The voice in the wilderness will not be human

Walking through a local supermarket, scanning the shelves and hoping that would help me remember what it was that I went there for in the first place, I suddenly heard a voice.

“How can I help you?”

I looked around.  No one was there.

My first impulse was to look upward, as if God had finally gotten around to answering my childhood prayers; too late, I thought. Hell, I no longer even had a Mr. Potato Man with a broken nose tab. I imagined a voice, “Please hold, your prayer will be answered in the order it was received. You are number 4,897,672 in the queue.”

Nope, that wasn’t it. Probably something over the PA.  Then I heard it again, more clearly this time.

“How can I help you?” It was coming from an odd sort of post on a base, something like one of those Smoker’s Outpost things you see next to the dumpsters behind buildings.

And it was blinking.  Now, I’m not a luddite by any means, but I found this a bit disconcerting, so since I had no idea what it was I was looking for anyway, I moved away a few feet.  The damned thing followed me.  In the end I had to move to an entirely different aisle to get away from it.

There’s a lot in the news these days about immigrants taking our jobs, or if not immigrants, then off-shoring by manufacturers.  Yes, it’s true our jobs are disappearing, but it’s not foreigners who are causing it.  You are more likely to lose your job to a walking Smoker’s Outpost than a Mexican.

Some people say, fine, robots are taking over manufacturing, and more power to them, our economy has long since moved into service as a basis. On which, see above.

Automation isn’t anything new.  Futurists in the mid 20th century used to wax eloquent about how much leisure time we’d have by the 21st. The only thing they missed was that we’d be broke.  We need to find a way to pry some of the wealth from the hands of the owners of the robots.

 

Christmas among the alien hordes

I’m an immigrant. A friend recently asked me what Christmas was like in my family. What started out as a short answer kept growing longer and longer. Here’s the result.

When I was growing up, I lived in two countries at once; outside the doors was America, inside was Latvia. It was a permeable border, at least in one direction. We children tracked in a lot of America, stuck to our shoes, so to speak; very little went out in the other direction.

Latvian culture is peasant culture. Every tradition we hold dear, every quirk of character or demeanor, every inexplicable Latvian habit, beloved or belabored, ultimately relates to the fact that we’ve been under someone else’s thumb for centuries, right up to recent history. I won’t go into detail; it’s readily accessible on Wikipedia, and this is a Christmas story.

You’re already familiar with one of our traditions: cutting down an evergreen tree, bringing it inside, and decorating it with ornaments and lights, candles in the old days, electric lights now. That was a Latvian thing long before it caught on elsewhere. If you’re skeptical that such a tiny backwoods place could affect the great imperial cultures of Europe, remember that most of them tramped their way through there at one time or another, leaving their own distinct footprints, but also taking one or two habits back home.

As a result, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much in our living room that was different from yours. Dig a bit deeper, though, and things get a bit odd. There was a Latvian version of Santa Claus; I think “Old Man Christmas” would be an adequate translation. He was not significantly different from the American version, except that to get the presents he left under the tree, children had to sing a song, recite a poem, or otherwise entertain the adults. In our house, thankfully, that didn’t happen much. In fact, there was no Santa nonsense of any kind. I once got into big trouble at my school in the first grade for telling the other children there was no Santa. Sister Paul Marie, who spent a considerable part of the day admonishing us to always be truthful, scolded me for ruining their Christmas. I was mortified and confused.

We were Catholics, due to an accident of history that had my father’s region of Latvia under the control of Poland at the time the rest of the country, run mostly by Germans, was busy converting to Lutheranism. Before either of them, Latvian religion was essentially animistic paganism. Our gods were forces of nature.

My father took to Catholicism like a fish to water; my mother, still secretly a believer in the old religion, barely went through the motions. She also had Rom ancestors somewhere in her line and indulged in tarot cards and the like. She often “didn’t feel well” when it was time for church.

Except Christmas. Christmas had midnight mass. If you’re Protestant, you missed out on one of the great ritual pageants of religion, especially in my day, when it was all done in Latin. The music was magisterial: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven with an enormous, magnificent choir that materialized out of nowhere at Christmastime and dissolved again for the rest of the year, accompanied by an organ that could compete with arena rock for room-filling capacity. The mass itself was performed by three priests in their most ornate vestments, embroidered and gilded affairs that would be the envy of Liberace. They were attended to by a squadron of altar boys, including some older boys returning especially for the privilege. It was a solemn high mass, and the liturgy was sung by the priests, a rare treat when it happened to be Father Frey, who had a beautiful tenor voice. It was later rumored, when he disappeared from the parish, that he had run off with one of the nuns at the school, probably not true, as they were all accounted for. All the same, we took great comfort from the possibility that even he might be human.

Every year we bundled up at about 11:30 PM and trundled out the door for the long walk to the church, always in deep snow (at least in my memory). Once I had heard that a friend’s father had been found frozen to death the night before, after passing out on the sidewalk on his way home from the bar. The place where he had been found happened to be right on our usual route to the church. On that occasion we walked solemnly past the spot, which I was surprised to learn looked no different from normal, then continued on as our spirits slowly lifted again. By the time we got to the church, filled to the rafters with warmth and light, we were ready for the spectacle. It was a full hour and a half later when we slowly walked back home, tired and bedazzled.

But the real story of a Latvian Christmas is the food. If the living room looked as American as anyone else’s, it was full-on old country in the kitchen.

There were piparkūks, which were ginger snaps with a nip to them. It took three days of fermenting the dough before they went in the oven. There were pirāgi, often translated as bacon rolls, a woefully inadequate description of something that was half pastry, half bacon and onion with lots of salt and pepper. There was cottage cheese cake to munch on between the piparkūks and pirāgi and a huge bowl of nuts by the tree just in case you foolishly wandered a bit too far from the dining room.

The centerpiece was the truly transcendent goose, basted with sweet vermouth and roasted to crisp perfection by my mother. She later told us she had gotten the recipe from the Reader’s Digest cookbook, but it was Latvian all the same. No real Latvian cook would pass up a mouthwatering recipe from anywhere, or fail to transform it into something undeniably Latvian.

This was accompanied by sauerkraut stewed with a hambone, sweetened with apples, and fermented several days in the back porch, in short, bearing only the most superficial resemblance to the kraut you may be familiar with from the supermarket. Boiled potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabaga mixed together with butter formed a delicious dish I remember as being called something like “chivich,” but none of my friends or acquaintances, Latvian or not, finds that name familiar; perhaps another cookbook inspiration.

Dessert was incomparable. Usually bubert, a billowy, eggy pudding enhanced with ķīsel, a luscious sweet fruity sauce, made with rhubarb when it was available.

Then, out the door past the dormant-for-the-day snowshovel to the white, snow covered park, our personal tundra, with the sledding hill in the middle, where we slid recklessly down the slope and across the road at the bottom, almost never all the way into the frozen creek on the other side.

And, that, my friends, was Christmas among the wicked foreigners.

A Christmas message

Philosophers, mystics, and even cognitive scientists seem to agree that there is no reality, that it’s all an illusion.  The vague, ambiguous category of persons called neuroscientists will take it a step further, and insist that consciousness itself is an illusion.  If you ask them what, exactly, is it that’s having the illusion, if not a consciousness, then you’re subjected to that look that combines disappointment, concern, and pity.

And yet, If I’m driving my illusion down the road, I can’t steer it into your illusion coming the other way without resulting in the two of us having substantially the same illusion about the outcome.

On the other hand, if the whole thing is my illusion only, conscious or not, I am, in effect, God. In which case I refuse to generate a Son just to send him down for you to torture to death and then coopt for your own purposes.

Merry Christmas.

Crossroads America

It’s election day.  Like many Americans, I voted early, and now all I have to do is sit back and wait.  That sounds relaxing, and it usually is, but this election is different.

I will not mince words.  The Trump administration is threatening the survival of our system of government, and the Republican congress has shown no appetite for constraining it.  If there is not substantial change in congress, it will be taken as vindication of Trump, and things will get worse.  I won’t try to justify these statements; there has been no shortage of essays analyzing, dicing, and slicing our current political situation.  Odds are that you have already made up your mind.

Vote.  It may have come to your attention that liberals like myself often urge people in general to vote, and do not try to suppress conservative votes.  The converse is true for conservatives, for whom voter suppression has become SOP.

That’s because, historically, large turnouts favor Democrats. That single fact should tell you something significant about American politics.

Vote.

Disruption and stability. And a third thing if I really want a hip title.

Remodelers just finished and left after three weeks of trundling about the house.  This is hardly worthy of complaint, even within the limited realm of first world problems, but there is a point to be made.

Years ago, when I lived in Lafayette, Indiana, there was a remodeling company which aired commercials on TV.  Their slogan was “When the workmen leave, your pride is restored.”  They meant, of course, that they will have restored your house to a condition you could be proud of, but they were oblivious to the alternate interpretation: that after weeks of the indignity of surly louts lumbering in and out of your life at their whim, you could once again claim control of your life.

It’s true, you feel it.  It affects not only the limited part of the day when they’re physically there, but how you eat, how you sleep, and everything else you do.  It’s a stressor, no doubt.

Now imagine being a refugee.

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.