Tag Archives: History

A Dozen Paths To the End of the World

The-End-of-the-world-as-we-know-itThe number of apocalyptic movies, books, and news items out there led me to consider possibilities not yet fully explored. Too lazy to actually write them, however, I made it only as far as these twelve stand-alone sentences.

1. One of the more comfortable citizens first made an object stone by claiming it, but, by noon the next day, the entire town was solid.

2. Naturally, the last duel had no spectators.

3. Everyone started piling bicycles at the city limits and soon they’d walled themselves in with their only remaining means of escape.

4. For the longest time, the kind-hearted lived in enclaves, but jealousy outside assured they wouldn’t be left alone.

5. Someone else might have known the footprints he followed were his own, yet he noticed only when, too tired to continue, he sat down and examined them closely.

6. Their hairstyles grew so elaborate their necks lacked the strength to lift them.

7. Each bridge began on one shore and ended at its apex, just when building further threatened falling in the river.

8. They could have company, the letter said, if they learned to bake bread that filled the air with enticing smells, but their sort of baking was a gift they wouldn’t give up.

9. No one considered you could do nothing so long that nothing could be done.

10. In the courtyard’s strange echoes, birds seemed to speak in human voices, and soon neighbors, then strangers, stopped working to gather and listen.

11. Had not everyone been whimpering, someone would have quipped the world ended with a bang after all.

12. He sat south of the jetty near shops long looted and empty to watch the sun rise, expecting, any day now, it wouldn’t.

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Another Exchange

800_Bare-Bulb-400x320I thought it might be fun to try something dark and Kafkaesque. I was wrong, but, nonetheless, here’s another twenty minute fiction…

The inspector says, “No good fortune eliminates life’s little troubles,” and, with that, breaks another finger on the accused’s left hand. The force—he knows from experience—is big enough, and the responding howl will diminish into a whimper before long.

When silence settles again, he readdresses the accused and says, “You couldn’t have expected anything else.” Really, expectations are immaterial—the inspector stopped thinking of justice as more than fiction long ago—but the statement sits in the script he’s built over years.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks.

Perhaps the inspector pours too fast, but the accused doesn’t expect alcohol, and what he doesn’t spray across the room dribbles down his chin, pink with his own blood and thicker than it ought to be.

“A shame” the inspector mutters. He half-expects the accused to say the same in unison—some relief might be welcome—but somehow that never happens.

“Can’t you speak?” he asks instead.

The accused’s crime remains unnamed, needs no name. The way of things places them in these roles, and they act. Outside this room, the inspector hears birds, their song filling the lapses between sobs and heaves of breath sawing the air. A gust stirs the leaves. Sunlight surges and fades as clouds pass.

“You might as well,” the inspector says, “it doesn’t matter.”

The accused is mute. It’s the nature of an accused to be so. Some transcendence would be nice but, to the inspector, it’s all so predictable—the questions, the answers, the inevitable. Sometimes, he finds himself suddenly as here-and-now as the accused, but the inspector slides into another moment, no second persisting long at all.

“Listen,” the inspector says, “We only want something, anything you can give.”

The accused may be unconscious—so hard to distinguish—and that’s fine with the inspector. The best time for acquiescence is exhaustion. Accept a reality other than your own and you shall be freed.

“Yes,” the accused whispers.

The rest joins history.

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No Us Without Them (and vice versa)

771px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(detail)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

–Chinese Proverb

This morning, I bought a French Press coffee maker and wondered at the many tongues of its instructions. Some future alien archeologist might find the guide useful… and not just to make coffee. The Rosetta Stone seems mundane in comparison.

“How far we’ve come!” I’d like to crow—barely a word remains untranslated, and humans have rendered thoughts in scores of languages. I wish I felt as good about understanding, which lags so conspicuously. We trade words in one tongue for another—what was meant, and whether we hear and accept it, are bigger issues.

I’ve read science fiction centered on the impossibility of understanding between earth and extraterrestrials, but I always regarded that as speculation—writers ask, “What if frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable?” More and more, however, that what-if seems allegorical, not theoretical.

Consider war and what atrocity might be happening right this instant at the point of a knife sharpened too keenly or a gun loaded and unsafetied, its very existence daring its user to pull a trigger manufactured for that specified purpose, to impose some perceived right.

Humans are awful to one another, too stubborn to admit being one species. Maybe we are capable of just as much love, empathy, and understanding as hate. Maybe I should overlook our appalling cruelties and look for common kindness and common courage.

Sincerely, I’d rather believe in humanity, but resentment seems to matter most these days—along with selfishness, lack of foresight, deliberate denial of alternate perspectives, inexhaustible efforts to preserve self-regard, and the hegemony of our own type. Some say, “I want to change the world,” “I want to love everyone,” and “I want to help.” Meanwhile others live according to “We have ours (or want ours). The rest be damned.”

And, as much as I’d rather not, I participate. The other day, visiting with a like-minded friend, I waded knee-deep in bile and heard myself railing against corporate culture. “They don’t acknowledge anything but profit!” I said, and, “How can they be so focused on abstractions and ignore the real and genuine people—with families—standing right there?”

Luckily, I had no rock, club, or bazooka. I’m not above indulging in antagonism, humanity’s true universal trait. Like everyone else, I’d love to claim the title, “The Good Guy,” but that’d be self-serving.

In our overheated media greenhouse, it’s hard not to be contentious, and crowding has us fighting over resources and territory and—especially—rectitude, the space we want most. We crave reassurance we can’t exist without defeating or denying someone else. Anything considered “A common cause” or “mutually beneficial” drowns in skepticism and laughter.

We cry, “Beneficial to whom?” and too often mean, “How does that benefit me?”

The only solution I see is another science fiction plot—reversing Babel and plunging the planet into amnesia so profound that—even if we can’t overlook visible and audible divisions of language and geography and race and bent—we could reconsider everything that, right now, feels too important to put aside… sometimes seemingly virtually everything. Then we might restart. But I’m not sure how the story would end. Forgetfulness and forgiveness aren’t human gifts.

Idealists—how I wish I were one!—will say love is potent, equally embedded in every human heart. I’m optimist enough to yearn they’re right, but, after our well-recorded and well-noted history of animosities, oppressions, class warfare, bigotry, and grand (plus petty) violence, how do we make today new?

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Not the Post-Independence Day Message You Hoped For

superman-citizenship-1303916053While visiting Canada two summers ago, I learned Superman renounced his American citizenship. Apparently—I don’t follow Superman anymore—he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of belonging to one nation.

Or so he said. Was he just being politic, eluding the fall-out from admitting he no longer felt proud of being from the U.S? Judging his feelings by my own, I wonder, was it really Superman’s queasiness about “The American Way”? Could he no longer group America with “truth” and “justice” as he once did?

I can’t be as diplomatic. Aside from wishing—almost involuntarily—for my fellow Americans’ good fortune in international sporting events like the World Cup, aside from feeling special affection for those who risk their lives for American ideals, I’m not patriotic. Oh, our history includes grand aims. Our founding principles inspire me, and our experiment in representative democracy evinces noble intentions, maybe the most enlightened espoused up to that point. Our people, despite seemingly insurmountable struggles and a system increasingly rigged against them, remain determined to make the American Dream true. And many Americans affirm my hopes for altruism and self-sacrifice.

Yet recently I’ve felt ashamed. It isn’t just that we’ve cheapened liberty by transmuting it into the freedom to profit or that we’ve placed the needs of the quite well-off above others, it’s that we’re duplicitous, espousing values we don’t follow—consciously (and seemingly systematically) informing the disenfranchised the system is working just as it ought to, was meant to.

Harsh, I know, likely to land me on an NSA list, but idealists make great cynics. The business of business dominates American discourse. The corporation is not just a citizen but the first citizen. Shareholders and employers eat first, and employees are force-fed a steady diet of cant. “You’re lucky to be working,” they’re told and “we can’t afford to raise minimum wage.” Meanwhile CEOs net in an hour what the average worker makes in month. The brave few who, Oliver Twist-style, step forward to ask for more receive cold comfort. “If we allow unions or pay you more,” they hear, “we’ll go out of business, and your job and everyone else’s will be gone. We’re all in this together, right?” We can’t even tax those who benefit from short-changing others because, despite considerable contrary statistics, they’ve renamed themselves “job creators.”

In the past, Americans asked government to protect them, and the president and congress served to monitor and police industry and curb the excesses of capitalism. Many politicians are still at it, but others say social programs and the muscle of government won’t help, that, in fact, any restriction or handout is bad for U.S. citizens. What Americans need, they say, is “opportunity” and opportunity arises from unregulated growth and tough-love self-reliance. Yet, in American English, opportunity often translates as looking away. “We need less government!” shout those who ought to know better. A cursory scan of American society tells us the majority (which we pretend is our most wise and reasonable perspective) doesn’t stand a chance against the moneyed interests of the self-interested and self-absorbed. Though materially and statistically well-off, this minority shouts at each infringement on their right to amass more. They purchase megaphones to assure they drown everyone else out. They’ve set aside their life rafts, after all.

The Canadian newspaper that brought me news of Superman’s ex-pat status included a point-by-point analysis of how difficult it is to rebuke American citizenship. Perhaps Superman could grease legal wheels, but I suspect more and more Americans feel as trapped as I do. Our nation can’t acknowledge the need for reform, much less create it. We’d rather watch fireworks, charge the iPhone to our credit card, and congratulate ourselves for pretty ideas that, each year, vanish from our reality.

Someone made money on those fireworks, the same way they made money on that patient or that student loan or that prisoner or that gun or that access to oil or that foreign invasion or that special amnesty from pursuing higher ideals and caring for others. I don’t know how Superman feels, but being born here doesn’t inspire me to love that.

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No True Past

reality%20show-thumbThis spring, when my history students asked how I felt about the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, I stretched to reach my earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, however, the past is there, but it’s never where you look. Who can answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is revision of what you might have felt?

Scientists say we remember the last time we remembered something and, after the first retrieval, never return to the true moment. You can only recall reading the previous sentence once. Then you are simply recalling remembering it. Each moment, like the one arriving and departing right now, is absolutely elusive.

I read an article by George Musser in the September 2011 edition of Scientific American complicating this dilemma. It suggests we construct time instead of perceiving it. We live 80 milliseconds behind so that each piece of sensory data has already passed. 80 milliseconds doesn’t seem much to me, but delay allows the brain time to work. According to physics, someone 30 meters away can clap hands and the sound will be late. Yet, at that distance, though two hands meeting and their sound shouldn’t be simultaneous, we sense they are. Take one step out of that zone and we exceed the brain’s capacity to mend discontinuity. Motion and sound no longer coincide.

A better example, perhaps: you may have watched something where a speaker’s lips don’t quite match the words. Experiments indicate that, as long as the delay is under 80 milliseconds, we won’t notice. After that, we do.

The article describes other clever experiments exposing narratives our brains create. When you touch your nose and your toe at the same time, the sensory data arrives at the same time though the route from nose to brain is appreciably shorter. David Eagleman, a neurologist studying time, rigged up a light that, when you press a button, blinks after a slight delay. After 10 or so tries, the subjects’ brains align the button and the light—they appear consonant. Then when the lag decreases, subjects think the light blinks before they press.

This microcosmic failing is relevant to my macrocosmic memory of 1968. We’re hard-wired to construct reality from signs, to fix memory with prejudice. Another of Eagleman’s flashing light experiments asks observers to assess the duration a light stays on. The first occurrence or one that broke a pattern seems to last longer. Our narratives are sensitive to novelty, they gather impressions with significant bias, and we gain confidence when we’re sure we’ve experienced something distinctive.

It’s easy to remember Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was 10 and lived in coastal Texas. It was early in my summer vacation. When I got up, the television was on, and my mother told me RFK had been shot and would likely die. The heat had already come, and, when I went outside, I felt—for maybe the first time—frightened by the world I occupied. Only part of it was the day’s news or Martin Luther King’s assassination two months before. Sitting on the curb, I thought about why Texas had to be so hot and whether the earth could ever be too hot to leave my house.

I may be inventing this scene. Neurologists say thoughts of past and future illuminate the same parts of our brains. Looking forward requires fabrication and so does looking back.

Malcolm MacIver, another scientist mentioned in the article, speculates evolution favors animals whose sensory volume (how far they can see, hear, smell, etc.) exceeds their motor volume (how well they move in the space they occupy). Consciousness itself, he argues, springs from knowing where we are according to where we’ve been and a plan to take advantage of what’s ahead. It’s all one big survival game relying on surmise.

My sensory volume is huge, doubled by my creative volume. Those most desperate for narratives are most susceptible to delusion. I seek comfort, and, if circumstances are uncomfortable, I at least think I know the trouble. I can’t answer my students’ questions about the ugly history I experienced, but I like thinking I can. Picture a 10 year-old sitting on the curb, sun baking him before noon, and perhaps that feels true to you.

He may not be me.

Memory is complicated to the point of deception. I see the world as through a telescope or periscope or microscope. My brain—our brains—make sense of observations we sometimes call “history.” We try to straighten out the past before we write it into books but never revisit the thing itself. We can’t.

We are time travelers only in our imaginations.

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The Brutes of Jamestown

JAMESTOWN_OVERVIEW_01I’m hypersensitive to language in my history text. Every “somewhat” and “oddly enough,” and “ultimately” alerts me to hidden judgments, conclusions built on the basis of evidence or—perhaps—assumptions.

Here’s one from the section about early troubles in the colony of Jamestown, which were, the book reports, “to a large degree their own making.” After a list of missteps, the author says,

And they could create no real community without women, who had not come to Jamestown. The settlers had no real households and thus no real stakes in the communities.

This assessment is probably fair. A bunch of men working for profit in a strange and challenging place would miss domestic comforts, especially if they left family and partners behind. Yet, being a male, a faint alarm always goes off in my brain when women are presented as the only civilizing influence on men, as if, without females, males would have no hope of self-regulation, no possibility of creating mutual support or expressing affection. If I were feeling especially touchy, I might howl over stereotyping, a bunch of sweaty men fighting, drinking, grabbing, and farting, always farting. Surely, the settlers were ahead of the animals they carried with them.

But my imagination contributes to my reaction. Maybe no one—any member of any group—appreciates hearing their membership insulted, and I’m defensive. These historians probably draw on evidence of male misbehavior, records of rules and punishment necessary to curb excesses and keep the workers laboring. And he wants to excuse them. The author also says it’s the absence of “real households” that creates trouble for the men. He suggests elsewhere that these men found themselves in an extraordinarily strange situation, as if they’d traveled to another planet. More importantly, even if it is a disparagement of males, one muted insult hardly measures up to the ravages of male privilege throughout time, the relentless stereotyping and denigration of women and minorities.

Still, I’ve seen the drawings. Jamestown included houses. I partly distrust and am partly ashamed of feeling as I do, but some nagging misgiving persists, one I just can’t put away without comment. It’s silly to be bothered and I know that, yet I want to explain my reaction, irrational as it might be.

Why couldn’t the men create some facsimile of households? Could they be so ignorant of domesticity, have missed all the advantages of households they knew? And unless they were exclusively brutish, why does this history focus on their brutishness particularly?

In a larger sense, when does the image of the knuckle-dragging male become prescriptive instead of descriptive, the expectation instead of the reality, an inevitability preventing an ideal? I try to own the behavior of the Jamestown men and know that’s the way men were and, even now, often are. But men, like women (or members of any identifiable group) are subject to roles constrained by social expectations and constructs. Some presuppositions are invisible without scrutiny, so how can we work on developing our own ideal identities without noting—as I feel compelled to here—how we’re labeled?

It’s dangerous to say so. I don’t want to be lumped with men who insist on out-suffering every sufferer, who respond to accusations of sexism with counter-accusations rather than remedying their own deplorable behavior. Understandably, those men do little but draw further censure by being self-centered, oblivious of their unfair advantages, and obnoxious in their vehemence. I’ve benefited from male privilege. As a white, heterosexual, reasonably well-off man, I can’t claim membership in any disparaged group.

I like to believe, however, that I’m not simply being defensive. I’m really asking: Can you recognize your status (specifically, your unjustified, inequitable status) and also recognize that everyone—every level of every hierarchy in society—is, in some major or minor way, socially constructed? Doesn’t change begin with that recognition?

How would the bros back in Jamestown have felt about history’s characterization. If some future historian arrived on a time-riding surfboard to tell them, they might have made some effort to overturn their future image.

Perhaps not. Most women would scoff. Not a single male in my class thought of the first Jamestown settlers as barbarians, just typical guys. Speaking for myself, however, it isn’t easy to listen to flaws conferred upon me as a type of person instead of as an individual. I want to be able to express frustration with the boxes people put me in and, maybe, lead others out. I’m not sure how far we can get by assuming objections to male stereotypes are defensive, misguided, or irrelevant. People need the right to say they feel misunderstood or mislabeled. I have to be okay with being irked by descriptions of men being lost without women, even if I’m accused of overreaction or denial.

Some ads make men look stupid. If you’re not a male of that type—and who wants to be a male of that type?—those ads are hard to watch. However, they’re also a call to arms. If you don’t like them, show you have a brain, show you can raise children, show you’re not ruled by your libido, show you can call out men who devalue women. Show you could make a home even in Jamestown, and show those brutes aren’t you. Begin by saying you don’t like what society (or history) says you are. Then you have to hope you’ll shake a few prescriptive stereotypes loose.

I’m not really objecting to the text. It’s generalizing on the basis of conditions much more complicated than its one or two sentence description. A host of causes contributed to what happened in Jamestown and, besides, it’s irretrievably passed.

Why complain? I shouldn’t complain. As I’ve said, I disapprove of men saying, “Hey, we’re victims too!” But I can’t help myself. Not every lament about the depiction of males IS that statement. Who wins a debate over the hierarchy of prejudice? Don’t all assumptions need to be illuminated to be addressed?

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