Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Tag: life

My Confession

I have a confession to make. It’s not one I’m proud of, especially given my small participation in trying to reduce gun violence in America. On May 23rd, in Santa Barbara, a gunman killed six people and then himself on a college campus. On June 5th, in Seattle, a gunman killed one person on a college campus. On June 8th, in Las Vegas, a couple killed three people, including two police officers and then themselves. And yesterday, in Troutdale, Oregon, a student killed another student and then himself. Oh, and on June 3rd, in New Brunswick, Canada, a gunman killed three police officers. Nineteen days have passed since the murders in Santa Barbara. Eighteen people died in those 5 incidents.

According to the Brady Campaign, on average, 86 people are killed by gun violence in America every day (33 are murdered and another 50 kill themselves). Every day another 205 are shot and survive (including 148 shot during an assault, 10 suicide attempts and 45 “accidents”). To annualize those numbers is to understand the magnitude of our psychosis. 31,346 people are killed due to gun violence every year. Another 74,835 are injured, but survive. That amounts to over 100,000 Americans victims of gun violence every year.

In the 543 days since 20 six- and seven-year olds were murdered along with six of their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, there have been 74 school shootings. Seventy four! If the chart below of school shootings doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you, you have liquid nitrogen running through your veins.

Yesterday, President Obama said, “The country has to do some soul searching about this. This is becoming the norm, and we take it for granted, in ways that as a parent are terrifying to me.” Ah, but all of these people must be crazy, whispered the 2A “patriots.” To wit, the president said, “The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people.”

The United States has a gun homicide rate 20 times higher than other developed countries. Surely, we are not to believe that we have 20 times more mentally troubled people than these other developed countries. Their reply, “It’s the person not the gun. A gun is an inanimate object. If it weren’t for the gun, they would find another method.” To wit, I would refer you to author Steven King’s response in his book Guns:

 “I read a jaw-dropping online defense of these weapons from a California woman recently. Guns, she said, are just tools. Like spoons, she said. Would you outlaw spoons simply because some people use them to eat too much? Lady, let’s see you try to kill twenty school kids with a fucking spoon.”

There are over 300,000,000 guns in America. If having a gun made people safer, America would be the safest country on the planet. We’re not. Not even close.

The White House tweeted the following comment from the president yesterday:

So, my question to you is this: What will it take? The slaughter of 20 school children didn’t do it. Eighty six deaths and 205 injuries a day hasn’t done it.  Seriously, what will it take for us to say, “Enough”?  Is there a number? Is there a victim? Are we content with this and numb to the stories? Have we swallowed the “good guy” line from the NRA and now consider these deaths and injuries collateral damage and friendly fire in order for us to “exercise” our “God given” Second Amendment right? Or are we ready to insist on change? Will we demand a better, safer future for our children? As one of the millions who work every day to bring about change I believe we deserve, I hope so, because here is my confession: I have muddled the most recent shootings. I can’t keep them straight in my head. I feel horrible for the victims, family members and friends of the victims, because they deserve to be remembered. I just can’t keep them straight anymore. I demand better of myself and my country. What about you?

Gold

Gold barsWe live in a disposable economy; neither secret nor revelation there! We also live in a society where we, through technology and media, demand instant gratification and are easily bored with work and distracted by shiny objects. It is easier to walk away from a problem than wrestle with it, but seldom right. It is easier to think of oneself rather than another, but rarely without consequence. We eschew effort as well as personal responsibility and popular culture celebrates this behavior. The existentialist will tell you that we are all, in fact, islands; that no one can truly appreciate what we, as individuals, think or feel. At the same time, however, we are all cogs in the various and intricate machinery we know as society.

Many of us, either through nature or nurture, seek to live our lives with the company of another; to see if the teeth on our cog mesh with those of another’s, thereby (it is hoped) creating a larger, stronger organism. It is often a disruptive union, calling on an island to expose its perceived weaknesses to another in hopes of reuniting Pangaea and weathering life’s storms together. Marriage forces two individuals to add the moniker “couple” to themselves, making each participant defend the ethos of the other before society while at the same time trying to maintain their own sense of self. And therein, lies one of the two reasons these unions fail. Statistics tell us that half of marriages fail. Maybe “fail” is not the right word. When reduced to basics, the individual cogs simply do not work together, despite love’s miasma and an individual’s sometimes tortuous effort. There are many different reasons for these failures, not all of them assignable to one party or the other. However, “facts is facts.” According to the 2010 census, only 82% of Americans who married reached their 5 year anniversary. Sixty-five percent made it to 10 years. Fifty-two percent made it to 15 years.

Of course, divorce is not the only reason that couples fail to reach these milestones. The other way that marriages end is through the death of one partner. You needn’t look at an actuarial table to see that as people get older the overall number of them still living decreases. You may have graduated 43rd in your high school class, but with enough luck and a genetic lottery winning ticket, someday you will be 1st! George Burns wasn’t the tallest in his high school at graduation, but by living to 99 he assumed that title from all those who were taller but preceded him in death. Consequently, the number of couples reaching higher milestones drops significantly as the years pass. Only 33% of couples reach their 25th anniversary, again, through a combination of avoiding death and divorce. Only 20% of couples reach their 35th anniversary. Of course, while only two things can end a marriage, either divorce or death, not even death can hold sway over love. The remaining cog may still turn as part of society but it forever misses the other.

This September, I will celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary with the woman whose cog fit mine; who softened the rough teeth of my cog and kept our machine moving where teeth on my cog were missing or broken. To reach such a height is to know the wonder, pain, strength and suffering that sharing your life with another affords. Experience can neither be taught nor bequeathed and, for those who make it through, would not be traded for all the world’s gold. The tapestry we have woven together, comprised of the countless threads we call memories, warms me, comforts me and leads me toward tomorrow’s challenges armed with confidence.

Tomorrow also marks a milestone fewer than 5% of couples attain. My parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. In a society where we are encouraged to trade our gold for cash, it is nice to see a couple whose determination to face life’s challenges as one reach their Golden Anniversary, a milestone more treasured than treasure; something forged in life’s furnace like no one else’s, answerable to no one else and more precious than cash. No life is easy, no journey without challenges, but it is the challenges that create character and we celebrate couples who have weathered these challenges and persevered. Thanks to my wife, and the story we are still writing, and my parents whose own book is now gold gilded, I understand a quote from Dr. Seuss today better than yesterday and hope to appreciate it better tomorrow than today.

 “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

Happy anniversary to my parents and Lisa, I love you.

Inertia

Bullet Flag

It has been one year since the awful events of December 14, 2012 occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. One year since a disturbed individual availed himself of the arsenal his mother had legally purchased and shattered families in the little New England town and horrified individuals throughout the country and the world. Reaction was swift (except for the NRA) and all signs pointed to a paradigm shift occurring in the long argued battle over gun rights in America.

However, it proved to be a difficult year, not just for the families forced to endure each holiday or family event without their loved one. Indeed, for these uncounted victims, while they did not lose their lives on that fateful day, they certainly lost the lives they had known and the futures for which they had planned and expected. Daily events, done thousands of times before, took on a new, mechanical air as they searched to redefine “normal.” It is for these people and the loved ones they have lost that many people joined the voices of those calling for change. As I searched for some way to understand the past year’s events, the term “inertia” kept clawing into my mind. And so, using the words of Sir Isaac Newton, I begin:

“Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed thereon.” Axioms or Laws of Motion, Law I, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, page 12, Sir Isaac Newton, 5 July 1687

Prior to the multiple, brutal mass shootings of 2012, organizations such as the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence and its legislative arm the Legal Action Project have been fighting the ever increasingly extremist positions of the NRA in courts across the country securing minor victories against a tide of right wing battles which have resulted in concealed carry becoming legal in all 50 states, open carry laws spreading like spilled blood across the country and stand your ground laws allowing shoot first confrontations to become immune to punishment and rationale to the paranoid. In addition, the NRA has systematically enticed Congress to reduce funding for firearm violence research, rendered impotent the ATF and exempted gun manufacturers from all product liability responsibility; this seismic shift occurring despite the screams of those opposing the proliferation of guns and warning of their inevitable violent toll on society. However, to the general public, raised on and catered to by sound bites and instant gratification, these long-term societal changes went unnoticed.

To use Newton’s terminology, the body (society) persevered in a state of rest (miasmic banality) WHILE it was (quietly) compelled to change that state by forces (NRA) impressed thereon. In effect, while we were distracted by other crises being broadcast 24/7 on cable news, it took the events of 2012 for us to realize not only the playing field had changed, but that we were in the third quarter of a different sport. In doing so, lives were lost, families destroyed and history altered. Shame on us.

 “The alteration of motion is ever proportional to the motive force impressed; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impressed.”  Axioms or Laws of Motion, Law II, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, page 12, Sir Isaac Newton, 5 July 1687

Many people began to wake up following the midnight movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado on July 20th. Most did not. The momentum created by the murders culminated in prayer vigils, moments of silence and an increase in gun sales across the country, including in Aurora.

Unfortunately, it would take another, even more mind-twisting event to wake the majority of Americans.  Only 147 days later, another disturbed individual, armed with a weapon of war, laid bare America as a gun violence dystopia to a disbelieving world. Suddenly, there was an outrage that flashed longer than a prayer filled candlelight vigil, longer than a moment of silence. People from across the country looked directly at the entities responsible for allowing this type of future to unfold: the gun lobby and the elected officials that they owned. Ever aware of their behind the scenes effectiveness and ability to outlast the public, the gun lobby “pleaded” with America not to politicize the tragedy arguing that it was not the right time to discuss legislation when so many families were in immediate pain. Unbelievably, and counter to all rational thinking, the NRA responded by saying the cure for gun violence was more guns. More cancer is not the cure for cancer. Drilling more holes in the bottom of the boat is not the cure for a sinking vessel. Eating more steak is not the cure for heart disease. But according to the NRA, more guns will cure America of its gun violence. Across the country, the sound of gears, springs and cogs could be heard crashing out of the logical brains of rational people.

Over the following months, a groundswell of accidental activists began asking, aloud, what could be done to change our society, to create a future where our children were safe from the hail of bullets in a country awash in firearms. The well-oiled machine that is the gun lobby sent forth their legion of followers with canned arguments too short to fill a bumper sticker and too simplistic to defend. Here, Newton’s second law of motion became evident. The trajectory the gun lobby had set the country upon was being impressed upon with a motive force from the majority of Americans not beholden to a gun metal deity. The new activists credited those who had been fighting all along for their successes and acknowledge, in Newton’s own words that, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

“To every Action there is always opposed an equal Reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.” Axioms or Laws of Motion, Law III, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, page 13, Sir Isaac Newton, 5 July 1687

However, as predicted and anticipated by the gun lobby, America’s fickle attention wandered to other crises. Gun safety legislation, considered unassailable in December, sputtered and crashed when the gun lobby reminded Senate Republicans (and a few Democrats in red states) who owned them. And this is when the most amazing part of the story occurred. Those accidental activists demanding gun safety did not fold up their tents and go home. To the chagrin of the gun lobby, the activists absorbed the legislative loss, considered it a learning opportunity and realized that the change they saw as necessary and obvious would not be achieved immediately. It was a marathon, not a sprint. Again, to quote Newton, “Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

It was this event, the recognition of the gun safety activists that change would take time, which brings us to the question of whether we will remain in Newton’s third law of motion or see further movement because of his second. Will the opposing forces on the gun issue in America push against each other in a long-term stalemate, or will one side emit enough force to alter the trajectory of this issue?

Rather than demand change from the existing politicians locally and nationally, the activists have begun developing campaigns to elect a legislature more conducive to change. Rather than have a hissy-fit and demand a recall when a vote goes against their wishes, activists have embraced a longer term agenda of electing those who will act in the best interest of society and not the best interest of gun manufacturers. They have also sought to change our communities, not through legislation, but with the pressure of the pocketbook. Corporations are being pressured to provide safe shopping environments for their customers devoid of the testosterone-fueled paranoid shouldering their beloved bazooka.

Interestingly enough, the push back seen by the gun enthusiasts has been in the form of misogynistic berating of activists, the creation of “bleeding” gun targets in the image of the president and female gun safety activists and groups of gun-toting enthusiasts parading through towns and posing outside gun safety activist meetings. Is this the best approach the gun lobby can muster? Evidence suggests that these pedantic actions expose the gun lobby as the far right wing paranoids they are. Attacking ones opponent rather than their position will not win arguments. As Cicero said, “He only employs his passion who can make no use of his reason.”

And so here we are, one year out from the horrors of December 14, 2012. Which of Newton’s laws of motion will prevail? Perhaps Newton himself predicted the outcome when he said, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.” May logic overcome vitriol and compassion trump paranoia.

The Wolfe of Main Street

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“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Published in 1940, two years after the loquacious author Thomas Wolfe unexpectedly died, You Can’t Go Home Again belongs to a select group of novels whose title has entered American speech as a catch phrase. Catch-22 also enjoys this status of being a book few have read but we all seem to use the phrase in daily life with a winking acknowledgment.

We all know what “you can’t go home again” means, but a deeper understanding of the sentiment behind the phrase yields a bountiful crop of compassionate undergrowth.

To begin with the obvious, anyone returning to their hometown following a period away notices the changes. Gone is the local drug store, replaced by a pharmacy chain. Gone is the chain toy store you once protested against when it bought out the local toy store. Gone is the barber shop at which you used to get your hair cut, where they had to use the booster seat to allow you to sit high enough for the barber, who doubled as your neighbor. Mom and Pop stores are eaten by chains, which are, in turn, swallowed by larger chains; themselves prey to the threat from the internet and online shopping. Sure, the ice cream parlor still remains, but the menu has changed, the furnishings updated, the uniforms different and the charm captured by childhood gone. Restaurants change name, fields become strip malls and the potato farm beyond the outfield has grown into a neighborhood.

Still, the phrase refers to to time not distance or travel. How often is the frustration of the dieter who weighs themselves daily validated by the comments of those who do not see the individual on a daily basis? How many times do we catch our reflection in the morning mirror wondering who that old person is staring back? So too, is the change of “home” incremental yet perpetual.  Daily life contains checklists, both mental and written, which drive our actions.

  • Get up at 6:00, eat breakfast, shower, shave, dress
  • Run to the supermarket (we need bananas and bread (critical))
  • Must stop at the Post Office to drop off the package to ensure it arrives at Aunt Clara’s before her birthday on Tuesday
  • I’d like to get to Barnes & Noble to pick up that new book Charlie was raving about
  • Dinner with the group tonight (whose house is it at?)
  • Get to bed at a “decent” time tonight. That twitch in my lower eye lid is driving me crazy.

Seldom do we slow down enough to see how much has changed. Perhaps this is done on purpose. Each of us carries a mental picture of everyone else in their mind. Ask yourself, “When was this “picture” snapped?” My image of my grandfather (my father’s father) was snapped in his basement, hovering over his workbench. When was that? 1970-something? My image of my grandmother (my father’s mother) is of her sitting at her kitchen table scratching at the incessant itching in her hands, offering me one snack after another. When was that? My image of my other grandmother (my mother’s mother) resides in actual snapshots; photographs I’ve seen which merge with stories I’ve heard from those older than me, and thus capable of holding a memory. And so it is with everyone I’ve ever met. Name someone and I will unconsciously recall a moment in time and an age of that person at which they are forever frozen. This is one of the conundrums I have with the concept of heaven. Should I die and be admitted to the ultimate club and see my paternal great-grandmother (who, in my youth seemed to be Methuselah’s age when she died), how old would she seem to me? And at what age would she appear to her great-grandmother who died when my great-grandmother was in cloth diapers in Italy?

Memories rush up to meet us without recall demands made; the mystique of “family” softened by the endless waves of time. There is a promontory rock in my hometown against which an endless line of waves crash. This rock has endured wave upon wave since before my birth and will endure them for countless millennia after I die, with little change to the rock. Ovid said, ““Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” Persistence measured in thousands of years eludes my capacity of comprehension.

And while Main Street changes over time, we cannot forget that it is a two-way street. Those exposed to the daily changes accept them as the new “normal.” Times change and we have to keep up! The reinsertion of the returning local into this new equation causes an unintentional sheering of expectations from memory. The resident expects the returning friend/relative to merge with the existing daily life to which they have become accustomed through the gradual hollowing out of the stone of the local landscape. The collision of the returning individual’s memory with the resident’s daily reality, coupled with the mental image we carry of the individual, can yield conflict and confusion. Family mystique is usually best carried by those who have physically had to relocate. A myth develops over time of something the individual perceives as having been taken from them, whereas the reality is simply human beings in one small community clashing and embracing, subject to the baggage we all carry. Grudges are held, “hatred” festers, blame is assigned and emotional distance creates a gulf where no physical distance exists. To the physically removed family member, these animosities seem petty and counterproductive. Consider the view of the astronaut aboard the International Space Station looking through the port hole at the earth as it passes constantly from daylight into night and back again. How meaningless do our conflicts seem from afar? How insignificant do national borders seem, religious differences resulting in warfare, the skin color or sex of one ant from another? Unfortunately, few of us have the ability to step back and observe from such a height, even figuratively. Wolfe expands upon his catch phrase below:

 Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.

The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air–these things will never change.

The glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbors, the feathery blur and smoky buddings of young boughs, and something there that comes and goes and never can be captured, the thorn of spring, the sharp and tongueless cry–these things will always be the same.

All things belonging to the earth will never change–the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth–all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth–these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.

The tarantula, the adder, and the asp will also never change. Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.”

Can all of this be summarized as “stop to smell the roses?” Maybe, but we never seem to take the time to add it to our list of things to do.

We can go home again, if only in our memories, and there, we have never left.

Character Candling

candling egg

From Merriam Webster:

candle (transitive verb): to examine by holding between the eye and a light; especially : to test (eggs) in this way for staleness, blood clots, fertility, and growth

Have you ever looked at a word you’ve written a thousand times as though it couldn’t possibly be spelled that way? You doubt yourself, double check it in the dictionary and carry on. I have recently had the opportunity to reassess personal relationships I’ve held sacred, but upon examination found I have done so without a compelling reason.  No longer a child, I held up these individuals to the same light of reason, logic, compassion and magnanimity  to which I would hope to be judged, not unlike candling an egg. Rather than record my observations, I sought insight from those more intelligent. Here are my thoughts via their appropriated words, alpha by author:

“Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives.”     Maya Angelou

“Beware the man of a single book.”     St. Thomas Aquinas

“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”     Isaac Asimov

“The basic stimulus to the intelligence is doubt, a feeling that the meaning of an experience is not self-evident.”     W.H. Auden

“I think we risk becoming the best informed society that has ever died of ignorance.”     Reuben Blades

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”     Derek Bok

“There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.”     Robert Burns

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”     Albert Camus

“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”     George Carlin

“The IQ and the life expectancy of the average American recently passed each other in opposite directions.”     George Carlin

“I prefer tongue-tied knowledge to ignorant loquacity.”     Marcus Tullius Cicero

“I am not ashamed to confess I am ignorant of what I do not know.”     Marcus Tullius Cicero

“He only employs his passion who can make no use of his reason.”     Marcus Tullius Cicero

“To live is to think.”     Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Confidence is ignorance. If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.”     Eoin Colfer

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”     Confucius

“Ignorance is the night of the mind, a night without moon or star.”     Confucius

“The essence of knowledge is, having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance.”     Confucius

“He who knows all the answers has not been asked all the questions.”     Confucius

“Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace.”     Dalai Lama

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”     Charles Darwin

“And, in fine, of false sciences I thought I knew the worth sufficiently to escape being deceived by the professions of an alchemist, the predictions of an astrologer, the impostures of a magician, or by the artifices and boasting of any of those who profess to know things of which they are ignorant.”     René Descartes

“Military guys are rarely as smart as they think they are, and they’ve never gotten over the fact that civilians run the military.”     Maureen Dowd

“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.”     Albert Einstein

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”     Albert Einstein

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”     Harlan Ellison

“Fear always springs from ignorance.”     Ralph Waldo Emerson

“There are many things of which a wise man might wish to be ignorant.”     Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”     Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.”     Euripides

“Anger exceeding limits causes fear and excessive kindness eliminates respect.”     Euripides

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”     F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions.”     Gustave Flaubert

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”     Benjamin Franklin

“The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.”     Benjamin Franklin

“The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance.”     Benjamin Franklin

“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”     Benjamin Franklin

“I wash my hands of those who imagine chattering to be knowledge, silence to be ignorance, and affection to be art.”     Kahlil Gibran

“There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.”     Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, selfishness, evil — or else an absolute ignorance.”     Graham Greene

“If you’re gonna be stupid you gotta be tough.”     John Grisham

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”     Stephen Hawking

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”     Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

“The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge.”     Elbert Hubbard

“God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas but for scars.”     Elbert Hubbard

“The learned man knows that he is ignorant.”     Victor Hugo

“The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”     Thomas Jefferson

“Those who never retract their opinions love themselves more than they love truth.”     Joseph Joubert

“The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing — to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.”     John Keats

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”     Søren Kierkegaard

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”     Martin Luther King, Jr.

“A fool can easily be known by what proceeds from his or her mouth.”     Adedayo Kingjerry

“Living is easy with eyes closed.”     John Lennon

“Having children makes you no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist.”     Michael Levine

“I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”     Abraham Lincoln

“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”     Nelson Mandela

“Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.”     Groucho Marx

“A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition.”     Henry Miller

“We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”     George Orwell

“I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.”     Blaise Pascal

“And whenever anyone informs us that he has found a man who knows all the arts, and all things else that anybody knows, and every single thing with a higher degree of accuracy than any other man –whoever tells us this, I think that we can only imagine him to be a simple creature who is likely to have been deceived by some wizard or actor whom he met, and whom he thought all-knowing, because he himself was unable to analyze the nature of knowledge and ignorance and imitation.”     Plato

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.”     Alexander Pope

“There is no reply to the ignorant like keeping silence.”     Proverb

“Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.”     Robert Quillen

“When ignorance gets started it knows no bounds.”     Will Rogers

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”     Bertrand Russell

“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”     Bertrand Russell

“Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.”     Bertrand Russell

“Ignorant people see life as either existence or non-existence, but wise men see it beyond both existence and non-existence to something that transcends them both; this is an observation of the Middle Way.”     Seneca

“There is no darkness but ignorance.”     William Shakespeare

“A knavish speech sleeps in a fool’s ear.”     William Shakespeare

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”     William Shakespeare

“The shortest route to courage is absolute ignorance.”     Dan Simmons

“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”     Socrates

“It’s an universal law– intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”     Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.”     Maurice Switzer

“The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”     Thomas Stephen Szasz

“Ignorance and inconsideration are the two great causes of the ruin of mankind.”     John Tillotson

“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”     Leo Tolstoy

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”     Mark Twain

“Ignorance is a virus. Once it starts spreading, it can only be cured by reason. For the sake of humanity, we must be that cure.”     Neil deGrasse Tyson

“He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.”     Voltaire

“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”     Voltaire

“If your brains were dynamite there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off.”     Kurt Vonnegut

“Irony is wasted on the stupid.”     Oscar Wilde

“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”     Oscar Wilde

“He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.”     P.G. Wodehouse

“Ignorance is not bliss – it is oblivion.”     Philip Wylie

“Rich people have small TVs and big libraries, and poor people have small libraries and big TVs.”     Zig Ziglar

Which quote is your favorite?

Mine?

“Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.”     William Shakespeare.

Although you may recognize it as:

“The pen is mightier than the sword (or gun).”

Mutually Assured Paranoia

MAP

“My factories may make an end of war sooner than your congresses. The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.” Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, 1909

“The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” Omar Bradley, U.S. Army General, 1948

John von Neumann, whose genius as a mathematician and scientist earned him a spot on the Manhattan Project, later used game theory to develop the Cold War’s Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine. Deployed in the United States by “Whiz Kid” Robert McNamara, its theory goes something like this:

With the use of nuclear armed ICBM submarines, a unilateral nuclear strike by either the United States of the Soviet Union would be met with a second strike on the aggressor, thus ensuring the destruction of both.

In a classic case of reductio ad absurdum, this folly was perfectly demonstrated in the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. And while the ridiculous nature of this doctrine passed for foreign policy, we did not destroy the earth. Whether this is a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc or whether MAD should be credited for carrying us through our nuclear infancy is a matter for others to debate. Either way, we can all agree that the acronym is befitting the doctrine.

Apply this now to the NRA’s dream of a fully armed America as a means of ultimate protection. Every man, woman and child carrying an AR-15 with them at all times with a pistol in their sock, you know, just in case. Reductio ad absurdum? Or America: 2013? Unlike the quote from Gautama Buddha, who said, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared,” it seems to me that the ubiquitous availability of firearms would lead to casualties beyond imagination due to the deadly combination of man’s incendiary temper and the impossible retrieval of a bullet once fired. If this be so, then mankind is neither mature enough nor evolved enough to have firearms. If we were, we wouldn’t need them. Because we’re not, we shouldn’t be allowed them. Anything less casts us as troglodytes, monsters and condemned to live a life in mutually assured paranoia.

As McNamara later said, “One cannot fashion a credible deterrent out of an incredible action.”

Real Life

wild rabbitEarly in high school, a friend of mine asked if I would like to shoot soda cans and bottles in his back yard. Having been born with a heterogametic chromosome configuration but into a world without the sanitized war of Halo (1-4) or Call of Duty (1-10) or Battlefield (1-11, plus 12 expansion packs), I said yes. My friend had a pneumatic, pump BB gun. We walked into the woods where he had obviously done this before, based on the aluminum debris littering the area and various shards of different colored, broken glass beside a fallen tree. We lined up cans and bottles (sometimes only the bottoms of bottles whose tops had been shattered) on the fallen tree. Because there was only one gun, we took turns shooting at the cans and bottles. And while every boy considers himself an expert marksman, fashioned after the likes of John Wayne or Dirty Harry, actually hitting the can or bottle proved a little more difficult, no matter the distance we stood from the targets. Real life is funny.

We laid down on a bed of dead tree leaves, twigs and the odd clumps of grass determined to grow despite the lack of sunlight and peat-like soil. Lying prostrate on the ground improved our aim a little and I actually hit a can or two. It was while we were on the ground that, beyond the fallen tree holding our targets, we saw a rabbit emerge from behind a thin, switch-like pine. My friend, holding the gun, quietly loaded and pumped the gun, giggled and took aim at the rabbit. Instantly, my stomach went to ice. Time slowed down as my eyes locked on to the little rabbit and competing thoughts fought to make it to my paralyzed tongue. Should I yell at my friend not to shoot, or scream at the rabbit to run? I jumped when the shot went off, and so too did the rabbit. Unlike the movies where bad guy falls instantly dead, the little rabbit jumped repeatedly into the air, never making a sound, but wounded and in extreme pain. To this day, writing this, the events are before me in Technicolor. My friend, equally silent, watched the wounded rabbit, smiled, got up, reloaded the gun, walked over to the panting, confused, bleeding and exhausted rabbit and shot it again, killing it. Real life.

I could go on and on about how America is awash in guns, desensitized by violence and more knowledgeable about the Kardashian’s and sports than Orwell or Shakespeare, but that’s for another day. Suffice it to say that it seems bravado and showmanship have eclipsed education and empathy in America.

I share all of this because I am again haunted. Driving home from the supermarket Sunday, I was in the left lane of a four lane divided road. In front of me and in the right lane (having just passed me on the right) was an enormous white Suburban. Ahead of us, on the grassy median strip was a small squirrel. Apparently frightened by the sounds of the oncoming vehicles, the squirrel attempted to seek shelter in the trees across the street. Again, time slowed down and I will forever have it in Technicolor horror. The squirrel darted across my path about thirty feet in front of me as I slowed down, somehow knowing the squirrel’s intentions. The Suburban, oblivious and in a hurry did not. The squirrel somehow managed to cross under the truck after the front left wheel and before the left rear wheel. There, it momentarily froze under the train car-length automobile, pulling in its bushy tail and almost holding its front and rear paws together in an attempt to make itself smaller. I can imagine the thunderous noise in the animal’s ears.  Unfortunately, this life saving maneuver was held only fleetingly. The squirrel tried to make it to the curb, grass and trees barely two feet away, only to be hit by the right rear tire. As if hitting play on a long paused nightmare, the squirrel jumped repeatedly into the air, grievously wounded, then it hit the ground one last time, fell on its side and moved no more; the rabbit’s death years ago drowning my thoughts. Screaming and swearing, I made my way home, parked in the garage and cried. Real life hurts.

Real life is neither a movie, nor a video game. And while it can be beautiful, inspirational and compassionate, sometimes it is ugly, painful, unfair and hurts.

Summertime Thoughts

And now for a few thoughts:

I always wonder what my dog is thinking when he gets inside an elevator. We go into a small room, he looks out at the room we just left, watches the strange doors close and sees a completely different world when the strange doors open. What happened to the other world? What happened?

Is there anything better than a home grown tomato?

Nothing says summer better than hydrangeas in bloom.

In a perfect world, everything would smell like gardenias.

I love how time dissolves when I’m gardening.

Too bad I rarely get the chance.

Too bad it’s 150 degrees outside when I do get the chance.

Summer is going by too fast.

2013 is going by too fast.

My life is going by too fast. I still have a to-do list from when I was six that I can’t seem to get to.

I can’t think of anything so profound I would have to have it as a tattoo. And I can’t imagine any tattoo that isn’t an Oscar Wilde quote. Or George Orwell.

I love driving.

I hate other drivers.

I love to watch airplanes. I always wonder where they are going or from where they have come. What vacation stories are waiting to be discovered or retold. Take me with you.

I feel like my dog in an elevator when I fly. I go to the airport, sit in an aluminum tube for a few hours and exit into a totally different culture. Wonderful!

The older I get, the more I love my wife.

The older my children get, the more I love my wife.

The older my wife gets, the more I love life.

What’s next?

Shadows

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.      – Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance (1966)

A hungry stomach cannot hear.    – Jean de La Fontaine, Fables, IX, The Kite and the Nightingale (1678-1679)

The hungry are forgiven for thinking of nothing but food. Consider the cartoons of your childhood where the starving predator sees something (prey or any inanimate object) and it transforms, in his mind, into a sizzling pork chop or a talking fried chicken leg. So, too, the cancer patient can think of nothing but disease. Every cough, every twinge, every sniffle conjures up images of metastasizing evil reaching its suicidal fingers into new corners of their betraying body. However, unlike hunger, cancer has the ability to cloud the perception of those who love and care for the cancer patient.

Such was the case of our beloved dog Delbow. Stung by the appearance of a cancerous tumor in the muscle on the right side of his neck last year, an incomplete resection of the area was followed by cautious but deliberate irradiation of the area in 21 sessions over three weeks, concluding last spring. As with my wife, whose ongoing war with breast cancer leaves her with scars and nightmares, our dog, blissfully oblivious to the prognosis and baffled by the ongoing medical attention carries the painful reminders of his ordeal.  Suffering from increasing head tremors and restricted head mobility, coupled with teeth gnashing (a new manifestation), we sought answers from his veterinary oncologist.  Examinations were made and tests were run, all in our endless quest for information. Nothing was found to account for the changes.

We were referred to the neurologist, who suggested a myriad of horrible conditions which “may” be responsible for his symptoms. Again, tests were run, information was gathered but conclusions eluded us. Finally, the prospect of a temporomandibular joint condition was proposed and we were referred to the veterinary dentist. As my son and I waited (as my wife was too ill following another round of systemic poison being administered to her), the dentist informed us that it appeared the cancer had returned. In concert with the oncologist (with whom the dentist and neurologist are colleagues in a multi-specialty veterinary clinic), it was revealed that there were at least two, one half centimeter tumors on the back side of his neck. In addition, there was an inflammation in the area of his optic nerve within the orbit of his left eye and a huge mass pushing the lens out of position. The tumors on his neck were excised and sent for a biopsy and we returned home with a beloved family member lethargic from sedation and partially shaved with a four-inch, sutured incision on his neck.

The next few days saw his demeanor change, his energy decrease, confusion increase and us wondering if the end was nigh.  Cancer had again forced every other consideration of our lives to the very distant background. Sadness fought with anger for position as the overwhelming emotion we faced. Like walking out into an August day in Houston from the conditioned atmosphere of our home, the concept of life without Delbow hit us in the face within moments of awakening every morning. Sicknesses, such as cancer, have a way of forcing us to prioritize our lives, jettisoning the trivial matters eating up precious brain activity in favor of the immediate and irreversible concepts surrounding mortality. However, while this is true in the long-term (or even the mid-term) it is not true in the immediate aftermath of learning such news. Rather than prioritize the various weighted obligations we face, all other considerations (all other thought) drown in the dissonant din of this cancer-caused, immediate threat.

Weary from these considerations and exhausted from a lack of sleep caused by us each holding Delbow in shifts throughout the night because of his almost constant, semi-conscious leaps of pain (followed by a desire to stand alone in a corner with ears down, tail down and a sad, empty stare), our arms held him tight against us like living seatbelts, our voices soothing as we spoke tender deceits of everything being “ok.”  A week passed like this and we were finally scheduled to return to the oncologist to review the findings of the biopsy. Unable to convince Lisa to stay home, the four of us and our little, fluffy, white ball of radiating love made the trip together.

The first indication that this would not be just another doctor’s visit came to us upon entering the examination room. Rather than the exam table locked into place like a deployed, closet ironing board center, complete with rubber-backed bath mat for the patient’s comfort, there were simply five chairs in the room. It seemed that any pretense of medical art had been dispensed with and a consultative, group therapy session was about to ensue. What followed was unexpected, bordering on unfathomable.

The biopsy of the tumors from his neck came back as benign, dermatopath lesions, non-cancerous. However, the inability to conduct a biopsy of the optic nerve enlargement left the physicians dubious of its construction or intent. That, coupled with what was originally thought to be a massive, mature cataract on the CT scan was now believed to be a suspected soft tissue ciliary body tumor. One step forward, two steps back. Because of Delbow’s extensive medical history (exclusive of his cancer and treatment), including two TPLO surgeries, one on each back leg, and an emergency retinal reattachment surgery four years ago, it was thought that his ophthalmologist might be able to provide some (if you’ll forgive me the word) “insight” into Delbow’s visual condition. This was at 11:30AM. A quick, frantic call to his ophthalmologist, where I simply needed to drop Delbow’s name (as everyone who knows him finds him beautiful, adorable and memorable), and we were scheduled to meet with the ophthalmologist at 1:00, thanks to a double booking trick of the office staff.

The benefit of having a background in the health insurance field is that no generational or geographical biases prevent us from seeking out the best practitioners (we moved from Rhode Island to Texas to obtain treatment at M.D. Anderson and took Delbow to Chicago to have eye surgery). The “benefit” of having a two inch thick file on Delbow at the ophthalmologists (I put benefit in quotes because to amass such a file necessitates ongoing physical conditions requiring medical treatment) is that this history provides benchmarks against which current issues can be gauged.

It turns out that the enlarged shadow the oncologist saw on the CT scan near Delbow’s optic nerve has always been there (or in the words of the ophthalmologist, “he most likely came that way from the factory”). As for the huge, globular mass distorting the normal position of his lens, it is simply the silicone oil injected into his eye four years ago as part of the retinal reattachment surgery he had in Chicago. It appears as a mass because the silicone oil is now sharing the area inside the eyeball with accumulated tears, and, as we know, oil and water don’t mix.

So, it turns out that sometimes a shadow on a CT scan is just a shadow and not an exposed, nefarious shade. A good lesson and a difficult one to learn outside the painful necessity of experiencing it, the thumping warning signals, the paranoid expectations of the other shoe dropping are not fleeting.  No, but while we’re not out of the woods yet (we still don’t have any plausible explanation for his ongoing pain and behavior changes) we no longer see the forest before us as raw lumber in search of a nail in search of a hammer.

Two Inches

Light travels at 671 million miles per hour. The sun is 93 million miles away from the earth. That means that if the sun exploded, we would not see it for 8 minutes and 19 seconds. A light year is the distance that light can travel in one earth year. This equates to 5,878,625 million miles, or roughly 6 quadrillion miles. The universe is estimated at about 93 billion light years across. How insignificant do you feel?

An electron is less than 1/1000 the diameter of a proton. A proton has a diameter of approximately 1/25,000,000,000,000 inch. Consider that there are about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 electrons in the average human body. How colossal do you feel?

Cancer is the unchecked growth of mutated cells in an organism. Once established and supplied with their own blood source, these neoplasms or tumors replicate out of control. It typically takes 1,000,000,000 cancer cells in a tumor for it to be detectable using physical examination or conventional radiology.

It is against that backdrop that we humans can feel like the center of the universe in one breath and like cosmic dust in the next. We can feel like masters of our own dominion on the inhale and poker chips in a biological warfare game on the exhale. We spend our lives pushing against both our physical and mental limitations, shaping the imaginary form of what we can control in an effort to appreciate our daily lives and mollify our aspirations of significance, if not eternal life through posterity.

We all begin life believing we are the most important creature on earth. Over time, we struggle to accept that we must share this public stage; that the applause we hear is only ours to share. Eventually, we realize that the mark we make on the world is ours to carve and that we may use no tools save those of our own intelligence. We claw with our fingernails at an indifferent earth, paying the price of birth, baring the scars of experience (the blood-stained reminders of our successes and the rescued wisdom gleaned from our defeats) before giving way to those behind us. Life is a disorderly queue and each surviving generation steps ever forward to take the place of those who have gone before us.

And yet, with all of the collective knowledge humanity has amassed, cancer , biology and the march of time relentlessly cuts us down with concern for neither our individual accomplishments nor mankind’s self-appointed importance. None of which prevents us from fighting it. We bargain, promise, diet, pray, in essence, delude ourselves into thinking that chemistry, physics and biology are somehow under the purview of our control. Nowhere is this more evident than when disease or chance affects those we love the most. A willing suspension of belief absorbs us; we somehow seek mystical ways of trading places with our afflicted loved ones, to take the proverbial bullet on their behalf, ignoring the axiomatic in favor of the absurd.

It is this hopeless sensation that I feel when embracing my wife, whose cancerous tumors lay two inches below the skin’s surface, bent on their suicidal quest to metastasize beyond her lungs. Were I able, in that enveloping hug, I would pull the cancer out of her lungs through her back and into my fingertips, freeing her of the daily pain and altered future demanded of her illness. Willingly, I would cut off my hand, burn the cancerous appendage and celebrate the event in song and dance if it would help my wife.  All for the sake of two inches. How long would it take light to travel those two inches? How many electrons, were they capable of being paused and lined up, would it take to traverse those two inches? For the sake of those two inches, I am helpless.  Two inches.