PBR Autumn 2005

This is the premiere edition of PBR, addressing the issue of thought itself: how we process our perceptions, the influence of position on knowing, conflicts in worldviews.  Contributors to this issue are Anne Armentrout, Frederick D. Battles, Bruce Harris Bentzman, Billy Chowdhury, Leslie Edwards, Dana Holywell, Nick Humez, Sherri Lynn Kline, Paul J. Sampson, and Jeanne Sanders.

 

THE LACK OF GHOSTS

Man and dog think different thoughts about the layers of habitation concealed beneath an ordinary suburban stroll.

Old Boris, my oversized Newfoundland, is determined to walk the same routes over again.  There are about a half dozen select paths.  He is reluctant to explore, or to travel too far from home. He limits himself to keeping tabs on what he probably regards his home turf, sniffing the wind and conspicuous upright things.  He reads them the way people read the local newspaper, searching for current news.

During our nocturnal perambulations, my four-legged companion is consistent, always hitting his favorite marks. One particular route takes us past a dense patch of ivy and tall trees, disconcerting in that this small area does not fit in with the terrain. Levittown landscaping is generally manicured lawns with trees seldom very old. Here is a brief lapse in the incessant repetition of like homes, a narrow lot supporting a small, overgrown jungle. A determined Boris pulls at his leash for this particularly spot.  This narrow area extends away from the curb, piercing half the width of the block, so that it is surrounded on three sides by the backyards of homes. Boris wades into the ivy and urinates.  With the exception of the few families that border this strip of wilderness, very few other neighbors know this wooded patch of ivy to be a cemetery.

The adjacent homes are not allowed to use this property, are not even permitted to attend to its appearance. It is cared for by the township’s municipal government, a benign disregard.  The meaning of this ground is not betrayed by gravestones. What was left of them had been removed after Levittown’s first generation of vandals broke them off or knocked them down. The remnants can still be sought only an inch beneath the soil.  These are the old family graves of a farm that once occupied this ground.  They date back to the time of our Revolutionary War and are now so terribly forgotten.

It is past the witching hour of this foggy night when Boris and I arrive to this station on our walk.   The tracery of naked trees casts shadows in the very air. I notice that someone has dumped their trimmings on this unmarked graveyard, but the prospect of unsettling the permanent denizens residing underground does not alarm me.   I have not yet been witness to a spectral being, and I can think of no more hopeful prospect than meeting with a ghost.   I would be overjoyed with the evidence of afterlife.  I can think of several friends, now deceased, whose company I would have continued enjoying if only they deigned to haunt me.

Boris does not find the same rewards in contemplating the dead and the change that is wrought by time.   To maintain continuity with the past while forging a link with the future does not entail, for my dog, a conscious effort.  His instinct will preserve the past and prepare for the future so long as he focuses on securing food and reproducing.  (Well, actually he won't be reproducing, but I don't know what his several siblings are up to.)   So I wonder, is my contemplation born of lost instincts, acting as replacement for their absence? Have we humans exceeded practical needs with surfeit contemplating?

I look at Boris and realize he benefits from human contemplation, for Boris is living comfortably into an old age with less stress and fewer parasites than his wild cousins.  He shares the heated house and has food and water brought to him.   His unconditional loving is rewarded with a return of affection and respect that he never would have received from members of the pack.

And then I wonder about this site remaining unmarked.  I would have my neighbors know about the history their homes have erased, the Larue family of farmers, and before them the tribes of the Lenni Lenape.   I think the occupants in most of these houses are in denial, with little thought of death, concern for history, or caretaking for the future.   Levittown is meant to be timeless, floating uncontaminated and permanent through history.  Actually, for many, history is detached myths and legends from somewhere else, like Ireland, Poland, or the pages of the Bible.  The “new” land under the foundations of their houses does not contain their former lives, so they are only interested in sniffing out the latest news and keeping tabs on their possessions while eating and lovemaking at every opportunity.   Levittown needs ghosts.

—Bruce Harris Bentzman, Pennsylvania

Reprinted with permission of the author. This essay originally appeared in Snakeskin Poetry Webzine (www.snakeskin.org.uk).

 

Tombstone

Tombstone Near Dubois, PA                    — photo by L. Edwards.

RECLAIMING APPLE PIE ?

Language exists to express ideas, yet words come with emotional baggage and shifting meanings.  How can we work around this so that we’re not talking past one another?

Scene 1: Sam, who considers himself a patriotic liberal, is having a friendly but spirited discussion of politics with his next-door neighbor Fred.  Sam is troubled by Fred’s categorical assertions that all liberals are too soft on criminals and that any failure to support the president’s war policy is unpatriotic. Sam feels that the U. S. Constitution’s Fourth and Fifth Amendments guarantee even someone accused of a serious crime against unreasonable searches and self-incriminating testimony, and that both the First Amendment and the preamble to the Declaration of Independence recognize that reasonable people will have different opinions as to what is best for the well-being of the country, differences it is both right and lawful to express in public.

Scene 2: Sally is on the phone with someone who has called her about a letter to the editor recently published by her local newspaper, in which she argued that her Christian convictions were consistent with her belief that any person pregnant as a result of date rape was not acting immorally in seeking a legal abortion.  The man on the other end of the line insists that an embryo is a person and abortion is murder, forbidden by the Ten Commandments God gave Moses on Mount Sinai, and that any belief to the contrary is mere “country-club Christianity” and not the real thing.  Not surprisingly Sally, who acknowledges her faith every Sunday when she recites the Nicene Creed with her fellow parishioners at St. Botolph’s, is disturbed by this call.

What is the problem here? Evidently what Sam and Fred mean by “liberal” and “patriot” are not the same things, nor are what Sally and her anonymous caller mean by “person” and “Christian.”  Other examples abound: “Homeland security” may mean one thing to a pilot learning to deliver ordnance on target and quite another to the native of Vieques protesting the use of a third of that Caribbean island as a Navy bombing range.  The “family values” of a mother, father, and three children in a Hassidic community in Brooklyn and of a same-sex couple in suburban New Jersey who have adopted an orphan from China are likely to differ markedly as well.

It is difficult to avoid talking past each other when we have sincere differences of opinion yet seek to arrive at common ground.  This is not necessarily the result of deliberate obtuseness or intellectual bad faith on the part of one or both parties to the discussion: Language changes with time, at least any language that is alive. (Sumerian and ancient Avestan conveniently stay the same, but that is because anyone who was a native speaker of either tongue has been dead for several thousand years.) To the Athenian of 420 B.C., a tyrant (tyrannos) simply meant a ruler who hadn't come to power through legitimate succession (as distinct from a basileus or an anax, who had).1 Such a king might be far from tyrannical in his rule – Hieron, Tyrant of Syracuse, was a philosopher-king wise enough to hire Archimedes as his court engineer – but the cumulative experience of a few centuries was enough to teach Greeks and their Roman successors the now-familiar notion that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  By 1776 A.D., when Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence, "tyranny" specifically meant to the American colonists both illegitimate power – that is, a government not "deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed,"2 including a representative voice in the legislature enacting one's taxes – and abuse of the traditional freedoms enjoyed by British citizens: forced housing of soldiers in private homes, seizure of property and especially firearms without due process, trials in kangaroo courts across the Atlantic.  Today, we use the word "tyrant" (if we use it at all) simply as a synonym for "despot," even of one who has come to power through what passes for a legitimate election, erasing a distinction our ancestors thought a crucial one.

 The rapidity of linguistic change can sometimes be quite breathtaking.  As recently as 25 years ago most Americans would have said that political "conservatism" included a desire to shrink the federal budget and its deficit, a reluctance to become entangled in foreign nations' domestic affairs, and a general desire (as President Reagan famously said) to "get the government off our backs."  Yet what is one to make of the "conservative" label worn with pride by those today who control the White House and both houses of Congress, and seem poised to get a majority on the Supreme Court as well?  They have enacted an enormous national budget with an immense deficit, deployed the Marines and state militias (that is, the National Guard) overseas to influence the course of another nation's domestic politics (ironically abandoning the "war on terrorism" pretext of our national security interest at stake in the invasion and occupation of Iraq even as the number of American soldiers killed there inched up towards 2000, including over a dozen from one Ohio town on a single day), and pushed through Congress the so-called "Patriot" Act  creating unprecedented opportunities for government scrutiny of private citizens by circumventing the constitutional safeguards of warrant or probable cause.  Apparently "conservative" cannot mean the same thing to everyone that it did a quarter-century ago, when most of the dictionaries on our reference shelves were printed – but if not, any appeal to the "dictionary definition" of this or any other term is unlikely to be of much help in establishing a shared universe of discourse.

Now in all fairness, it must be remembered that no party, faction, society, or era bears a unique blame for deliberately altering the usage of a hot-button word: Although the semantic shifts in the examples above may owe a good deal to the present “culture war” between small-d democrats and neoconservatives, even the term “culture war” itself has a different connotation today than had its German translation, Kulturkampf, to the genocidal Nazis of six decades ago. Christianus was a term of contempt applied by Roman pagans to the followers of the new sect, who co-opted it and made it a badge of pride (along with the cross itself, a form of execution reserved only for the lowest of the low: slaves, highway robbers, the seditious.) Quaker was likewise at first a derogatory name for members of the Religious Society of Friends that came to be used without opprobrium by Friends themselves. Conversely, yid was once simply the word for “Jew” in Yiddish (compare German Jude, “Jew,” and jüdisch, “Jewish”) but by the early 1900s had become an offensive ethnic slur when used by English-speaking Gentiles.

Yet if we are not to be like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, for whom a word “means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less,”3 we must all find some means to agree on what we know and how we denote it. One way is to take familiar terms and re-frame the facts in new terminology; thus crippled became handicapped and this in turn has given way to challenged (or now, differently-abled). But this carries the double disadvantage of admitting semantic defeat to one’s opposition and having to keep inventing neologisms to stay one step ahead of the game – an exercise which itself may invite ridicule (e.g. the parodic metabolically-challenged for “dead.”)

A second tack is simply to refuse to surrender one’s terms but to define them at every use: “patriotism – by which I mean a love of country that refuses to acquiesce when our leaders propose attempt to pull off some course of action that will trample on the Bill of Rights, trash the economy, or get a lot of people killed to no good purpose.”  Bystanders may applaud the intellectual honesty (if yawn at the lengthiness) of so painstaking an approach; but it is still likely to be a hard sell to those with whom one is actually debating, whose definition of patriotism may differs markedly from one’s own. 

A third method might be to say, “All right, let us define some essential terms, or we’ll get nowhere: What do you mean by apple pie?” and somehow arrive at a compromise. This requires a sincere effort by all parties to the discussion, and even then takes a great deal of time and energy. Sometime the revival of obsolete terms may help; the very quaintness of "tyrant" scrupulously defined may give it a utility spoiled for more current terms, while appealing to a historical tradition shared by all parties – the civic mythology that is the common heritage of our society as a whole, by which we are all accustomed to telling ourselves who we are.  But there is still the danger that one's opponents may cry foul at the appropriation of terms whose symbolic baggage goes beyond mere semantic content.

A fourth strategy may well be to abandon accepted terminology altogether in favor of nonce words: For "liberal" we might say eleutheriarch and for "patriot," Columbiaphile; we could call "Christians" Nicenists and substitute autonomous sentient featherless bipeds for "persons." Odd as such names may sound at first, their very novelty frees them from the emotional freight that traditional names carry: Like a brand-new browser immune to existing computer viruses which target the existing ones, neologisms come into the world initially impervious to semantic hijacking.  No matter that they may not (and probably should not) catch on; enough that they might just get us through the immediate discussion so that we and our adversaries can in mutual good faith address, and perhaps even solve, problems associated with the underlying facts of the real world. Sometimes the best way to see eye to eye may be through a glass darkly.

1 Thus the Greek title of the Sophocles play that English speakers know as Oedipus the King is Oidipous tyrannos, since Oedipus has not inherited the throne of Thebes.  Indeed, the most chilling moment of the play for its original viewers must surely have been the first time he is called not tyrannos but anax, by the messenger who has arrived to tell him that king Polybus of Corinth, his supposed father, is dead and he is now legitimate heir to the throne of that city, the first in a series of revelations leading inexorably to the play's tragic end.

2 Constitution of the United States of America, preamble.

3 Carroll, Lewis (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), The Complete Illustrated Lewis Carroll (Ware, Hertfordshire., UK: Wordsworth Editions, 1996), page 196.

—Nick Humez, New Jersey

   BOARDWALK TALK

 

“The soul has no gender,” wrote a French philosopher two centuries ago.  But what if the sexes really do think differently? And if so, how can we hope to communicate the things we care most passionately about to the people dearest to us?

 

he said

   i don t get it

       why don t you let him go

 

she said

   but i love him

       he s the only one I could

           ever talk to

 

he said

   you re talking to me

       aren t you

 

she said

   you know it s not the same

       not the same at all

 

he said

   yes but does he listen

       if he did how could he

           hurt you so

 

she said

   it s not really that

       boys and girls are just

           different that s all

 

he said

   we re not all that different

       are we i mean

           a mind is a mind

 

she said

   you know what they say

       men are from mars

           and women are from

 

he said

   i know i know  but

       i think it s just a load of

           sweeeet viiiolets

 

she said

   o you  you re so rude  but

       you ve always been my friend

 

he said

   and that s why i m worried

       because i know your mind

 

she said

   it ll work out you ll see

       he ll come around

 

he said

   whatever it s your life

       but you always know

           where to find me

 

she said

   if only

 

he said

   yeah i know

—Billy Chowdhury, New Jersey

KNOWING WHEN TO ADAPT

On translating stories into theater, and what to do if someone got there first.

When I was in graduate school back in the eighties, I fell in love with Henry Adams, historian and fourth-generation member of on of America’s most famous families.

First I was smitten with the drawing of him on my copy of The Education of Henry Adams; then I became more entangled as I read the famous 1907 self-in-third-person autobiography and analysis of the modern world.

Subsequently, I discovered that he had written two works of fiction: Democracy, a satire of Washington politics that presents the nation's powerful as seen by a widow from New York who travels to the capital to learn about government and finds it corrupted; and Esther, the story of a relationship between a woman artist and a clergyman that collapses because of the incompatibility of their religious beliefs.

So taken was I by the former, I decided to adapt it for the stage.

I set to work plotting and planning, doing library research on interior design and fashion of the 1880s, even writing a dazzling opening monologue for the the protagonist.

Then it happened: quite by chance, I discovered that playwright Romulus Linney had written, almost a decade earlier, a play called Democracy, which conflated the two Henry Adams novels.

After reading the script, I could see why the work had had only limited regional success: it wasn’t very good — too much in too little space and everything gets a trifle thin — and it certainly wasn’t as good as mine would have been based only on the one novel and written with all the devotion of a love-sick grad student.

But what was the point?  Even if I could produce a superior adaptation, why would anyone bother with the efforts of an unknown when someone with real professional theater credentials had already written a play from the same source and had it produced?

And this wasn’t the only incident of its kind.

I later turned a short story by Mary Wilkins Freeman, an early feminist writer and member of the “local color school,” into a one-act play and had vision of adapting two more stories into a theater suite with excellent roles for older actresses.

My one-act, “Mistaken Charity,” even saw a local production that was quite well received and encouraged me to go forward with the larger project.

Then one night, I turned on American Playhouse, the only PBS series to present original American drama, and there was a production of “Mistaken Charity,” based on a short story by Mary Wilkins Freeman.

Once again, I was disappointed that the screenwriters hadn’t, to my view, caught the true essence of the thing; once again, my ambitions crumbled leaving me with little comfort other than that I seemed to know how to spot a narrative that could translate to stage or screen.

My mentor in all things literary and theatrical always told his students that, whether it was writing a poem, play, short story, or the great American novel, “You don’t know that you can do it – and you don’t know that you can’t.”

In other words, you have to jump in.

Of course, given my experience with the two drama, I came to the view that even if you indeed “just do it” that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to discover that someone else already “just done it,” leaving you to mumble the equivalent of “I could been a contender.”

So the question is: if you think your work it really and truly good, that it has fire and catches fire, should you be discouraged by the fact that someone older, or more famous, or better endowed has already played?

Or is being beaten to the punch, even by what seems to you an inferior product, just the chance you take when you chose to exercise your creativity through adaptation rather than through expression of original ideas?

Now, two decades beyond graduate school, I still have only equivocal answers to these question.

But I do know two things: First, at a time when “to Google” is almost a way of life, there isn’t much excuse for being caught unawares that some has or is working along the same lines as you; second, no committed writing effort is ever truly wasted as it can always be used as a bad example — or, as in the present instance, can be dug out and made to answer when the assignment is challenging and the deadline is breathing down your neck.

And so, on behalf of myself, and Mr. Henry Adams, and all the epistemologically curious, I would like to take you to...

    Autumn in New York, 1882, or

       Mrs. Madeleine Lee Gives

           the First Ball of the Season

I have made up my mind.  I am going to spend

The winter in Washington.... Because the climate

Will do me good. Because I have friends there I long

To see.... Yes, yes, I know I do — whole troops of them.

I may even miss some of you. But I can’t bear

To hear another word about the price of stock,

And I have lost all interest in men who deal

In them. Once — once it was all most agreeable

Flirting with young stockbrokers.  If you’re young and gay,

Flirtation can still lead to something.... Yet talking

Philosophy lead to nothing — but another

Evening of the same kind.... I suppose I have turned

Serious. All I know is I’m bored — utterly

Tortured by ennui....  Yes, yes, the idiotic

Idle rich....  –Of course I’d as soon be rich as not.

It’s what you and I and everyone glittering

Here beneath these glittering chandeliers are—

And always have been.  Yes, yes, I am becoming

Yet once again dreadful on the subject of wealth.

But what difference does it all make — all our money?

What can we do that is different from that which

Other people do? It is not only vulgar

To live in two houses on the same street, or drive

Six great while horses, snowy breast to snowy breast,

Down the city thoroughfare, it’s impossible.

When you’ve satisfied all your wants, what’s to be done

With the rest?...  Charity?  Public work?  Praiseworthy.

But is it wise?  I’ve plunged into philanthropy

Till I am nearly drowned.  I’ve visited prisons,

Inspected hospitals. I’ve read each latest word

On poverty and crime.  I’ve soaked in statistics

On vice and villainy till I have lost all sight

Of virtue. Tomorrow every indigent

And each incorrigible in New York may rise

In majesty and manage every last railroad

On this sprawling, destiny-stricken continent.

Meanwhile, I’m going to Washington.... –It’s not that:

I don’t want to travel.  I just wish to winter

In Washington.... –I have of Europe all I am

Going to get: that remarkable specimen

of Corrupt, some bales of Persian carpets, a few

Decent pieces of porcelain — and these, of course:

These champagne flutes of Venetian glass that I bought

On a misty morning when my heart–.... Hoskins, more

Champagne! Europe is exhausted. Besides, I am

American — from my toes to the very tips

Of my Philadelphian fingers. Whatever

American life has to offer, good or bad,

I mean to have.  I shall progress to Washington....

No, I don’t know what amusement I expect

Among that unlettered, that unenlightened swarm.

An education, perhaps?...  Save me from that kind

Of higher education. Have we not right here,

Here in New York, the richest university

In all America?  Only it can get no

Scholars — not one, not even by paying for them....

Shall I go into the streets and waylay little

Boys?  If the heathen refuse to be converted,

Can you give me power of the stake and the sword?

Suppose I scrub their grimy faces, then march them

Down Fifth Avenue and have them properly taught

Greek and Latin, English literature, German

Philosophy.  What then?  You do it in Boston.

What has it given you? Are there poets, scholars,

Philosophers, statesmen, up and down Beacon Hill?

No, you’re like the rest of us: you grow six inches

And stop.  Why won’t somebody grow to be a tree

And cast a shadow?...  –No, I don’t know what I want.

I am dizzy with discontent, racked and restless.

I’m like a passenger on an ocean steamer:

The dance on deck is delightful, the music is

Merry, but my mind won’t mind the measure until

I see the engines, until I touch the engines

And feel their motive power. The embrace could make

One mad. So I must go to Washington.  I must

Feel the motive power....  If I exhaust myself?

It might be a relief.  To have lost what I’ve lost —

Preciousness struck down by just such as neither cause

Nor crusade can topple or defeat — to have lost

That love and the issue of that love, one becomes

Very hard or very soft. I am purest steel.

Beat my heart with a trip-hammer and it will beat

The trip-hammer back again.  Here is not enough.

I have made up my mind.  I am going to spend

Winter in Washington.  I must see for myself.

 

—Anne Ilka Armentrout, Louisiana

 

         THE BIRDS AND THE BULLIES

 

Limits of communication, across or within species.

 

The crows descend, black snow on our front lawn,

   First one, then two, then half a dozen more,

Pecking at worms.  I clap my hands; they’re gone,

   Skyward, indignant, every rasping “Caw!”

A reprimand. Gorging themselves on flesh

   Of road-kill, grimly gossiping, they tear

Beakfuls of byway-burger, the less fresh

   The better.  Black wings flap as I come near:

“Caw!  Caw!” I mimic.  They don’t answer me:

   They know that I’m not one of them; my squawk

       Utterly fails to cross the species line.

Just so at school those predators I see

   Picking on younger kids: I just can’t talk

       Their talk, or know their minds, nor they know mine.

 

     —Dana Holywell, Maine

After_Life

After Life — photo by L. Edwards.

    ATTACKING THE “ZERO”: FOURTEEN’S PASSION

    Critical thinking as an antidote to nihilism.

    In the words of Ayn Rand: “You who are worshippers of the zero — you have never discovered that achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.  Joy is not the ‘absence of pain,’ intelligence is not ‘the absence of stupidity,’ [and] light is not ‘the absence of darkness....”1 Had Ayn Rand herself greeted me at my front door with these words last Christmas, I might have nodded in careless agreement.  Nothing could have brought to me the full meaning of her words except that long, hopeless road, fast approaching me on the other end of the telephone as I rushed upstairs to speak with my best friend.  I had not one ounce of what it would take to deal with my best friend’s attempted suicide.

    Thinking back, I realize that without novels and literature, such as Atlas Shrugged, filled with the stories of heroes and their strength of mind, I might never have come to any conclusion about the horrific phenomenon that was suicide made real.  Christmas of 2003 marked the beginning of the many agonizing months during which I would be forced to ask myself, “What is the meaning of life, and is it worth it?” I thought long and hard about this question and others very similar.  Without immediate answers, however, I soon became frustrated watching the absence of a spark in the eyes of my best friend. I soon began to devote the greatest amount of energy to thinking about what it means to live life at what Ayn Rand called the “zero” – living not because you are passionate about life but because death is inconvenient.

    My best friend who had attempted suicide, whom I’ll call Maria, had always been a kind of role model and was seemingly ambitious and passionate about her various endeavors.  She exhibited flawless logic at school, winning various mathematics awards and scoring a whopping 1450 on the SAT’s in eighth grade. She was the epitome of logic and reason, and yet she had nothing to live for. Indeed, it was unsettling to hear her speak of suicide in a dry, matter-of-fact tone, as though explaining the process of photosynthesis or the formula for the half-life of carbon 14. It was difficult for me to understand at first, and hearing someone with such raw intelligence accuse life of being meaningless was scary. She had no serious difficulties in her life that I knew of.  Her reasons were simple, she would tell me.  It was because she could see no reason to life that she decided suicide was the only proper route.

    According to Ayn Rand’s ideas about the “zero,” about living aimlessly and without passion, Maria’s decision to attempt to kill herself was logical, even justified, if she had no reason to attack life whole-heartedly.  However, when I truly got to thinking about it, I realized that while needing to crave life, not just float through it, is indeed an ideal I aspire to fulfill, it is not reasonable to think that one must know her life’s passion at the age of fourteen.  I believe that passion itself is something to be achieved, not happened upon, that my best friend was giving up too early without ever having truly scraped the corners of her world for something to believe in and work for.  The day you give up your passion for life and for discovering passion, I decided, was the day you had indeed reached the “zero.”

    There was a time after Maria’s suicide attempt during which I thought I myself would be lost in the apparent futility of life. Critical thinking on my part and inspiration from authors like Ayn Rand who regard the human ability to reason with utmost respect were what kept me going when I had to question seriously my own reasons for living.  I realized that in today’s world, it is easier for a young person to understand a concept like Ayn Rand’s “zero” than it is for her to walk out into the world and wrestle it to the ground, for our world would never allow us anything but safety and security during the first twenty or so years of our lives. I have, however, accepted that it is all right to wait, for now I am armed with the knowledge that while raw intelligence is important, it is equally important to explore and to contemplate, to be unafraid of the truth and to seek it vigorously, notwithstanding the safety in avoiding the big concepts.

    1 Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: New American Library, 1985.

     —Jeanne Sanders* Ohio

    *nom de plume

COYOTE AND WEASEL

A fable of tricksters, funny animals, and reality’s resistance to precise definition.

Weasel and Coyote are walking along the banks of a river.  Weasel glances at the water laughing beside them at their reflections and notices that Coyote’s shape keeps changing as they go along.

 “Stop that! You’re Coyote.  You should look like a coyote,” said Weasel.

Coyote snickers and asks him, “What does a coyote look like?”

Weasel thinks a moment.  “He has a pointed muzzle and pointed ears and a bushy tail.”

“Like this?” Coyote’s muzzle and ears became coyote pointed and his tail grows long and bushy. His fur, however, turns blue jay blue and his eyes become as round and wide as an owl’s.

“Stop that!” snaps Weasel. “You are Coyote, not a bird”! 

“Friend Weasel, I have done what you asked me to do, my muzzle, ears and tail are exactly as you described. What more do you want?” asks Coyote. 

Weasel thinks a moment.  “A coyote’s eyes are smaller, and his fur is gray.” Coyote’s fur becomes coyote gray and his eyes shrink to coyote size – and turn rabbit pink. Weasel nearly foams in frustration. 

Time passes as Weasel keeps defining what a coyote is and Coyote obliges him, mostly. But not quite. Weasel is getting more and more frustrated until he is swollen to twice his original size with pent-up irritation.  His eyes bug out from internal pressure and his skin is stretched so thin that his weasel heart can be seen clattering along as fast as a hummingbird’s wings from stress.

Finally Coyote stands there, coyote-eared, coyote-eyed, coyote-muzzled, coyote-tailed, coyote-colored…and nibbling calmly on a rock.

“Stop that!” screams Weasel. “You are Coyote! Now act like it!”  Weasel’s weasel body can’t take any more and it explodes, sending weasel fur and weasel guts flying every which way while Coyote ducks and covers.  Only his bones remain.  Coyote gathers them up and puts into his pouch to make replacement dice out of, which was what he was after in the first place.

“I am acting like Coyote,” he replies before sauntering off.

—Sherri Lynn Kline, Michigan

GRAMMA’S GOSPEL

 

“Faith,” said St. Paul, “is the evidence of things unseen.”  But how is a pious old lady to penetrate the hiddenness of the Almighty?

 

Lo, my Shepherd's hand divine:

I cain't see you, though I'm tryin'.

 

Lead me gently when I stray,

'Cause this sheep don't know the way.

 

Save me from the lion's might,

wolves and such that prowl by night.

 

Help me in mine unbelief;

Devil he got horns and teeth.

 

Look with favor on Your lamb:

I ain't much, but what I am.

 

 —Frederick D. Battles, New York

Cognative_Dissonance04

Cognitive Dissonance                         — photo by L. Edwards.

FINDERS KEEPERS?

What do we do when it’s their money but they can’t figure out how to let us give it back? A case study in justice and the want of critical thought.

The road to truth is littered with obstacles.

As a child who had not yet reached the age of reason, I found the basic obstacle to telling the truth was the primary need for immediate gratification.  Nothing mattered more than feeling good. Given the opportunity, I often casually stretched the truth for no other reason than to please a nearby warm body.  [Yes, Gramma, I cleaned my plate.]  (Exit Lassie.)

In the wake of a suspended truth, I was often forced to fabricate additional fibs to protect my current reality as well as my behind. [No, Mommy, I didn't eat the cookies.]  (Exit Lassie, once again.)  And that's the way life was: immediate, straightforward, every act underscored by an overwhelming organic need for warm fuzzies, and fueled by immature synapses plus an equally undeveloped conceptualization of right and wrong.

In the intervening years, society’s relentless hazing caused a predictable metamorphosis. A typically self-absorbed child was transformed into a functioning adult, adding a conscience to a normal appetite for self-preservation, that universal underlying need which Hobbes tells us provides the foundation for group cooperation.1 In the process we gain protection against external aggressors, “safety in numbers.” We learn to “do unto others” not out of altruism, but out of self-defense in the hope that good behavior would be rewarded in kind.

Even as very young children we understand the wrenching impact of  property loss.  Our misplaced book bag in another’s hands, if accompanied by the auditory sting “Finders keepers; losers weepers,” is reason enough for us to buy into Hobbes’ rational ethic of self-preservation and pull our little red wagons into the comfort zone of a social circle, lest the lone bully intentionally “find” our lunch box too.  Society’s constructs eventually pressure and woo most of us, dictating a specific norm of behavior which acts as its own reciprocal against such “finders.” Moving safely in a community is complicated by those who have slipped through its moral fingers. Whether it’s a bully on the playground or the irrational strongarm of a giant corporation, it takes fancy footwork to avoid the peripheral damage caused by flawed behavior.

All but the ethically challenged will make a sincere effort to return lost property.  In the ideal model, the contents of a wallet found on the avenue allows us to do exactly that. A phone call facilitates return of the lost item, relieves the angst of the loser, and comforts the conscience of the finder. In the worst-case scenario, the compounded problem of uncertain ownership militates in favor of placing the wallet into the hands of the local constabulary, and once again, in a few predictable moves we have honestly dispatched the property.  Case closed.

It is reasonable to assume that our personal code of ethics will superimpose itself onto our professional practices and filter into our business code of ethics.  A robust conscience mandates that we treat our customers as we wish to be treated. Within communal parameters the reverse must be true as well. We have come to believe that honesty is the best policy, and we expect fairness.  Not only do we pay our bills in full and on time, but we expect accuracy in billing from our suppliers, and rightfully demand that they correct errors in their favor.

But what happens when we are forced to think outside the box?  How do we handle the irrational actor...the pain in the neck who refuses to follow the rules?  What can we do when our personal ethics are compromised by the cognitive inadequacies of others? What do we do when a company does not act in its own raw self interest? If it’s unethical to steal, isn’t it also unethical to press money on someone to whom it is not owed and then refuse to take it back?

Consider the following interactions I recently had with a pair of misguided companies who insisted that I shoot them in the foot.

The first is Buzzard’s, a pseudonym for a department store which offered a 10% discount on first purchases only if charged on a newly applied-for credit card.  I fell for this one, and spent $250, which generated a nice $25 discount in the form of a credit on my account. A few days later I had second thoughts and returned the item. I advised the store that since I returned the goods, it should remove the $25 discount credit from my account, and return the funds to its side of the ledger where they rightfully belonged.  It seemed straightforward. As promised, the company promptly removed the credit balance from my account. But instead of acting in their own best interest and entering the bucks on their side of the ledger, they mailed me a $25 check.

The second an internet service provider whom I shall charitably refer to as Brainspasm Online – offered a free trial which I accepted in mid-October ’04, ponying up my billing information. Barely two weeks into the trial, I discovered a major incompatibility and canceled the free test via the phone method buried deep within the text of their wordy on-line agreement. In April ’05, a full six months after I canceled their services and Brainspasm agreed by phone to purge my credit card information from their records, this ISP billed my credit card $15.95 for what it said was the current month’s service.

Direct contact with Brainspasm's corporate moguls brought resultsunfortunately, the results were contrary to all good business practice.  No amount of explaining made a difference.  Brainspasm refused to acknowledge that it kept my personal info after I canceled.  In fact, Brainspasm claimed that I did not cancel, yet could not explain why my credit card was not billed each month during the phantom six month subscription period.  To add to the lunacy, they offered a “courtesy” refund in the amount of $85 which they claimed was the total refund due for all the payments made over the life of the (nonexistent) subscription.

My state Attorney General’s office refused to intervene. Missing the twofold absurdity, they said, “Nobody credits a customer with more money than they are owed.”

Somehow I expected more...the plain truth and $15.95.  Some might have spent the windfall on new shoes or a couple of tanks of over-inflated gas, but my personal ethic wouldn’t permit me to keep cash that belongs in someone else’s pocket. Thanks to the irrational and unethical policies of these companies, and their lack of critical thought, my conscience has been obliged to struggle with the dissonance of right action yielding wrong results.

It has been said that character is not built in such situations, but exhibited.  I know when I'm fighting a losing battle, and have decided to appease my dashed expectations by donating the unearned cash to charity.  I’ll admit that oftener than we’d wish, there are no flawless solutions. Sometimes the world is just plain screwy.

1oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Hobbes/hobbes_human_nature.html)

—Leslie J. Edwards, Ohio

THE VIEW FROM UP HERE

“Positioned knowing” — from 2000 feet and up.

Once I took an old friend for an airplane ride.  He had been in a few airliners, but never a little plane where you can sit next to the pilot and talk to him.  My friend is quite a talker, and I was curious to hear what he’d say, what he’d ask, what he’d point out on the ground.

We took off from a small airport North of Chicago, near the Lake Michigan shore. I climbed out and headed for the Lake, a few miles East. Way off to our right was the Chicago skyline; below was the patchwork of suburban houses and small farms, roads, little lakes speckled with fishing boats and water skiers, shopping strips and malls, all shrinking as we gained altitude. Half a mile above the ground, I leveled off and asked him how he was doing. He hadn’t said a thing, and he stayed silent for a little while more.

“It’s literally a god-like view,” he said at last. “Like the old gods, I mean.  Like the view from Olympus.” And so it was, I thought.  Or perhaps like what Daedalus saw as he flew away from the shore of Crete.  We watched the water below us darken from pale silver at the beach to deep Aegean blue as we flew farther out. Unlike old Daedalus, I wasn’t trying to escape anything, so I swung the nose around and headed back to land.

I was too busy watching for traffic to indulge in extended god-like contemplation of the world below – we were within a few miles of several airports, including O’Hare International – but I did give some thought to my friend’s words.  Did Hermes fly at altitudes like this to deliver Zeus’s mail, or did he skim above the treetops like a bird?  Did he have to stay alert for possible mid-air collisions with eagles?

We cruised around awhile and I called out the Points of Interest: “There – there! —that’s my brother’s house!” When he had seen enough, we headed home.  I got on the radio and recited the Landing Pattern Prayers: “Campbell Field traffic, Cherokee One Five Five Three Three, left downwind for Runway Two Four, full stop.”  Two left turns, the sweet slide down the glideslope,  the chirp of tires on the asphalt, and we left the gods to their aerial observations. They could watch us taxi to our parking space, but I hope they had more interesting things to oversee.

Later that day, and many times since then, I thought about my friend’s phrase: “A god-like view.” It’s true in an obvious way, but is it true in more ways than one?

We know different things when we fly, but do we know things differently? However lofty our thoughts aloft, thinking is a bodily process, grounded in our senses.  All thought starts with perception. at least, this is the view I hold, and it goes back to Aristotle and no doubt further yet.  There are other notions, though, that allow for such possibilities as inspiration by God or the gods or even demons (or daemons, which are not the same thing).  The more mundane theory I adhere to has been called “modified realism,” which insists on the primacy of the senses but allows the (faint) possibility that some other mode of knowing may exist too.  I must add in all candor that I admit this possibility only in the sense that you can’t prove that something does NOT exist. If this sounds grudging, so be it.

We take the same senses with us when we fly, but there’s no doubt that to some degree they function differently, and that we process the information they supply differently than we do while on our feet.

Take seeing, to begin with.  Our eyes function the same way as always (with some exceptions – read on), but they are taking the world in from a new angle. We see more synoptically than we do from level ground. That is, we see more things at once in the sky than we do down here, but we lose scale and detail.  One of my colleagues, talking about how to judge altitude if your altimeter should fail, says “Cows grow legs at two thousand feet.” Above that height, their legs can’t be distinguished from the rest of them.

There are lots of tricks like that.  You have to learn to see from up above. We all know that the map is not the territory.  More practically, the territory doesn’t look much like the map, until you learn what things look like at various angles from above. New student pilots routinely get lost; that’s why their instructors won’t let them fly alone until they learn this new way of looking.

And the eyes can be fooled in flight.  Thought depends on the senses, and if the senses are clouded, you can’t judge what’s real and what isn’t.  The most common sense derangement that concerns pilots is simple darkness.  Obviously, you can’t see in the dark, but it’s seldom perfectly dark.  You have to learn the meaning of the few things you can see, and you have to learn a whole new set of cues for judging distances as you land.

Inside a cloud in the daytime, you can see perfectly well, but it does you no good at all. The inside of a cloud doesn’t tell you the most basic thing you need to know: which way is up.

In the absence of this knowledge, your body simply goes nuts.  No one – absolutely no one – can fly an airplane straight and level inside a cloud for more than a very few minutes without the aid of instruments. The little balancing mechanisms of the inner ear, usually so delicate and precise, start believing the wrong stories from our other senses, and before long we’re dizzy and sick and probably doomed, because we will be trying to fly according to all the wrong instructions. 

In these Instrument Meteorological Conditions, as they are called, we have to learn to ignore our senses and rely on the airplane’s instruments. This is a different mode of knowledge altogether from the everyday one.  Instead of taking our sense data from Nature, we must read and act on inputs from machines.  Graveyards are full of pilots who did not believe this.

Instrument flying, then, is partly counterintuitive. We have to use our intellect to override our senses, our common sense.  You might call it countersensual. Another instance: When an airplane goes too slowly, it stalls – it ceases to fly and begins to fall, usually nose down. It may even spin, rotating alarmingly while pointed at the dirt below. The intuitive thing, the thing that all our senses beg us to do, is to pull the nose up.  Unfortunately, that’s wrong.  We have to “break” the stall by pushing the nose even further down before we can get control back and fly away normally.  That’s yet another thing we “know” differently in an airplane.

Even in full daylight, flying clear of clouds, we see things differently than we do on the ground.  Take a simple turn, for instance: An airplane banks as it turns, like a bicycle. In fact, it turns because it banks.  (We’ll skip the physics lesson for now, but that’s a true statement.)  Put another way, as we turn, the whole Earth tilts. The sharper the turn, the more extreme the angle of the horizon. That’s quite a different way of experiencing a change in direction than when we walk or drive a car.  So we “know” something “new” when we turn in an airplane, something we couldn’t know until we flew.

And then we have the weighty matter of G forces: The steeper the bank, the more we weigh. It’s true: if the plane is banked to 60 degrees (pretty steep, and much more than the average airliner turn), then it and everything in it is subjected to two Gs. The plane and its occupants are double their usual weight. and believe me, you can feel it.

If you ever get a chance to ride in an airplane doing acrobatic maneuvers, you can get even more new knowledge of the relationship between weight and motion. a simple loop, in which you pull up, up, up, and over, upside down at the top, then down, down, down to level, right side up normality, will expose you to about four Gs.  (This is terrific fun, by the way, but a little of it goes a long way for most people. There are lots of acrobatic maneuvers that involve even more Gs, but you probably wouldn’t enjoy them.)

So indeed flying changes the way we see and feel things, and these changes in turn change what and how we know.  Let me close with a little meditation that I published elsewhere some years ago.  It still strikes me as a good way to talk about the pilot’s way of knowing:

    Push forward on the stick, we pilots joke, and you make the houses get bigger; pull back and make them small. A little push or tug and the world changes size.

    More profoundly, move the stick to either side: We roll into a bank and set the whole round disk of Earth atilt and turn it round us.  The little circle we describe marks out the Center, the Still Point of the Turning World.

    1Image, A Journal of the Arts & Religion, Number 11 (Fall 1995), pp. 119-124. Reprinted in Best Texas Writing, Rancho Loco Press, 1997.

    —Paul J. Sampson, Texas

Rooftops_Harper_sFerry03

Rooftops, Harper’s Ferry — photo by L. Edwards.

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