences of their natural urges.

We live in an Orwellian world of double-speak, where ignorance is wisdom, giving up our freedoms makes us free and to question is to be wrong. Edward Snowden languishes in Moscow instead of being hailed as someone who told us what our government is doing in our name. A football player who refuses to stand for the national anthem is treated as if he somehow offended the military who fight and die in futile wars far away for no good reason. We are not allowed to ask why we sacrifice our troops; just “honor” them. Every day, people are killed on the streets of this once-great nation and no effort is made to overrule the gun industry and limit the weapons that take so many lives and destroy so many families. Not even the slaughter of schoolchildren in their own classrooms can stop it; money can cover anything, even the blood of the innocent. An idea as logical as banning assault weapons and universal background checks is treated as an attack upon the Constitution and the second amendment; but Congress votes to increase secret surveillance of innocent Americans, violating the fourth amendment, and it’s seen as good and proper.

America was once the leader of the free world; that claim is dubious now, to say the least. Other nations have better standards of living; free health care, better education; a happier, safer populace, not dominated by the obsessive need to feed the military whatever it wants, or the need to kowtow to obsolete, nonsensical religious claptrap. Other nations don’t have a crumbling infrastructure, with bridges built nearly a century ago and failing to cope with the increased demands of more and more cars. Other nations recognize the role we play in warming the planet, making every Summer ‘the hottest on record’, year after year after year.

We expect ‘regimes’ to keep innocent people locked away, with no trial; tortured and sometimes killed. To use their armies to attack and murder women, children and babies in their own homes. To spy on their own citizens and deal harshly with anyone who opposes the official party line. With every drop of blood, the United States of America becomes that which we supposedly hate; that which we supposedly stand in contrast to; that which we thought we would never be. We are now.

Next week will mark the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I have spoken before about how we were a different people then. So much has happened to us since that clear, blue morning. We were shocked to find that some could hate us so much that they would do such a terrible thing. It was terrorism of the worst kind, brought home from distant shores half a world away and deposited on our own doorstep. Now we look around at the hate, the shrug of the shoulders to the constant wash of violence, the nonsense and lies spouted off by our leaders and wanna-be leaders, and it’s difficult to deny that we have become a cruel, deluded people, with perhaps our best days behind us. The journey from innocence to cynicism in breathtaking speed.

I still believe that one day, we will rise up and become the people we think we are capable of being. The statement by the captain in Star Trek could ring true as a motto for us all. It is true for some people now, around the world. But there is a long, long way to go in order for it to apply to the majority, never mind the whole of Humanity. I wish I could see it, but I know I won’t. More importantly, I wish I could see it start to happen. I hold onto the hope that it already has.

Would Lincoln Cry For Us?

Posted on February 7th, 2022 in Politics | No Comments »

Originally posted on April 3rd, 2016

Recently I saw the Stephen Spielberg movie Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the late President. The film has garnered rave reviews, although some people seem to find it ‘dry’. I found it a fascinating look at the realpolitik behind the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and signaling the end of the Civil War. Like 1776 (even though it’s a musical) and All the President’s Men, it provides a peek inside the political machinery, even if sanitized and condensed, as Hollywood does to almost everything.

You see ‘Honest Abe’ as a real politician, not above using a little grease for the greater good. What did Lincoln do to end the war that Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t have tried a century later, to stop his own civil war, fought in the steamy jungles of Vietnam? Lincoln was much despised during his lifetime, and the film shows that, as somewhat of a shock to 21st century viewers. Besides the opposition of the Democrats, even many in his own party (and Cabinet) disagreed with him, and his methods. He is presented as always being opposed to slavery, while history is somewhat murkier upon his actual opinion of the subject. I think it fair to say that like many people, he was personally not in favour of it, but accepted it as a possible necessary evil, at least while he was unable to stop it. We may never know for certain.

But what you do see in this movie is a man who uses every method at his disposal to protect not just the Union, but the idea behind it. The government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. We forgive him his trespasses today; would we have done so if he had our technology, our NSA and CIA behind him? Would Abraham Lincoln have sanctioned a Guantanamo Bay prison, where the Constitution is denied? Again, we cannot judge Lincoln by the standards of today, but I would hope with all my heart that he would not. That there were and are lines he would not have crossed.

The Lincoln we see today is largely of our own making, as myth grows and obscures the man, like so many others (Washington, JFK, Dr. King, etc.). The marble image of the Great Emancipator that stares down at us from his memorial in the nation’s capital is a distillation of the best of America, captured in stone. The American Experiment was to show the world that freedom and democracy would free us at last from the grip of the dictator and the tyrant (charges leveled at Lincoln during his time in office). Where men (eventually including men of color, and later, women) would flourish and enjoy the advantages of being allowed to do so, lighting the way for the rest of Humanity. For many years, this was so, even if the backroom politics were not always as noble as our words claimed. I cannot and will not believe that Lincoln was truly a despot, but took the steps he took for good reasons. But there were limits to what he would consider, even if he had the means to do so.

At any rate, he was like I said, an example of what the best of America could be. Bending, but never breaking. His shining example, that guided so many American schoolchildren to remember and follow the virtues of ‘Honest Abe’, carried on through nearly a hundred years of incredible changes, that propelled the United States to the forefront of the world. Our vast landscape enabled a growing population, and natural resources to provide for them. We became a technological giant, and provided a powerful force for good in two World Wars, standing tall against the old Colonial powers, then Fascism, Totalitarianism and doing what we could to help the oppressed and downtrodden, from airlifting food and medicine, to developing vaccines and trying to make the world safer for all. With mixed success.

Eventually, the United States became the empire it never wanted to be, and now we find the population embroiled in another civil war, this time with its own leaders. Political dissatisfaction has never been far from the agenda at any point since before we freed ourselves from Britain; but now it has taken an even uglier turn, as we find ourselves in a world darker than at any time since the 1940’s. The American government routinely spies on its own population, from scanning phone records to illegally hacking into iPhones; anyone who gets on a airplane is considered guilty and subject to humiliating searches by an increasingly incompetent horde of tinpot self-important quasi-Gestapo agents, acting in the name of ‘security’. Orwellian doublespeak echos in chilling surrenders of our hard-won freedoms such as the ‘Patriot Act’. Washington, Jefferson and Adams would recoil in horror if they only knew. This week I read online that according to a recent poll, 63% of Americans would consider torture to be acceptable. I never thought I would ever hear that torture by America would be acceptable. It does not anger me; it makes me sad. So very sad. It is an example of just how far we have fallen.

America was once a shining city on a hill; now it is a derelict slum, decrepit and rotting from the inside out. The 2016 Presidential election will become the most memorable in years, as hard-line right-wingers who think the bible is fact and look with suspicion at anything smacking of intellectualism, battle with the first real ‘celebrity’ to run for President with no real qualifications whatsoever (Ronald Reagan, for all his mistakes, at least was Governor of California before moving into the Oval Office). The current occupant of that office, President Obama, started out with what turned out to be more hope than experience, and the country has never been so split as to his ability to lead (coming from someone who remembers Nixon as well as George W. Bush, that is astonishingly sad in and of itself).

We have become a tatty and embittered people, still scared after the horrific events of 9/11, but unable to find a way back out of the nightmare. Like quicksand, it just drags us farther and farther down. Certainly not the only cause of our malaise (Watergate and Iran-Contra played their part, as well), but that terrible bright-blue September morning provided a opening for those who would choke the life out of our national spirit in order to preserve it, dried and shrived, like a mummy in a museum. I can only think back to Benjamin Franklin: Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

I am not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end of Lincoln; not for the life of the President, snuffed out so cruelly; my tears were for the vast gulf between what Lincoln held so dear, our essential need to do the right thing, versus a populace that would abandon those lofty ideals and stoop to cruel torture of others. Once we were better than that. I fear we are no longer.

Editor’s Note

Posted on February 7th, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Editor’s Note

On January 1st, 2022, the webhost for this site went dark. Despite repeated attempts to contact the host, no replies were ever received. Oddly, it was still possible to FTP into the directory to download all the files. However the database was not available. So a new host was obtained and the files were relocated.

There followed much frantic searching of the hard drives for old backups of the database. At the same time, search engines were queried for cached files. The result is that a backup from 2014 was uncovered, and all essays written after that date were copied from online caches. So there has been no loss of data.

The seven posts written after 2014 will be manually copied and pasted as new entries, with the original posting date added at the top.

Thoughts Of America

Posted on September 11th, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Today is September the Eleventh; the thirteenth anniversary of one of the darkest days in modern history, certainly of my generation. Like December 7, 1941, and November 22, 1963, it remains imprinted upon the psyche of those who experienced it, almost certainly for life. However like all historical events, it is moving away in time. As amazing as it seems, post-9/11 children are starting to enter their early teens. Soon enough, the twentieth anniversary will be upon us, then the twenty-fifth. And so it goes. There will be a whole generation of Americans who will not recall that glorious, crisp blue morning when the last moments of innocence were swept away in a series of terrible events. A demographic who did not exist before that day.

So where are we now? The news this week is full of how Russia is poised on the border of Ukraine, determined to defy the West, whatever the cost, if it keeps NATO from the door. President Obama has just announced that he will pursue airstrikes in Syria to crush the threat of ISIS. In the future, how will these headlines have panned out? Will they be of interest years from now, or just footnotes in the long march of history across the pages of textbooks yet to be written?

Current events aside, what about America? The news I feel, is not good. After thirteen years, the wound of that fateful day continues to cause damage. America today is a true paper tiger, a shadow of its former self. A country once bold and beautiful is now cowardly and corrupt, terrified of any threat, real or imagined, and prepared to go to any lengths to protect itself from unseen enemies. It shames me to think of the Land of the Free able to use torture to wrench confessions from people held with total disregard for due process. A government that thinks nothing of spying not only on the phone conversations of its friends and allies, but intercepting and recording the chatter of millions of citizens, innocent of any crime, real or imagined.

Two years ago I was in a large international airport for the first time since November, 2001. I saw a ridiculously oversize flag hung overhead in a needless display of jingoism, while everywhere there were armed police and the bane of modern travelers, the tinpot dictators of the TSA, scurrying around in their quasi-official uniforms, with “Homeland Security” badges sewn to the shoulders. I felt depressed that Orwell’s horrific vision had indeed come to life. Maybe the reason for the large flag is so that when people like me blink hard and look back up at it, we can at least be slightly reassured that it’s not a Swastika. Maybe.

What has the TSA done, at any rate, other than harass and steal and humiliate honest American citizens? They have done nothing to make the skies safer. They are reactive, not proactive. Someone tries to sneak explosives on board in their shoes; only then do we have to take our shoes off. Not before. Same with belts. Wait until someone tries stuffing a bra with plastic explosives. Meanwhile the staff are rude, lazy and like any other bureaucracy, burdened with being underpaid, understaffed and overworked. A few times a year, some journalist manages to sneak a fake gun on an airliner; there’s an outcry, then nothing happens. If future terrorists take control of a plane with judo, will we all then need to be handcuffed before we can travel? Homeland Security is a joke, and a bigger threat to America than the phantom evils they claim to chase.

And then traveling in the area for a few weeks, I was struck by the huge number of large, gaudy and expensive churches I saw everywhere and what has apparently become the national mantra, Support Our Troops. In a country that for so long has led the world in science and technology, god has taken a firm hold, and anyone who dares voice dissent with the mission is also slandering the brave solders being sent to die for it. People are rejecting reason for blind faith in droves, and the line between poorly thought-out & executed foreign policy and the people trying to carry it out is subtly blurred.

All of it makes me sick. In Vietnam, it was clear to anyone outside the administration that the US policy was banal, pointless and ultimately destined to fail. But there was a clear separation between trying to prop up the discredited domino theory and the poor bastards being killed or maimed in its name. Not anymore. To be critical of what we’ve done in Iraq or Afghanistan is to also be critical of this current generation of poor bastards, also dying for an idea.

I understand why Edward Snowden did what he did, and I think that while he’s technically guilty of breaking the law, he will in time be considered a great patriot. Rather than pay lip service to what America used to legitimately stand for, he did what the Founding Fathers did: broke the law for the people of this (once) great nation. The events of 9/11 allowed agencies like the NSA to succumb to their worst paranoid fantasies. It saddens me to see the USA so terrified that the most heinous and illegal acts are sanctioned. More and more, the outside world sees America as a regime, not unlike Putin’s Russia, or the Chinese. Maybe it’s always been so, and the events of that crisp sunny day years ago just allowed it to come out into the light. But I’d like to think that was not the case. That we were a different people thirteen years and one day ago. I wish we were still the same people now.

The Path to Enlightenment, Maybe

Posted on January 30th, 2014 in Religion | No Comments »

I was ruminating about how many people who believe in god have no qualms about totally dismissing evidence that would seem to contradict their position. I won’t rehash the well-known arguments that go on between believers and nonbelievers, but eventually it comes down to them saying “I don’t believe in your proof”. It’s a bit like dropping something very heavy on your foot, and telling yourself that you don’t believe in gravity.

When you attempt to have a discussion or debate about issues like these, any point you try to make is overruled by appealing to a supernatural deity as the prime mover, or first cause of whatever phenomena is being considered. I recently had such a discussion with two late middle-aged ladies who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and rang my doorbell. It turned into a twenty-minute mini debate in which neither side was able to move the other. They were adamant that god designed the world around us. I tried to explain that instead, natural forces did it all without any apparent help from a creator. My main point was the ‘god of the gaps’ argument – god is used to fill in knowledge that we do not have about any particular physical process. When we have a natural explanation, god is summarily dismissed from the scene. As our knowledge about the world grows, the domain over which god can pull levers behind the curtain diminishes. But they persisted, nonetheless:

Me: What causes the tides?

Them: God!

Me: The Moon!

Them: Ah, but who created the Moon?

It was clear that we were not going to find any common ground. Several weeks later, I was thinking about this discussion, and many others I’ve read or heard about that ran along similar lines. I was struck by the fact that no matter what kind of proof you can offer that does not require a god, it can be summarily dismissed by believers. Of course, if you’re going to have ‘faith’ in something without proof, it’s probably easy to ignore anything that appears contrary to what you want to believe in. Why be swayed by facts if you don’t want to be? Although I find that sort of deceptive and a bit of a cheat.

Turning it over in my mind, I realized that what’s really going on here is not so much refusing to believe in something that can be demonstrated to be true, but denying the idea that ‘chance’ or ‘random’ occurrences can even exist. Many people believe evolution means plants and animals turning into new species or adding new features in a willy-nilly fashion; Biogenesis is often described as inert chemicals thrown together to suddenly become bacteria (both scenarios being grossly oversimplified and described in misleading terms to make the argument more credible to anyone without a scientific background). To people who believe in a created Universe, everything that happens in it, from the radioactive decay of Beta particles, to the outcome of a game of roulette, is the direct and conscious result of god deciding what happens next, according to his divine plan. Complexity, according to them, must arise from a mind, not by ‘blind chance’.

This should sound familiar to most people; it’s Determinism, and the last gasp of Newton’s Clockwork Universe. If we knew the location and movement of every particle in the Universe, we would in theory be able to track where those particles are at a later point in time, in effect knowing the future (or by working backwards, the past). And god of course, would be more than able to do so.  This also has implications for the concept of Free Will, but we’ll leave that can of worms for another time. Let’s stick with why god has to be in charge of this, instead of an unconscious unguided natural Universe.

I think the kind of people who believe in this, and accept faith over evidence, are afraid. They are terrified of existing in a world where nobody is in charge, because then life may not have any true meaning. Atheism is often accused of advocating anarchy because it’s seen as removing any moral weight behind the concepts of social order, justice, even the concepts of good and evil themselves. A random Universe would be one in which hedonism and chaos would dominate. Life would not be sacred, and existence would be meaningless (the fact that many atheists live perfectly moral, meaningful lives is often not noted).  So it’s not really the evidence itself against the existence of god that’s rejected; it’s the idea that the world around us could arise unaided by a creator to direct things. Chance and randomness are concepts that must be avoided at all costs. Thus, it’s not the moon that ‘just happens’ to cause tides; it’s god creating the moon that causes tides. If your worldview is that everything is ultimately traceable back to god, then obviously the entire notion of happenstance occurrences must implicitly be ruled out.

But there’s a problem with this. We know now that ‘chance’ and ‘randomness’ are built into our reality at the deepest levels. The Newtonian Universe has been overthrown by the amazing realization that there are aspects of existence that not even an omniscient god would be able to divine. I’m speaking of course of Quantum Mechanics, the most successful scientific theory every devised, and an aspect of it that contains a locked door not even you-know-who can get into: the Uncertainty Principle.

As we know, the Uncertainty Principle means that by selecting an aspect of an elementary particle to measure, we cannot know with precision anything about a related aspect of the same particle. You can measure the exact position, but by doing so, you are unable to determine the exact velocity. Or vice-versa; if you measure the velocity, you cannot know the precise position. The best you can do is to make a statistical guess about the most likely value you can’t measure. But there is no way to know for sure. In a very real and literal sense, the property you cannot measure does not exist (as opposed to having a real value that can’t be determined, which is not the same thing). So you cannot ascertain the precise location and speed of any particle; Newton’s mechanistic Universe cannot be realized. It is slightly chaotic, and eventually unpredictable, even by god.

Position vs. velocity is the most often-cited aspect pair, but also spin axises and other properties fall under the umbrella of uncertainty. This made me try to recall the famous debate against the UP, and then I remembered: the EPR Paradox. A paper published in 1935 by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen argued that particles may have ‘hidden variables’ that Quantum Mechanics failed to account for. This led to many years of intense debate and thought experiments until 1964, when John Stewart Bell came up with a statistical method of measuring whether or not entangled particles did have hidden variables. The details of the method Bell came up with may be too complex to explain within the context of this discussion. Suffice it to say that the original paradox involved a way of trying to ascertain the properties of a particle indirectly, without actually disturbing it. Bell found a way to determine if the properties were built into the particles or not. It was not physically possible to run the experiment until the early 70’s, but eventually, it (and subsequently more sophisticated and detailed experiments) proved that particles do not have hidden variables. The information is not ‘pre-programmed’ into the particle from the beginning. You can approximate the speed, location, spin axis, etc., but the precise attribute is for all intents and purposes not there until you measure it. And once you determine one variable, the corresponding one (location vs. velocity, for example) cannot be known with the same level of precision. Therefore it is impossible (not just unknowable) to ascertain precise details about some aspects of a particle. Uncertainty rules in our Universe, and god cannot know enough to make the Cosmos a giant clockwork mechanism.

Of course, the ladies who come to my door to give me a copy of the Watchtower don’t know any of that, and wouldn’t accept it anyway. They need the idea of a creator, if only to keep anarchy at bay; but the Uncertainty Principle and the EPR Paradox would strongly suggest that we inhabit a Universe where a god could not track the path of even a single elementary particle. And amazingly enough, things seems to be running just fine without anyone in charge. Order from chaos, and not nearly as much hedonism as one might think. Whether that’s a good thing or not I will leave to the reader.

It Would Suck To Be Superman

Posted on July 13th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Recently there was yet another new Superman movie, Man of Steel. It seems to have already died a quick death at the box office, just like the last Super-reboot (which I can’t even remember the name of now). People seem to not be able to get over Christopher Reeve, even though his Superman films got progressively worse as they went along. And the first one wasn’t all that great to begin with (80’s movies in general seem have been horrible).

However, the reason I’m even mentioning Supey is that I was thinking about M.o.S. and it struck me that it would suck to be Superman. Even with all the cool powers. Let me briefly mention how improbable his existence would be, then we can happily ignore all of that and I can discuss why it’s a good thing he doesn’t exist.

Firstly, the odds of a species beginning on another world and evolving to look exactly like humans is almost impossible. It’s often said that if you could rewind the history of life on Earth back to the beginning and start it again, it’s doubtful you’d wind up with homo sapiens. There are just too many variables to consider, and when you factor in random occurrences, like an asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs, allowing mammals to flourish in their wake, it’s damn near impossible. Even things we take for granted, like five fingers and toes is not assured. If something had dodged left instead of right during the Pre-Cambrian, we could all now have three fingers. Or seven. Even in recorded history, if my Great-Great-Grandmother’s first husband had not died young, I would not have been born. All of us today have always been only a whisker away from oblivion.

And even if a species had somehow developed on another world to look just like us, how could they send a baby to Earth? Our world is a grain of sand in a huge ocean, and there’s nothing special about it, or where it’s located that would give any sentient being a reason to consider it worth investigating. Many people see Earth as the obvious destination to any extra-terrestrial life that may exist; but that’s a myopic view because we happen to live on the planet. In a sort of corollary to the anthropic principle, anywhere you happen to be must be the place to be.

Plus, since it’s impossible to move faster than light (sci-fi and hopes of “advanced technology” notwithstanding), it would take tens of thousands of years to move between the stars. Any baby lobbed our way would need a very large ship to maintain it during its entire lifespan, never mind the centuries it would take this ship to ferry its long-dead passenger to us.

But as I’ve said, let’s put all this practical science and logic to one side. We will posit that a Superman has now appeared, by some means unknown to us. How would he fare, dwelling amongst us?

In the comics, Superman just sort of goes along, and if he happens upon crime, or some evil wrong-doer, he generally stops them in some way. Maybe he wraps a light pole around a group of bank robbers and leaves them for the police. Does he ever provide a written statement to the cops? What about appearing in court to testify? Or is the appearance of a group of thugs with an aluminum pole wrapped around them considered proof in a court of law that a crime has been committed? Could the crooks argue that their rights have been breached? Is this some sort of vigilante justice? Or does ‘might make right’ in cases involving Superman? When was he elected to decide what is right and what is wrong? Who unwraps these criminals anyway? What about replacing the pole? You can see that there’s a whole host of issues revolving around just a single isolated incident. Similar incidents might occur on a daily basis.

What if you’re driving along, and make an illegal turn? Are you in danger of having your entire car lifted up into the air and deposited at the nearest police station? What if you’re littering? Jaywalking? Where does the son of Krypton draw the line? Or is it just big crimes that he deals with? So Superman actively works to protect banks, but nuts to the little guy, eh? If punks break into your car and rip out your stereo, don’t expect any help to arrive faster than a speeding bullet. Isn’t crime ‘crime’, no matter how big or small?

At any rate, crime happens constantly around the country, and indeed the world. If Superman foils a bank heist in New York City, what about  Boston? Chicago? Seattle? Moscow? Canberra? Tehran? If they all were to happen simultaneously, by what criteria does he decide which to stop? Why doesn’t he stop global terrorism by finding those responsible, and flying them directly to the UN? Or the Hague? Or deliver them to the CIA? Is Superman concerned only with crimes committed within and against America? How would the Chinese view an invincible English-speaking Caucasian? What about the Iranians? The North Koreans? Or would he be spending all his time wrapping light poles around people he claims to have been robbing banks in America? In Superman IV, our hero makes a unilateral decision to remove nuclear weapons from every nation. Isn’t that really illegal? Does it respect the right of sovereign nations? Won’t they just make more? What if he destroyed the NSA computers? Or similar facilities in the UK, France or Russia? Is it right, then? If not, when does it become ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Who decides?

Ultimately, Superman would not need a secret identity, as he’d have no time to use it. It would be a thankless 24/7 job, patrolling the entire globe, trying to stop a multitude of criminal activity going on simultaneously around the planet. Not even Superman would be able to keep up, or prioritize which ones to stop. The people who are not helped by him, or feel threatened by his obvious pro-US bias, would alternatively hate and fear him.  No matter how many people you may help, you’d never be able to help everyone, and this would breed resentment. What do you say to a grieving mother who wants to know why you stopped a robbery in Amsterdam, but allowed her teenage son to fall off a cliff in Montana? Why didn’t you help him? How could anyone respond to that? And it would be asked in different forms almost hourly by someone else, somewhere else. If your idea of right and wrong is different than his (perhaps for cultural reasons), who could overrule him? How would you appeal?

And if ultimately it pissed him off that the more he tries to do, the more complaints he receives, how would we stop him if he decided to lay waste to the world instead? Maybe he’d snuff out the sun, or throw the moon at us.

In the end, he’d be an object of scorn and derision. Unless he became ruler of the world, then it would just be billions of people having a seething resentment for him. What kind of super powers would make up for knowing that the people you wanted to help would wind up despising you for it? No thanks. It would really suck to be Superman.