Life on the Mississippi, revisit

It’s Fathers’ Day. This is a reprise of something I posted on this blog in February of 2013.

In a dusty, fading memory of a National Geographic of my youth, among the bare-breasted African ladies and stripe-shirted Parisians, there is a sunny picture of a lad on a raft, his toes swirling the Mississippi River. His father had taken him out of school for a year of rafting on that mythic Father of Dreams, not only waters. Why could not I have a father like that, I grieved.

My own father thought peace, not adventure, was the greatest gift. He was born and grew in Latvia, in a forest of kin, as much a part of his place as the oak trees planted for the native sons. A small stone house, a well, three oaks and a horizon of fields. A burial ground nearby sheltered his ancestors on both sides; their names are gone now, weathered away like the wooden crosses that marked their graves. But he was there, where he belonged, in the embrace of family, living and dead.

When I was a boy, I would stand in front of the door of my house, looking outside, wishing and wondering. I think he was like that. Bye and bye, whatever was beyond the fields of oats and rye beckoned, and he answered. In a fit of irrational exuberance, he joined the army.

Not bad, really, at least at first. It was a free country, for that brief period between the great wars, and nothing for soldiers to do but dream of dying under foreign skies, all brave and noble. They certainly had the songs for it. He went off to Riga, to the War College. It was a blast. Bright lights, big city, no way to keep him down on the farm after that. He married a girl with an eighth grade education and a mind that was quicker than a hare chased by two foxes and an alley cat. No slouch himself, he thought she was normal. They had a couple of children. You know that feeling, in a dream, when you’ve climbed to the highest peak to look at the world, and you turn around to discover the mountain has disappeared while you weren’t paying attention?

Russians. Germans, then Russians again. The world was in one of its fits. This part of the story is a haze of half glimpsed hopes and fears, mostly projections on my part. Like one of those stunts on a magician’s stage : a loud noise, a lot of smoke, and when it all clears, everything is different. In a camp in Germany, full of shattered dreams, I was born, much to the chagrin, I’m betting, of my brothers.

The father I knew had had enough adventures, thank you. He had made some promises to God when all else had crumbled; he did his best to see that his children fulfilled them. Keep this in mind when you promise things to God: don’t involve others. Faust probably had a better deal.

These days, I live near the Mississippi, and occasionally, when I drive upriver, I see that kid on the raft in my mind. I’m almost as old as my father ever got. I hope I’ve done as well as he did.

Dead Achilles

Like Achilles, we are good at the war cry. Our righteous anger smolders and bursts into flame with each new affront from the enemy. Our Trojans, the Islamic State, have gone even further than the originals, to the point of abdicating any claim to humanity. They are animals, we say, meaning the ultimate insult, meaning they are ours to kill or torture at will. Meaning we share this one thing with them.

I make no apologies for ISIS; they live in a delusional medieval world and have raised the worst aspects of earlier times to holy rite. Until recent times, warfare was total. If an enemy dared to defy your superiority, they deserved not only to die, but to have their kind obliterated. Thus the killing of all occupants of a delinquent city, and the razing of its houses, even, in the case of Rome at Carthage, the salting of its fields to prevent the growing of crops. Something similar has continued all through history: the destruction of Calais, the burning of Atlanta, the firebombing of Dresden. Nowadays we have rules of engagement, and we try to limit atrocity, although perhaps we have succeeded most in separating ourselves from direct participation.

Because, unlike Achilles, we prefer to pay someone else to salvage our honor. Then we heap accolades on them, thank them profusely and endlessly for their service. Meaning how nice it is of them to spare us the discomfort of direct vengeance. When the rules of warfare are overstepped, the accolades turn to scorn with the ease of changing hats. We have no understanding of any depth of what is going on, of who it is we alternately love and hate, depending on circumstances.

All the same, we continue to raise high the standard of heroism, of gallantry in warfare, of the sheer nobility of it all.

Which brings me back to Achilles. It has always mystified me why Achilles is a hero. Here is someone who, by all accounts, is the most perfect warrior on the Greek side, a son of Thetis and Peleus with unmatched courage. Yet he sits and pouts, refusing to fight, his pride wounded because Agamemnon, who was after all the leader of the expedition, has taken a slave girl from him, a girl who Achilles abducted while savagely pillaging a city on the way to Troy. So much for valor. So much for chivalry.

He only rejoins the battle after his friend and protégé, Patroclus, is killed while wearing his armor in an attempt to inspire the Greeks. You might think this was because Achilles was overcome by grief and guilt, since it was his petulance that led Patroclus to take his fateful action, but it wasn’t. It was simply because his friend had been killed, and, since it was Hector, son of the Trojan king Priam, who had done it, it was Hector who would bear his wrath, never mind that the killing occurred in the blur of battle. Self-preservation, let alone the defense of one’s own city under siege, was apparently no excuse. As petty as it sounds, this epitomizes a timeless truth about battle: soldiers fight only for each other, no matter how noble the original cause. For those who voluntarily return to the battle again and again, it’s often for the sheer love of it, no matter how draped in the banner of patriotism, or at least moral necessity.

But there is another timeless truth epitomized by Achilles, this time after he is dead. When Odysseus sees him in the underworld, he seems despondent. Odysseus tries to rally him.

But, you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you –
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.

But to no avail. Achilles’ answer is clear and succinct.

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

And there lies all the glory of war.

Congratulations: the incredibly improbable you

You’ve made it this far.  There were never any guarantees, were there?

Take the Big Bang, for instance.  By all accounts, this event should have resulted in equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, and we all know what that means.  Nothing.  A big, fat zero.  You put the two together, and that’s what you get, so for physicists, the old chestnut of why there’s something rather than nothing takes on a whole new significance.  For some reason, after the Big Annihilation, there was this miniscule (comparatively) amount of stuff left over; that’s us, and all we are in and around.

Even so, a lot of different things could have happened from there.  The laws of nature could have been different.  If gravity was just a tiny bit stronger, no sooner would the universe have begun to expand, than it would have collapsed back on itself.  No time for matter to come together slowly, forming stars while waiting for the Great Dissipation of entropy.  Which brings up another thing: if entropy is a law, if everything ends up at the lowest, most uniform possible state of energy, why wasn’t that the case immediately before the Big Bang?  It could have been.  It should have been.  But it wasn’t; big chunk of luck for us!

Even taking all of that ultimate origin stuff as a given, it’s been no cakewalk.  You start with a bunch of protons and electrons whizzing about the fledgeling universe, but because it’s not uniform, some of them clump together due to our friend gravity.  Actually, enormous clumps of them, so huge the pressure pushes them into units composed of two protons and electron each: helium atoms.  It’s fusion, and lumps of it were happening all over.  Altogether disorderly and un-entropic.  Worse yet, all that energy causes flares, explosions, various ways of ripping it all apart, with the result that bits of stars are flung out, kind of like bits of fur in a cosmic cat fight.  More and more atoms are forced together, and eventually you get all the elements we are familiar with, including the ones we are composed of ourselves.  Stars have clouds of gases and debris swirling around them.  Sooner or later, the same thing that brought the original matter together to make the stars begins happening in the debris clouds.  They start clumping up, and some get rather large, at least by our standards.  We call them planets.

Of course most planets, even the ones in our own little star system, with the notable exception of Earth, are places completely inhospitable for life.  The bulk of them are like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, great gassy blobs with no place to even stand on, let alone survive.  Even most that are solid enough to stand on are inhospitable, like Mercury, or Venus.  Just our little Earth is perfect, and it causes us huge headaches on occasion.  True, in the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, there are doubtless others like it, maybe even some better equipped for life.  But they are in a minority.  Just our luck we’re here.

Although, to be honest, even Earth was no picnic for much of its history.  Our lump of clay is a little more than 4.5 billion years old, and for almost the first half of that, its atmosphere was largely nitrogen and methane.  Don’t get me wrong; it was buzzing with life, little anaerobic  specs happily bathed in the major component of our modern farts.  How they came to be is a matter still hotly debated, but we’ll leave that, and the odds of it happening, aside.  Earth was a very warm place, indeed.  Then, catastrophe!

Evil, wicked, cyanobacteria arose, making energy directly from the sun via photosynthesis, and giving off as a waste product — oxygen.  It was a deadly poison, and the tiny microscopic newspapers of the day were full of dire predictions.  Just kidding.  Had they been, though, their predictions would have been all too true.  It’s said that this was by far the greatest extinction event the world has ever witnessed, killing off almost all of the existing life, leaving only the new photosynthesizers and a smattering of the older bits near ocean vents and the like.  Even they had it rough, though, because the sudden burst of oxygen turned almost all the methane into carbon dioxide.  The Earth cooled, and remained encased in ice – snowball Earth – for millions of years.

Well, there it is.  They’re still with us; they’ve become all the rich and glorious diversity of plants.  From our perverse point of view, or course.  We are essentially what’s become of alien invaders wallowing about in their own waste products.

I can’t begin to tell you all the trials and tribulations that followed.  For the next couple of billion years, the Earth vacillated between toasty warm and crippling cold, and all the range between, each shift engendering a new catastrophe for whatever life had grown accustomed to the previous conditions, and a marvelous opportunity for those few misfits who had managed to survive in spite of it.  You really should check out some of the incredible trials and errors along the way: hard-shelled predators with razor like appendages; floating masses of jello; tiny diatoms whose gazillions of weeny skeletons form the vast limestone deposits of Earth.  But let’s cut to the chase.

What with one thing and another, bilaterally symmetrical soft-bodied creatures with internal structures of calcium carbonate evolved: the vertebrates.  I mean, anyone care to calculate the odds?  One major theory of the evolution of skeletons is that organisms found a way to sequester the deadly calcium in their environment, and that that eventually was pressed into service as the internal skeleton, providing rigidity and support for locomotion and other kinetic activities.  Talk about making lemonade from the lemons you’ve been given.

You may think that by this point, we are well on the way to the obvious: us and all the clever world about us.  Not so fast.

Although you could make a case that in such a changeable, unreliable world as Earth, it was just a matter of time before an intelligent, generalized creature like the primates would evolve, we’re still a long way from ourselves here.  Even today, there are hundreds of primate species, with hundreds more having gone extinct.  It is said that at one point, about 60-50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was down to a breeding population of fewer than a couple of hundred individuals.  We’ve all been squeezed through a very narrow funnel, my friends, which explains why we’re so damned alike.

Think of it.  A species comprised of many thousands, culled to a couple hundred.  Most humans died back then.

But not your ancestors, or mine.  The odds against any one of us being here are astronomical.  Since then, of course, we’ve burgeoned to a population of something over 7 billion.  All the same, countless ancestral lines have gone extinct since the big crunch of 60-50k alone.

But not yours, and not mine.  At any point along the vast expanse of time, from the first flicker of life to now, your personal ancestor organism might have been one of the countless gazillions that died without issue.  Congratulations.

Now, about those horrendous odds you say you’re up against…

Killers

John Coyote has written a raw and powerful poem, Killer on the Road, about being a soldier.  The style is terse, the language rough.  The odd grammatical lapses, whether from art or habit, lend the poem a particular ragged urgency, like the sharp edge of a rusty piece of scrap metal.  This comes just in time for the latest debate, about whether or not to bomb something, anything, in Syria.

We suffer no shortage of moral pronouncements from either side, each more strident than the last; Coyote gives us something more precious, and far more useful: a portrait of a human being caught in the crosshairs.  In fact, it’s two human beings, caught in each other’s crosshairs, colliding, willy-nilly, in a reality of neither’s choosing.  For once in our most recent polemics, we see the enemy,  a suicide bomber, in his full humanity:

They killed his brothers.
They came to his country and torn it down to rubble.

He believed in a eye for a eye.
He will be in paradise soon.
Tears fall from his eyes as he think of his wife sleeping alone.

Suddenly, the suicide bomber is no longer a symbol, a cause, but an ordinary man, steeling himself to do what he believes he has to do, however delusional that may be.  Coyote makes no excuses here, pushes no particular agenda.  He simply points us to a reality we routinely choose to ignore: beneath the bomb filled jacket beats the heart of Homo Sapiens, one of us.  It doesn’t mean he’s justified in his actions.  It’s a mirror, pure and simple.  This is not a particularly new insight; battlefield correspondence from soldiers down through the ages reveals the same.  What’s new here and now is the permission to see it while we are still engaged in the conflict.  The soldier who, reacting instinctively to a threat, kills this man, ends up looking into this mirror, too long, perhaps, for his own good:

He hold pictures of a man’s wife  with two children.
He wonder why he has to kill this man?

He should of been home tossing a football with his brother or something.

He cries for the Iraqi he killed.
Old Sargent said he was a hero.

At this point, it’s too late for redemption:

He would do his duty and go home.
He don’t talk of God or Jesus anymore.
He just wishes for the blood to leave his hands.

There is no happy ending here, no satisfying resolution.  Scales drop from the eyes, but a lot that’s good in human values drops with them.

It’s a picture we need to hold onto while we’re making decisions that can kill not just bodies, but human spirits as well.  Coyote is clear about where he stands: stay home, no more killing.  Others might come to a different conclusion; there is the matter of precedent concerning chemical warfare to consider.  Either way.  Just let’s go into it with eyes wide open.