Monday, August 25, 2014

Can thought be taught?

This article about not sending your kids to an Ivy League school caught my eye on Google News. I contains a lot of questions about the purpose and usefulness of college that I had when I was IN college in the late 1970s. Alas, you get no credit at all for being decades ahead of your time.

"The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance."

When I read that I remembered my own thoughtful childhood. It wasn't quality thought, but thinking was habitual. Indeed, it was almost a disorder. What might be mistaken for attention deficit disorder can really be a swirl of thought triggered by something an instructor said that we were meant to gloss over and move on. Significant concepts go unrecognized all the time. To the thoughtful, nearly everything is thought provoking.

Over the years I have met a large number of people who seem to do very well without thinking too much at all. Some of them are successful business owners. Thoughtfulness does not necessarily correspond directly to education level or commercial success.

I'm all in favor of anything that helps people to be more thoughtful and more interested in reconciling concepts intellectually rather than confrontationally. I just don't know if college can create a quality in a student that was not already latent.

I did learn to think better in college, but that process was already underway and continues to this day.

My ability to observe and analyze on sight has helped me to survive more than any rote fact I ever absorbed. I may not be able to spout Latin or quote the classics, by I can figure shit out. Do I wish I had paid a bit more attention in school? Certainly. But the ability to extract basic principles from a situation and apply them to future and more complicated situations is more important than a brain full of Jeopardy-winning factoids. If I was as ignorant as I am AND less capable of thought I would be truly and deeply screwed. As it is, I can cling by a fingernail for a while longer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Strange Day

This is a strange day, and not just because it started at 3 a.m.

The cellist rolled out of the driveway at 0330 this morning on her way to Maryland to take an orchestra teaching position there. Her 15-year struggle in the cultural wasteland of northern New England had worn her down to the point where she did as crusty locals tell incomers to do, and went back where she came from.

The decision was not made lightly. It doesn't not reflect on the happiness of our marriage or her ability to deal with the climate and isolation of northern rural life. We're not as far north or as rural as the state has to offer, but we're well clear of anything that would be mistaken for urban or suburban. Such a place has many attractions. High-quality arts education is emphatically not one of them.

Northern New England seems actively hostile to her profession. When it comes to serious music education they only like half-assed shit that makes everybody look bad, but does not single out individuals as particularly bad. It is a pact of mediocrity. The few sites where music is pursued at a somewhat higher level are like small, low islands facing the waves in a cold, empty sea. Those islands are already populated with other castaways, eating everything that grows or washes up. They're as likely to push another person's raft back out to sea as they are to try to accommodate one more on the island. To be fair, there's only so much food and shelter.

A parting like this creates a strange new reality for both people. The one going forth has to undergo the displacement, homelessness and a new job. The one left behind has to live with the sudden absence of the partner. I have to relearn how to live alone, but not really completely alone, because I have to maintain the place we had in such a way that she can return when her time permits. But when she's not here, she's not here. I have to do everything in a larger and more complicated facility than I would have if I lived truly alone. While she is occupied by all the new things in a new job -- regardless of the familiarity of the profession -- I have to get used to being here, missing only the most important person in my life.

In 1996 when we started into our relationship, I could have lived with a seasonal cohabitation. We had that for a couple of years, but never really questioned that we would merge our living arrangements. She liked New England. Maryland was clearly sagging under the weight of surplus population. So she came here, full of hope. Once she'd given it more than a couple of years we could never go back to the way it had been when she was a plucky single woman living in Baltimore and I was a mountain hermit living in New Hampshire.

We both gave up much for what we gained. So this reconfiguration to something like that earlier phase is not and does not try to be a return. It's a new game. For one thing, I can no longer afford to be in this house by myself. If I suddenly had to make do without the financial contribution of my spouse I would virtually disappear as I cut off things like cable, phone and Internet to reduce expenses. The nice cushion I had in the mid 1990s has been whittled away by necessary expenditures as we tried to stay afloat while she pursued her career in this cultural desert. What a couple of idiots, right?

We did not know she was terminally ill when we got together. I don't even think we knew it by the time we married. So that casts a shadow over any vision of the future. How soon will her kidneys fail? How much will she be able to work once she goes on dialysis? It's not a matter of months, but no one knows for sure how many years it might be, while research creeps along in search of treatments that might extend kidney function, let alone cure the disease. So there's that.

Obviously no one knows how long they have. Her brother dropped dead in an instant from a heart condition no one knew he had. We all know someone like that, perhaps even several people. And there's cancer, blood clots, ALS, MS, car accidents, bathtub falls,... But having a specific ticking clock adds to the sense of urgency when the person you wanted to spend your life with needs to spend significant amounts of time pursuing her adult professional goals a considerable distance away.

Today I stacked the last of the firewood. I usually solo that chore, so the lack of another person did not stand out. But the task made me think of winter, and preparing for winter, and all that needs to be done before then. Subtracting my wife made the prospect look more intimidating than normal. Winter, even in the age of global warming, is a primal force around here. You need to be ready and you need to stay ready for as long as it lasts. It is the season around which everything else revolves, the season of darkness and cold indifference to life. We are grateful for all that is not winter, even if we love the opportunities winter brings. If you're not using winter's advantages, its disadvantages loom monstrously.

I consider returning to Maryland, but only to a place outside the sprawl. Even then I don't know if I could afford it. One thing about hardscrabble places like rural New Hampshire, the cost of living is pretty low. Income is low, too, and the physical demands are greater than in southerly climes, but somehow a balance is possible that I never found in Maryland with my patchwork of credentials and experience.

Once the tourist economy fails along with the middle class, New Hampshire will have nothing. There's a bit of industry in the southern part of the state, but the job creators will have no incentive to put a facility in a place with so little transportation and communication infrastructure unless they're attracted by sufficient numbers of desperate people willing to work for cheap money. We're probably a couple of years from that, but nothing indicates that the political and economic trends will change course to prevent it. But in my new strange world I can't let myself look too far ahead in any case.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Money is a virus

Money is a virus. It cannot replicate itself without a host. Because corporations receive the political status of people, the host does not actually have to breathe and eat and all that jazz. But the virus depends on susceptibility. The people in the corporation act merely as the regenerated cells of an organism in which genetic coding is activated. One cell sloughed or killed is replaced by another.

Every person is affected to some degree. Some get it much worse than others. While it suffers nothing at all from the death of an individual or even a multitude, someone must remain to desire it.

Through inheritance, money infects generation after generation. The inherited form can cause all kinds of symptoms mimicking the earned form, but actually more debilitating to the patient. A person who has inherited a severe case may feel special in their delirium, and exhibit paranoid and defensive behavior.

Because the virus has both desirable and undesirable effects, highly susceptible individuals will justify their unwillingness to treat their condition by spinning myths that accentuate only the perceived advantages to themselves and others as a result of infection. In this way it mimics a drug. The virus affects the brain as well as the body.

As with the bacteria in our intestines, we need some money to maintain a healthy condition. But exactly like the bacteria in our intestines, too much of the virus throws us far out of balance. The illness of one can have damaging consequences for many people, even those who have not been directly exposed to the sufferer.

When we die out, will our money remain like dormant viruses, until another species of hosts develops susceptibility and takes up the dropped tokens of our social disease?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


The cellist has found a job in her specialty, teaching orchestra. It's back in Maryland. In mid-August we become a long distance couple.

Couples have been pulled apart by economics throughout history. There are no good old days to which we might return. Her career here has been a constant struggle. Because her specialty is teaching orchestra her life will be somewhat of a struggle even where conditions are the best for someone with her skills. She left a full time position in Maryland 15 years ago and is returning only to a part time job. So-called non essential subjects like music and art get carved away by budget cutters, their faculty disregarded as hobbyists and dilettantes compared to "real" teachers.

Here in the harsh and rocky wilds of northern New England the grim people who pride themselves on facing grim reality set their grim mouths in a tight line and ask, "what did you expect? We told you it was no good here."

You should have learned to do something useful. But even useful people are struggling. There always seem to be more people than jobs. You take what you can get where you can get it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Republic of the Gun

I was going to title this "Guntopia," but that term is already used pretty heavily by the people who would enjoy living in Guntopia.

I had this sudden brainstorm that the best way to bring about the armed society is for the armed to start killing the unarmed simply for being unarmed.

You could set some limits. You could warn the general population that this was going to happen, to give the undecided time to weapon up. You could exempt people below a certain age. Spouses who had signed a dependency contract and wore a badge to signify that they were under the protection of an armed person would be off limits at least for round one. Later, of course, when disputes are settled by combat, it might be necessary to take out someone's spouse to teach them a lesson or to advance the conflict. It's about eradicating dissent, after all. Disagree at your peril. This thing could escalate. When it does, the baddest ass will prevail. And this is how God intended. The quick and the dead.

After the mass slaughter of the pacifists there would still be plenty of firefights. The slaughter wouldn't even count as a firefight. It's more like the extermination of a pest. Once that's out of the way the real fun begins, against worthy adversaries who know the value of combat skill and equipment.

No doubt some defectives would appear in every generation and start whining about peace. A quick one through the forehead will take care of that. Maybe you give them a little time to grow up, but once they hit 18 or 20 they need to start seeing the light or you'll have to put a skylight in their skull.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Conservative conceit

It's been almost a year since a relative of mine used the conservative assertion that some person or persons we were discussing "isn't old enough to be conservative yet." It still bothers me coming from a family member, when I might have brushed it off from some idiot on the street, the television or in an opinion column.

I first ran across this snotty put-down back in the 1990s. I'm sure it's older than that, but that's how long I've had to be aware of it. It's one more subtle way to turn a discussion of issues into an exchange of insults. By all means, be patronizing.

As further proof that I'm living my life backwards, I have steadily grown less conservative as I have gained life experience and listened to the stories of more and more people. I have my limits, but anyone to my right would surely say I am and have been headed in the wrong direction.

Over the years I have steadily scoured out remnants of racism, sexism and homoanxiety I had acquired simply by growing up privileged and white in the 1960s and '70s. Sure, lots of white people were braver and more noble in support of the advancement of all the repressed and downtrodden, and others were far worse in continuing the oppression, but in the middle were doofuses like me who laughed at certain jokes without thinking hard about them, who treated women at least ever so slightly like a prey species and worried about whether we might be homosexual because male classmates were questioning our manhood. Even referring to heterosexual orientation as manhood, as if it was the only form of it, is a holdover from a more simple-minded past.

Fiscal conservatism can be sensible. I don't like to waste money, even if I do get along with all sorts of freaks and weirdos and believe that no one should make 700 times as much money as someone else who has a job and tries to be useful. I happen to believe that the government established by the US Constitution is basically a good model for addressing a bad situation, namely the need to have a government to take care of the routine details of running a society that allows for ample citizen input. The channels of input have been bought out by financially powerful interests masquerading as "the Private Sector." If they can be reclaimed, the big old rickety ship of state might actually start working for the benefit of all once again.

Conservatism in its worst form tends to reject ideas based on their source and to act on the basis of fear. While the conservative may brandish weapons and say warlike things, it is the emotional first line of defense against a world perceived as inherently hostile. If they are correct, and the human race is incorrigibly violent and duplicitous, I'm even happier not to join anyone's hate club and not to have subjected any offspring to the Planet of the Assholes.

I know my relative's fear springs from a time he was very small and still innocent, and had the very bad fortune to be thrust into the middle of desegregation in the schools in a city that was only just recovering from a period of racial violence. Oops. He's not a swastika-wearing skinhead, but he's one of those people who still keeps the N-word available in his vocabulary to describe dark persons who do things of which he does not approve.

Other influences have contributed to solidifying his position. I never argue about it. There's no point. Everyone has to try to find methods that get them successfully through one day and the next for as long as they keep getting more days. While I believe that many -- if not most - of the positions strongly held by today's conservatives are bad for the future of humanity, I know that no one can change this by acts of force. And if it can't be changed by persistent spread of knowledge and a gentle insistence on productive discussion and action, it won't be changed at all. So back we come to the self-fulfilling prophecy of conservative dystopia. They'll have been right because their intransigence brought about the culture of violence and distrust they feared existed all along. The only freedom comes through the skillful use of weapons against whoever tries to muscle in on you.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Reshaping the Political Debate

Listening to some political analysis of the fall of Eric Cantor on NPR, I realized that the only way to get the debate away from partisan squabbling is to disband the Democratic Party and have everyone register as a Republican. Instantly the people who only look for the (R) or automatically vote against the Democrats will either have to start figuring out where they stand on each and every issue or quit voting.

Such a move would completely change the familiar election process that has been letting us down so consistently. Why have a primary and a general election when everyone's in the same party? There would be no us and them. It would render the brand name of the politician meaningless and turn the focus instead to the individual's fitness to meet the needs of voters.

It will never happen, of course. Some people can't live without their group identification. Within the greater Republican Party would develop subcultures that would name themselves and publish their separate ideals in party platforms ranging from Communublican to Libertublican. There would be secret handshakes and coded necktie patterns. Next thing you know one or more of these groups would feel the need to declare their discrete identity. But it would still be hilarious to see what happens in the first weeks or months after every voter joins the R Party