True colors?

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about peace activists during the Vietnam war.  The gist of it was that whether or not to go into the military was a difficult decision back then, and that motivations varied from person to person regarding that decision.  Many activists were sincere in their opposition to the war, but many more were simply saving themselves, and got into the anti-war effort as a justification.  My own decision to join was similarly motivated by personal considerations.  I was not a believer in the cause either way, really; my parents had fled the Soviet Union and were no fans of communism, and I couldn’t bring myself to break their hearts.

Anyway, a friend of long standing took exception to something I said in the comments in response to a reader’s comment, expressing disappointment that I would say such a thing; what it was is not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is that our relationship has changed since then.  It got me to thinking about our default thinking about our fellow humans, perhaps even ourselves.

We seem to begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically bad, and while we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we accept the first bit of evidence, even the flimsiest at times, of their inherent wickedness.  Once done, there’s no going back.

It’s easy enough to see this as a reflection of the teachings of the dominant religions in the world; we are wicked, unworthy, and can only be saved by supernatural intervention.  If left to our own devices, we are condemned to eternal, horrifying anguish, and, what’s more, we deserve it.

It might be more insightful to turn this explanation around.  Religions are the reflections (and amplifications) of our natural tendencies.

Why on earth would that be a feature of our nature?  I think the evolution of our social co-dependency goes a long way toward explaining it, and the key to understanding it is that, conversely, we tend to resist thinking ill of our closest friends and relatives, no matter how much evidence there is for it.  The result is the coalescing of the core social group, while pushing outward those at the periphery.  In short, it’s not wise to trust someone you don’t know very well, and who might have an allegiance to another group.  Historically, or rather, prehistorically, I suppose, our welfare was intimately tied to the welfare of our core group.  When agriculture developed and spawned urban civilization, groups became much larger and intertwined in a complex way; it’s no accident that religion as we know it developed precisely then.  Originally, there was no distinction between religion and ideology, it all served the same purpose: as the glue that bound together these larger, more complex social groups.  It’s not surprising that the precepts and values under this new situation would be the same as those we had for the 2 or 3 million years of our existence as hunters and gatherers.  They represent the sow’s ear from which we fashioned our silk purses.

Have we outgrown the utility of such conventions?  No doubt, but there seems little we can do about it beyond just being aware of it.  Evolution is a matter of more generations than we’ve had to deal with all the changes we’ve wrought upon ourselves.

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?”

It’s alive!

Trigger Warning: This post includes descriptions of the brutal murder of a furry little mammal. Well, I assume a mammal, I didn’t really look.

To be honest, I don’t like to kill things. I mean, it’s a rare enough thing to be alive that just arbitrarily ending it seems a bit brash.  Some things, however, practically beg for a quick, honorable finish, an assisted suicide, sort of.  I’m thinking of the deer that ran into the side of a speeding Suburban I was driving to work one early morning.  That’s right, it ran into me, not the other way around, so I figure I’m off the hook, even though the result was no less permanent for the deer, which was not as easily repaired as the Suburban.  Or the occasional squirrels which, having safely reached the other side of the road, lurch back under my wheel at the last possible moment.

I have a friend who cheerfully puts any humans nearby (herself included, it must be said) in peril of serious injury to avoid such encounters, but not I.  I respect these animals enough let them have their way.

There’s another category of beast that begs for killing in a whole different way, however.  Mosquitos, hornets, cockroaches come to mind.  Does even PETA object to swatting mosquitos?  Of course, there can be legit disagreement about membership in this category.  Definitely a candidate for a slippery slope.  Does it include vertebrate pests?  Are you let off the hook if you encourage snakes just so you don’t have to kill the mice yourself?

What about moles?  They make a right mess, that’s for sure, and live trapping a mole is, let’s face it, laughable.  All the same, I would just as soon not kill them.  I used to spread stuff around the yard to kill the grubs that moles eat, but unless you put tiny signs around the perimeter of your property to alert them there’s nothing to eat, they still search every square inch looking for the little snacks.  Moles do not give up easily.  It can take them a month to decide to move on.  Then again, on the moral side of the equation, I probably killed many times the biomass of a mole or two in grubs.  Who am I to say a mole life is worth more than a grub life?  Is the fact that it’s a warm(ish) furry little mammal, and therefore easier for me to relate to than an animal that spends all its time sleeping under the sod … never mind.

So, I turned to trying to discourage the little bastards.  Every spring or early summer I spread a mole repellant around.  Moles hate it.  Of course, if they’re already in the yard, they run around like lunatics trying to get away, and make an even bigger unholy mess, but they do manage to escape in a day or two, and that’s that.  For awhile.

Some moles, apparently, have no taste.  For them, I have the Victor Mole Trap (VMT), a thing with spring-loaded spikes to skewer the tasteless little devils.  True, they might get skewered and squirm around for awhile before dying, but come on.  Is mole suffering really the same as human suffering?  I worry about stuff like that, but I confess I accept the most feeble loopholes, like “How can you tell what a mole feels when it’s squirming futilely on the prongs of a Victor Mole Trap?”  So there it is.  It’s a last resort, but I do not hesitate when the time comes.  Or keeps coming, in some cases.

Specifically, consider the mole I recently dispatched.  It had been burrowing around the yard a good couple of weeks, completely ignoring a generous application of mole repellant.  The lawn was slowly but surely turning into a dust bowl, one narrow run at a time.  Truthfully, though, it wasn’t so much the damage as the sheer cheek of the animal. its utter disdain for humanity and our inventions.  So out came the VMT.

The directions say to carefully tramp down the mole runs, then come back the next morning to see which ones are still active, so you can set the trap on one of those.  I figure, why not set the trap on one while you’re waiting?  At worst, you have the frustration of seeing all the active runs encircling the one you picked.

Which is exactly what happened.  No problem, I just moved the trap over to one of the offending runs.

Now, the VMT consists of six very sharp pointy spring mounted spikes, the spring being strong enough to penetrate the soil and the mole, and probably even a little white grub, if it happens to be directly under the mole in question.  In other words, a really, really strong spring.  What you do is pull upwards, and at a certain point, a tab engages the trigger mechanism and holds the spikes above ground, but ready to release into mole flesh.  One hopes, anyway.  Fortunately, there is a little pin which can be stuck into a tiny hole to hold the whole shebang in abeyance until you’ve got it set, and you’re ready to slink away while it does the dirty work for you.  Which is nice, because accidentally tripping the thing can be unpleasant.

Being a thoughtful person, I had figured this out (with some small damage to my index finger, I admit). I would leave the trigger engaged, insert the pin, and move the whole thing without having to  trip it and reset everything.  Brilliant!

Next day, I eagerly examined the results.  There was the VMT, six nasty spikes still poised above ground, and mole runs all around it and, I swear, under it.  I could just see the little shit laughing and poking the trigger, probably even calling his ratty little mole friends over to try it themselves, all of them sitting around with tiny beers, going on about how stupid humans are.

I had forgotten to pull the pin out of the little hole.

Unbelievable how liberating a couple of minutes of really good cursing can be.  At any rate, I could at least see that the run was still active, so I set the trap again, this time carefully removing the pins, and slouched away.  Actually, I stomped away, but never mind.

And Voila!  I didn’t even make it as far as the back door when I heard a chilling little metallic “snick!”  I turned to look, and, sure enough, the trap was down.  I decided to give it  a little time before pulling it to make sure the critter was dead, then removed it, put it away, stamped down the run, and went in for a drink.

Next day, on the way to the garage and past the scene of the crime, I glanced over.  The damned run was up again!  I cursed myself for not having waited long enough to ensure the mole was dead, and reset the trap.  On the same run.  I know, but it was the only one; the mole had apparently not gotten far.

This time, it took longer, not until the next morning.  I imagined the mole, mortally wounded but valiantly pushing on, taking all day to get back to the trap.  Also this time, I left the trap as it sat for a whole day before I pulled it up.  Yes, I could have dug up the mole to see if it was dead, but what would I have done if it wasn’t?  Run to the garage for a tiny little shovel to bash its miniscule head in?  I was sure I got it this time anyway.  Job done.

A couple of days later, sitting on the deck, I happened to glance over at the site of the mole run.  Incredibly, it was UP AGAIN!  Now resigned to my fate, I repeated the process.  At least it wasn’t a gigantic boulder, like Sisyphus was saddled with.  Two or three days later, just as I was about to give up, the trap was sprung again.  I left it where it was for three days.  Surely the mole would starve to death in that time if nothing else.  I declined to dig it up, uneasy about what I might find.  The line from Macbeth kept running through my head, “Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?”  I pulled up the trap, wiped it off, and put it away.

It’s been a couple of weeks since then.  I still occasionally glance over, nervously, at the now barely visible traces of the mole run.  I imagine the undead mole, nursing a grudge, plotting revenge as soon as it regained some strength.  I wonder how and when it will strike.  I will be prepared, this time armed with an oaken stake, to hell with the VMT.  All right, it’s a toothpick.  Only thing, where exactly is a mole’s heart?

The Victor Mole Trap

A rear-view mirror is still a mirror

People say all the time that they have no regrets.  Me, I’m practically defined by them; a man with no regrets is a man with no imagination, as far as I’m concerned, and I say that all too often for people around me, I suspect.  Still, I confess I’m mystified by people who essentially admit they can’t think of anything in their past that could have gone better had they made a different decision.  Equally, I fail to understand the virtue of still being the same person you were 40 or 50 years ago.  As Muhammad Ali said, someone who has the same opinions at age 50 as they had at age 20 has wasted 30 years of life.

Maybe that’s why, now that I’m old, I have this strange compulsion to revisit my life, to retrace my steps.  I’m drawn to places, both actual and conceptual, I passed through on my way here, to physically visit them, to stand in my own footsteps to see — what?

It’s not at all clear what it is I’m looking for, certainly not a glimpse of myself as I was then; that’s a vision that’s all too clear.  Nor is it primarily an attempt to reconstruct what I was thinking, to re-find or redefine whatever it was I thought I was doing, although that would certainly be interesting.  I’m not looking for redemption, or even a rationale.

Part of it is to correct the unconscious revisions I have made to my own history.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reconnecting, after many years, with an old friend or acquaintance, only to find that there are at least two contradictory versions of some common experience.  These things are seldom resolved, though.  We generally each come away wondering how the other person could have gotten the memory so wrong and yet be so sure.  It needs a new term to describe these common events.  How about “memoroid?”  I think that has enough innuendo hanging from it to serve the purpose.

No doubt what I’m looking for is a lot closer to hand and a lot easier to get at than a precisely calibrated reconstruction of the past.  See, I don’t think you can have a realistic assessment of who you are without a clear picture of who you were.

That gets both more and less difficult as you get older.

 

It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.

Good Riddance Day

On page 14 of the current New Yorker is a brief notice titled Good Riddance Day.  It’s about a promotion in Times Square by a company called Shred-It; they will utterly destroy and recycle any unwanted items people bring to the event.  Actually, it’s undoubtedly already happened, since it was scheduled for December 28.  According to the notice, the event was inspired by Latin American Año Viejo traditions, in which people stuff puppets with bits of paper scrawled with regrets, and no doubt curses, of the passing year, and ceremoniously burn them.

I think it would be a great and useful tradition to start in the US.  God knows we have enough poisonous emotions left over from 2016.  We could work out our own details, befitting our peculiar culture.  Instead of burning or shredding, we could toss bits of paper inscribed with unwanted emotions from car windows on the freeway.  Or we could stuff them into those Smokers Station things outside of public doorways.  For a really modern touch, we could type them up on computers, which would send them randomly to those people we’d like to be rid of as well.

Wait, we already do that last one.  It’s called Twitter.

Shakespearean monkeys

I’m sure you’ve heard it. Give a monkey a typewriter and all of eternity and he will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. How you’re going to keep the monkey alive is another question. Does it still count if you have to switch monkeys in mid-stream? Will it still work if the dead one was half way through As You Like It?

As it happens, someone has created a virtual roomful of monkeys with typewriters, and claims that in less than a year, they’ve already written at least a poem or two. But he cheats. When one of his e-monkeys e-types any word that appears anywhere in Shakespeare, he saves it, and then puts the harvested words together to make up the desired result. Uh-huh. Not even close.

I don’t insist on live monkeys with physical typewriters, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the words come out pre-sorted into a play, or something. This does bring up an interesting corollary, though.

Purely in terms of probability, although the theorem is stated in terms of infinite time, it could happen at any point within infinity, like, for example, as soon as you plop the monkey down at his desk and say “Go!” Then, nothing for the rest of eternity, except maybe a Bill O’Reilly book or two. This is because, although the probability of it happening at all during infinity is 100%, the probability of it happening at any particular time is the same throughout infinity. It is vanishingly small, to be sure, but it isn’t zero. There is no reason to expect one particular period of time to have any advantage over any other, when it comes to random chance.

Then again, the nature of infinity, or eternity, if you prefer, is such that not only would you get all of Shakespeare, but all of O’Reilly as well, more’s the pity. If it makes you feel any better, you’d also get everything ever written in any language, millions of times over, as if the poor monkey had wised off to some cosmic schoolteacher and had to stay after and type things over and over. Presumably, that would include “I will not make fun of Shakespeare” on our virtual, typewritten blackboard. Infinity is infinitely elastic, and can hold an infinite number of iterations of anything.

Imagine, all the lost works of classical antiquity, if only you had an infinity of time to search through all the gibberish!

In any case, we have pretty good empirical evidence that there’s a monkey out there somewhere, typing merrily away. How else to explain social media?