Dream challenge #1

I have friends who insist on interpreting dreams.  I also have very strange dreams from time to time, so I’ve decided to put the two together in an occasional Omniop feature I’m calling ‘Dream challenge.’  Go for it.

I’ve been selected to participate in an expedition to colonize a distant planet.  We file onto the spacecraft, giddy with excitement, check our bags and take our seats.  Because the planet is so far away, it will take 30 years to get there, so as soon as we’ve settled in, clear polycarbon canopies descend, sealing us off and putting us in a state of suspended animation for the duration of the flight. We don’t feel the tug of Earth as the rocket lifts off, we get no last glimpse of our erstwhile home; we are essentially comatose until we get there.

30 years pass,  The computer wakes us as we approach our new home.  The spacecraft has a wide window, through which we see the rapidly approaching terrain, green and inviting, when it hits me.

“Damn!” I say, turning to the Captain.  “I forgot my phone.  Would you mind going back to get it?”

Technology: who needs it?

First of all, let me say straight out that I am against all these new fangled ‘improvements’ on things that were working just fine.  Remember the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’  It seems we have long since forgotten it, in our haste to make things easier and more productive.  We may gain a second or two, or reduce energy expenditure by a point or two, or allow more people access to some particular process or commodity, but at what price?  Do we really gain anything if we have to sacrifice ancient wisdom and tradition to get it?  Or give up our long-held values, our ways of testing the worth of ourselves and our families to ‘spread the wealth?’  Whatever happened to the concept of  earning wealth?

Take, for example, the bow and arrow.  Easy as pie.  You just pick it up, insert an arrow, pull the string, and point it, and presto!  you’ve killed something.  What could be easier? Anybody can do it.

And that’s the problem.  With a spear, you had to have some skill.  You had to calculate the distance to the animal you were hunting, figure the arc to make the spear end up at the level you wanted to strike the animal at, or at which you wanted to strike .. oh, never mind.  And not only that, you had to have some strength.  It was bad enough when they came up with the atlatl (is that a dumb name or what?)  Now, with the bow and arrow, all the strength you need is to pick the damned thing up, put in the arrow, and point it at something.  Is that the kind of man we want to encourage?  Is that who’s going to get us out of a jam when we’re attacked by enormous beasts?  Or when someone makes a really stupid comment around the fire?

I will just ask you this and leave it at that: when you’ve stolen something or insulted someone, who do you want at your side, a spearman or a ‘bowman?’

The Indiana Driving School

I learned my most useful life lessons in the middle of my fifteenth year.

In Indiana, where I grew up, you could get a learner’s permit to drive, with adult supervision, at fifteen and a half. As it happens, I’m a January child, so that benchmark fell in mid-summer. My school didn’t have the funding for a driver’s ed class in summer. Actually, I’m not sure they even had one the rest of the year, but anyway, my father decided I would enroll at the private driving school where he had learned the rules of the road as an adult immigrant: The Indiana Driving School.

The curriculum featured a handful of lectures delivered in a monotone at the facility, which was a one-room walkup near downtown, and a handful of films seemingly made by the same people who made those high school ‘health’ films. The room held about ten or twenty students, and out front, on the street, were two used cars comprising the school’s fleet. We didn’t get to actually sit in those cars for about a week, during which we soaked up valuable driving hints along with the normal rules of the road. It’s these that I find myself returning to time after time as life wisdom.

You will tend to go where your eyes go. The specific application, of course, was in maintaining your lane while driving, but I have found it to be true, at least metaphorically, in general as well.

Get the big picture. Look past the nose on your face to the context. Self-explanatory.

Leave yourself an out. Big one, here, my friends. On rare occasions, I have forgotten this piece of advice, and always regretted it.

After the first week, we got to actually drive a car, three students and an instructor packed into a Nash Rambler.  That was when I learned my biggest life lesson.

I was driving and, I thought, doing very well, thanks, when I cut a left turn at a stop light too close and nipped the front bumper of a car waiting at the intersection.  I freaked.

“What should I do?” I asked the instructor beside me.

“Step on the gas and don’t stop until I tell you,” he said, sinking down into the seat..

Commodiana

Lately, I’ve seen a number of editorial comments comparing Trump to the Roman emperor Nero.  This is an outrage.  Nero was marginally competent as an emperor.

If you want a Roman comparison, try Commodus, who renamed Rome Commodiana to honor his divine self.

Like Trump, he was born filthy rich, the son of the otherwise commendable Marcus Aurelius, who elevated him to the rank of co-emperor at the age of 15.  Then Marcus had the gall to up and die three years later, leaving his son sole emperor of Rome at the age of 18.

It is extremely unfair to say that Commodus was unfit to be emperor because he had the mind of an 18-year old.  He had never really gotten past the 12-year old stage.  That was when he had been named consul of Rome, effectively ending any developmental progress.  Here he is, apparently wearing his birthday cake on his head:

By Lgtrapp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18496675

Note the uncanny resemblance to Trump’s alleged hair.

One Roman historian, Dio Cassius, tells us that Commodus ruined Rome, turning it from a kingdom of gold to one of “iron and rust.”  He did this by completely ignoring his imperial duties and spending his time glorifying himself, including changing the names of the months to reflect the twelve names he had acquired while emperor.  Fortunately, none of it stuck.

Although ‘Commodiana’ has a certain, er, ring to it.  For future reference, in case America continues it’s death spiral.

In the end, Commodus was strangled in his bath by his favorite wrestling partner.  Now we know why Trump fired Bannon.

Piano

When I was a kid in the third grade at St. Phillip’s school, my father decided I should take piano lessons.  The basis for this was my recent obsession with this new singer on the pop horizon by the name of Elvis Presley.  He sounded like nobody I had ever heard before, or, rather, like everybody I had ever heard before at once.  He played guitar, although as little as possible, so I wanted a guitar, too.  My father, sensible beyond all reason, thought I would be a better musician if I learned to play the piano first, and then branched out from there.  He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that what I really wanted was to be a rock and roll star, wriggling and hooting my way to popularity and fame; in my child’s mind the two were indistinguishable.  If musicianship was a requirement of that, I was happy to go along, but to a point.  Elvis, as I said, played his guitar as little as possible, leaving musicianship to the musicians in his band.  Never mind, Dad wanted me to take piano lessons.  He had played violin before the war, and loved music, but had abandoned it, along with much else of beauty, after the war spat him back out.  He didn’t understand Presley and rock music, except to acknowledge their financial potential.  “The more they wiggle, the more money they make,” he used to say.

It was his own fault, in a way.  He worked at RCA record division, at the plant that pressed the vinyl into music.  As a perk, the company let him take home six albums every couple of months, his preference.  He had no preference.  As a result, the take-homes were random, everything from Stravinski to Homer and Jethro, and whatever lay between.  In those  days, RCA pressed the records for a lot of smaller companies too, so the range was wide as the world.

At the same time, the radio music scene in my city was the epitome of eclecticism.  In a single hour on the same show, you could hear Mario Lanza, Hank Snow, the Platters, and Elvis.  I had no idea until much later on that you were supposed to pick a genre and ditch the others.  I made no artistic distinction between  Ezio Pinza and Elvis.  But I knew the other kids at school and around the neighborhood were crazy for the latter, and not the former.

It didn’t hurt that Elvis had this rebel persona.  Suffocating in my staunchly religious family, I immediately identified.  When my father told me I was going to take piano lessons, like it or not, my dreams came crashing down.

First, he had effectively coopted my ambition, spun it around until it was unrecognizable, and made it his own.  I couldn’t imagine anything less rebellious than piano lessons at St. Phillip’s.  I thought I knew the terms of that, and I didn’t like them.

My friend Wayne was the only guy I knew who was doing that.  Every day at 3:00, the rest of us would line up to leave the school and enter the free world; I would see Wayne trudging across the playground to the convent to take his lessons, always after school, and, it was darkly rumored, sometimes on the weekend as well.

The convent!  The actual lair of the creatures whose lives were dedicated to stripping the joy from ours!  Who knew what torments Wayne endured there?  Many years later, he told me it wasn’t at all bad.  I’m still not sure I believe him.

I knew what had to be done.  I resisted with all my might, and discovered that my father had given me the very thing I thought he was stripping away: an opportunity to Be a Rebel.  I marshalled every argument I could think of, mostly involving how much time would be lost from my other studies (in the third grade!), or how I would have to be late for dinner a lot, a cardinal sin in our house.  I stomped and put on magnificent silences, I exiled myself to my room.  In the end, against all expectation, I prevailed.  He gave up.

I was on cloud nine.  I got my guitar eventually, and hacked away at it.  By that time I was into folk music, and regarded music lessons of any sort as too gentrifying for my tastes.  My tempo was ragged, and I was king of the 13 bar blues.  I discovered jazz about that time as well, and predictably played guitar less and less as I realized how abysmally incompetent I was compared to the musicians I admired.  I made a hash of it, like most things.

The only abiding result of all of that was a growing regret that I had talked my father out of those piano lessons.

Well, this year, I finally gave in, bought a piano, a beautiful Yamaha P-115 electronic keyboard capable of pretending to be a dozen other instruments as well.  I started online lessons, the excellent Playground series created by Quincy Jones.  So I sit at the keyboard, practicing, getting a little better, a little more musical every day.  And as I sit there, I notice a little voice in the back of my head:

“Michael, sit up straight!”

If you won’t go to the convent, it seems the convent will come to you.

Snow

Snow.  That’s what we called it, snow.  No polar vortex, no bomb cyclone, no Winter Storm Fred or anything like that.  Snow.  If it got so thick you couldn’t see past your outstretched hand, it was a blizzard; that was about the extent of our parsing of winter weather.

But wait, you say, people are suffering losses, some are even dying.  That’s true, and it’s just as lamentable now as it was before the storm of jargon came spewing out of weather centers.  I daresay the casualties were worse back then, in the mid 20th century, before forced air gas heating, heat pumps, whole house generators and hyper-insulated houses.  There were only two realistic choices: coal or oil, and both systems worked on the principle of convection.  Worse, if a winter turned out to be especially long or cold, you could run out of either, and be hard put to get more of it in a reasonable time.  People froze.  It was winter.

But for every downside there’s an upside.  The snow was a cash cow for us kids.  We’d go trundling up and down the street shoveling sidewalks for a buck a pop.  We would have charged more for driveways, but there were no such things in my neighborhood, just alleys covered with soot from the ubiquitous trash fires.  My eyes still glaze over in nostalgia whenever I smell garbage burning.

On a good snow day, you could end up with ten or fifteen bucks in your pocket by noon, a small fortune for a ten or twelve year old kid in the 1950s, and still have time to spend the rest of the day sledding down a steep hill into traffic.  I never made that much; I felt rich as soon as I hit five bucks, and went about finding ways to spend it.  But that was me.  I also collected coins in specially made books with slots for each year back to the Upper Paleolithic, but I never filled one.  I spent that, too, as soon as enough money to buy something accumulated.

We’d also have fun “skitching” rides on the perennially unplowed streets.  That involved sneaking low behind a car at an intersection, grabbing the bumper, and getting pulled along, sliding on the packed snow.  Even getting caught was fun.  We’d pelt the furious driver with snowballs and run away.

There was one time, though, that a cop caught us putting snowballs into a mailbox.  He informed us solemnly that he was letting us go, but that tampering with the mail was a federal crime, and he couldn’t vouch for what the FBI might want to do.

I had nightmares about J. Edgar Hoover for a week after that.

My service

This past weekend’s Veterans Day festivities got me to thinking: like 80-90% of veterans, I never saw any combat, and never did anything remotely heroic, dangerous, or even very interesting. People sign up for the military for a variety of reasons, only a few for the starry-eyed patriotism of popular myth. That’s often a part of the mix, but most often not the main reason. I signed up because I was lost, and because I needed to escape my father. I could have resisted, which to me would have meant Canada; no other options were realistic. But I lacked the kind of conviction I would have needed to thumb my nose at my family and my society. I saw some people getting out of the draft in a lot of ingenious ways, and I saw others sucked in with no recourse. In I went.

My father was a strict disciplinarian, tailor made for the kind of rebel I was. He had a very clear idea of how I was to prepare for my life: Purdue University, engineering (my choice of branch, the extent of his flexibility on the subject), followed by a steady job; in short, to become a version of him. It was not a bad plan, especially in his eyes. He had endured the occupation of his homeland, Latvia, by two warring forces, alternating their occupations. He had escaped with his life and with his immediate family intact. I was born and joined my parents and two brothers in a DP camp in Germany. He figured his experience and wisdom outweighed mine by a long shot.

He was right, of course, but in the Fall of 1964, when I went off to live his dream, my only thought was that I was free. Free to do as I wished, associate with whom I wished, and had to answer to no one. I had a talent for science, and I didn’t exactly mind the engineering part of it, but it did not inspire me. The plan was inflexible. A measure of the meager latitude he allowed me was that when I unilaterally changed my major from chemical engineering to pure chemistry, he blew up. Not good enough. He was an engineer, my brothers were engineers, and so was I, like it or not.

All right, I thought, no problem. I went back to Purdue for my second year, goofed off the fall semester, and didn’t even bother to go to classes in the spring. I had a blast. In June of 1966, I definitively flunked out, after spending three semesters in a row on academic probation, a record I believe still stands.

Well, it was 1966, the draft in full force, and before the lottery system. If you lost your student deferment, you were basically next. It was also the beginning of the surging anti-war movement; the two things were not unrelated.

I had gone to college firmly believing that the war in Vietnam was just, that the communists had to be stopped or countries would fall within their grasp like dominos. I was, after all, an immigrant, a refugee from a country brutally occupied by the Soviet Union. Communism was why I was here.

Off at college and away from my family, I heard a different narrative. Yes, North Vietnam was communist, but a nationalist variety, uninterested in expansion beyond its own borders, and besides, America’s man Diem was at best a mountebank and at worst a dictator.

I vacillated between the two versions, ultimately tending toward the latter, but I never lost the nagging feeling that my view had more to do with peer pressure than rigorous analysis. Complicating the situation was a strong sense of duty. To what wasn’t clear.

What I knew was that returning home was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed a clean break. I joined the Air Force. I didn’t know much, but I knew that the moment I walked through the gates into basic training, my ties to my family were irrevocably changed.

I volunteered for overseas duty, and ended up in Okinawa for eighteen months. The F-102 pilots at my base flew regular missions over Vietnam, but the rest of us went about our jobs without danger of harm. Truth to tell, had I been sent to Vietnam, it would probably have been to one of the big air bases like Da Nang or Ton Son Nhut, and my service would not have been significantly different. Camp Hansen, a USMC base, was nearby, and we’d often see C-130s come lumbering in and disgorging entire platoons, bleary eyed and fresh from the bush, ready for R and R. That gave the bar scene off base a certain, shall we say, rowdy ambience, but that was it as far as danger was concerned.

I finished up my enlistment at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany, hardly a hardship. In fact, I have to say, with a salary based on what was then the almighty dollar, and meals and lodging free, it was a pretty good job.

Apart from some minor trouble I got into in Okinawa, which delayed a promotion for about six months, my enlistment was uneventful. The only medals I got were for just existing: National Service, Longevity, and Good Conduct. In Okinawa I wore a Presidential Citation ribbon my unit had gotten for something they did decades before in Korea, but lost the right the minute I stepped onto the aircraft out of there. I don’t know what you’d have to do to avoid any of them. My “good conduct,” for example, amounted to not robbing or killing anyone for four years, and not much more.

So, what is the point of this confessional? Don’t thank me for my service. I served four years in the Air Force, got a monthly paycheck, not enormous, but more than adequate. Afterwards, the GI Bill took me through a BA in Anthropology, and a Vocational Rehabilitation stipend for a minor service-related disability got me the rest of the way to an MS. I’m fine.

More importantly, my story is far more typical than you might think, even in today’s volunteer military. I’ve known my share of combat veterans; the one thing they have in common is the reluctance to talk about the experience. Remember that the next time you hear someone regale you with “war stories.”

Remember your loved ones who served, those who are gone and those who are still here; at least you know their story. And by all means, acknowledge those others who came home wounded, either physical or emotionally, or who never came back, but be aware that, for most of even these, they didn’t “sacrifice” themselves; they served in harm’s way, and through the luck of the draw didn’t come out unscathed, and if they were heroic they did it primarily for each other, whatever the original reason for enlistment may have been.

If you simply must voice a blanket thanks to veterans for their service, be aware you’re doing it primarily for yourself, and the relatively few veterans who enjoy basking in such gratitude. And reflect on this: what kid, hearing all this gushing, wouldn’t hope for a war of his own when he grows up?