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.

Time and the swelling tide

I was just out walking in the town I live in.  An unseasonably nice day, warm and breezy, like the best days of early fall.  Then it hit me: my generation may very well be the last to experience habitable climates on most of Earth.

It is almost certainly too late to adopt enough changes to avoid disaster.  As for our social preoccupations, they are vexing, for sure, but not nearly on an order of magnitude comparable to environmental issues.  No matter how our current crises play out, how sordid or how sublime our responses to the xenophobia raging across the planet, it will all take its place in history, alongside all the ages, dark, golden, or forgotten.

If there still is history.  If the effluent we keep pumping into the air leaves us with a future, let alone history.

In a way, it’s a self-correcting problem.  Either we correct our course, which seems increasingly unlikely, or we render our planet inhospitable.  In either case, our cultures will change, and our sheer numbers will decrease, in the former case by intelligent design, in the latter by brute force.  The earth will return to its inanthropic cycles, none the worse for wear, to whatever state counts as normal.

We are far too young a species to grasp what that is.  Earth has passed through phases as diverse as completely covered with ice, an atmosphere poisonous to virtually any life, and desiccation more severe and universal than anything since we crawled out from our ancestral apes into the brave new world.  Through most of it, life had yet to occur, much less evolve, and even when it had, it clung tenuously to existence.  At least five times since it’s emergence, life has been almost wiped out.  Even our own species was squeezed through a fine and narrow filter some 60,000 years ago, when genetics point to a breeding population of Homo sapiens of less than 2,000.  Some scholars speculate that it was during this period that our evolving intelligence was given a swift kick to accelerate it, in response to the demographic crisis.

Given how that is turning out, I’m not very optimistic.  I hope I’m wrong.

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…

Don’t beam me up, please

It’s an old dream, the ability to move instantly from one place to another, far off.  Only shamans were ever able to do it, though.  But now, there’s a chance it might actually happen for all of us, in the not too ridiculously distant future.

Technically, there is no reason why we can’t eventually have teleporters – little booths you can walk into and walk out of thousands of miles away at the speed of light, providing there’s one at each end.  Sort of.

You knew there was a catch, didn’t you?  Using existing technology, the process involves reading all the information of which you are composed at one end, and reassembling you at the other end by dumping it.  This does involve your complete destruction at the transmitting end, of course.

That’s the interesting part.  The reassembled you at the destination would have all your cells, synapses, and nerve endings reproduced exactly as they were at the moment of your dismantling.  This includes your brain, where everything you know is stored in the precise configuration of its parts.  The original you may be destroyed, but the new you will remember going into the transmission booth, and coming out unscathed at the end.  So, is that you, or isn’t it?  What exactly do we mean by “you” anyway?

To an outside observer (scientist, friend, mother) it would be indistinguishable from you.  Come to that, to an inside observer (the reassembled you), the same would be true, since it would contain all that defined the earlier you.  But the original you was destroyed in the process.  What we always knew as you is dead, my friend.  It has been reduced to its constituent components, little electrons whizzing around little protons and neutrons, completely devoid of the patterning we came to love all those years before the experiment.

Here’s the weird part: because the teleportation involved reading all the information that constituted you, then transmitting it to a new location, it could presumably be saved.  You could be stored on a disc and not reassembled until later.  Much later.  Multiple copies of you could be made, all of which would insist it was the real you.  Each of them would be the real you, by any existing standards of evidence.

So, we end in a situation in which you are dead, because we killed you to get at your information, but you are still walking around in multiple iterations, perhaps having violent confrontations with each other over their authenticity.

Here’s the real question, which is so bizarre I’m having difficulty putting it into words:  Would you, that entity which now lives in and looks out at the world from your body, which is the experiencer of your history, which debates with itself over the nature of the reality presented it by your senses, would you inhabit any or all of your new selves?

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Welcome home, Mom and Dad

Hey, welcome back. It’s been – what – almost 70 years! My God, the time flies. You’d think after all that time you’d hardly know the place. I guess that’s true, in a way. I mean, the big shopping centers in the Old Town, and on Dzirnava Street; nothing like that in your day. I know, I know, the city market; it’s still there, still huge and bustling, but in an organic way, like mushrooms and dandelions. These other places, well, you know them from America. Conceived and built from scratch by speculators long before anyone guessed they wanted them, and yet wildly successful, fulfilling God knows what lack. How could they be here, of all places?

I tried to find your old place on Ernestine Street – ridiculous, I know, since I don’t know the number. I did find a lovely little park, filled with trees and hillocks and children’s swings. I imagined you lived in one of the houses facing it, and watched your boys playing there.

What’s that? Oh, the graffiti. Ugly, isn’t it? Another import from outside. Partly copied from those Americans you never quite figured out, partly welled up from within during those cold grey years under the Dogma. I know, the people making it were never alive in that time, but cultures have a way of making hurt live on long after real grievances have gone extinct. My God, look at the Israelis and Palestinians, after 3000 years!

Still, there’s a lot you’d find familiar, I’ll bet. Just today, I was strolling in the Forest Park. You know the place, at the end of the trolley line, past all the cemeteries filled with the dead from wars and ordinary life. I’ll bet you’d find a few old friends in those places! A bit overgrown these days, at least in parts, and amidst a few soviet apartment buildings I guess would break your heart, covered with, yes, graffiti. I should have warned you. But at least the graves are well tended.

Near the canal by the Old Town, boys and girls still lay out their blankets on the grass, and give each other such joy as they can under the circumstances. Their soft laughter blends so well with sparrow’s songs, I can hardly tell the difference sometimes. I know you sat together here often; if I only knew the spot. You’d be shocked, though, to see how little they wear these warm summer days, not like the elegant suits and dresses of your day! Still, there might be a twinkle in your eyes. It is nearly midsummer – full breeding season here.

They still have those wooden boats, you know, to cruise out to the river in. I bought a straw hat just for the purpose. I wonder if you ever did.

Russian voices are everywhere. I doubt that would bother you. I still remember warm evenings of food, drink and fellowship with the Russians and Jews who came to share dinner with you when I was growing up. I never understood what you talked about, but it was grand, judging from the atmosphere.

There’s music everywhere, of course. I think you would have been shocked to find otherwise. I’m glad it took me this long to show you around. A few years ago, when I first came here, there were sour faces everywhere. Not so long before that ordinary people died in the streets for independence. The long gray shadow of the Soviet Union still cast its spell. Now, people seem to have forgotten how to be cynical, in spite of hard times lately. I mean, here’s a people who, despite centuries of conquest and exploitation kept their own language and culture, and sweet, cheerful demeanor. Okay, so maybe it’s because no one bothered to eradicate it. Still, it was there all along, invisible but strong. The last century was not the longest or worst period they’ve survived.

Did I tell you, there’s been a renaissance of tradition? That music I mentioned: yes,there’s the ubiquitous hip-hop, metal, and pop drivel, but rather a lot of traditional stuff as well. I doubt you’re surprised; music is music, as any Latvian will tell you. Today in Forest Park I passed an old man (Old! He was probably my age!) playing songs on the accordian I’ll bet you could sing along with. And in the Old Town, I saw a little girl, maybe 10 years old, playing a lap dulcimer and singing, with a beautiful clear voice, songs I heard from you, I believe even before I was born. The old religion is everywhere, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Christian sourpusses. But wasn’t it always like that? The old oaks and elms, the thunder and fortune, could always accommodate a god or two in excess.

Dad, don’t listen for awhile, I’m talking to Mom now. I know you were afraid you were going to hell. Personally, I doubt you’re anywhere other than in my heart. But if you are, it’s not hell. You knew the value of the old ways, you felt the pulse of gypsies beating in your heart. There is no god worthy of the name who couldn’t stand that, who couldn’t see the beauty and righteousness of it.

Dad, I have no way of knowing what horrors you passed through. I know you were a good man, and I know you never wavered in doing what you thought was best for us. I took me a long time to forgive you, longer still to forgive myself. At last, it’s done.

I can’t quite grasp what it was to see it all crumbling, to watch the poison seeping into such a rich well, to leave it all so utterly behind. Did you really think you’d ever come back?

Anyway, I’m so glad I could show you around the old place. I hope you enjoyed it.

My great, great grandfather’s troika

Family stories beyond about two generations ought to be taken with a grain of salt.  But they ought to be taken, all the same, in the same way that myths must be taken.  There is a kind of truth in them, even with the embellishments required to fill in gaps.  This one concerns a great, great grandfather, a mild winter, and a wager.  A good combination, I should think.

It was, in fact, the mildest of winters in a part of the world where children’s tales involve ice maidens and ravening wolves, along with the occasional stark reminder that they’re not entirely fictional.  Snow comes early and often, and once the rivers and lakes freeze over they generally stay that way until the spring thaw.  Even today, in the deepest countryside, horse-drawn sleighs are not rare in winter time.  This particular winter the snows came late, and the air smelt of autumn into late November.  By the first couple of weeks of December, the waters had just begun to freeze, and a decent amount of snow had finally arrived, enough to change wagon wheels for runners in a land where roads were usually just a fond memory by this time.

My great, great grandfather, call him Jekab, lived out his life there, fortified against the deathly winters with buckets of vodka.  And the summers, come to that.  This was not a poor man, as these things go; he had a troika, a three-horse wagon, and any man who could use three horses just to get around was pretty well off.  Jekab even had his own little piece of land, a rarity in that time and place.  To be sure, he worked it himself, with help from the family.  You wouldn’t call him lord of the manor, but he was lord of the local tavern, for sure.  The long winters left farmers rather little to do beyond experimenting with various percentages of blood alcohol.  Jekab’s usual comrade in these endeavors was a sometime roustabout and usual layabout whom we shall call Gint.

This particular winter’s afternoon found Jekab and Gint sitting at their favorite seat at the tavern, overlooking the river.  Snow poured from the sky relentlessly.  The talk turned to a particularly alluring miller’s daughter, God bless and protect her, who happened to live at the mill just across the river.  As it happened, the ferry that crossed from just that point had finally shut down due to icing, and the nearest bridge was at least five kilometers away.  Snow already covered the icy river to a depth above the boot.  Still, Jekab expressed a desire to pay a visit to the lovely young lady, never mind his wife and children at home.  Gint, with his usual gift for claiming the obvious, scoffed.

“The snow’s up to your ass out there!”

“You’re the ass,” Jekab responded,”Knees, tops.”

“But you’ll fall on your ass after two steps, then where will the snow be?”  Both men roared with laughter at the thought of it, tears streaming down their faces.

Silence returned gradually.  Jekab looked straight into Gint’s rather bleary eyes.  “I’ll take the troika, you stupid shit.”

“You’d drive all the way to the bridge for her on a day like this?”  His eyes widened, truly impressed with such dedication.  But Jekab just waved away his words, as if they were no more than summer flies.

“Don’t be daft,”  he said.  “I’ll cross the river here.”

There ensued a lively debate about the thickness of the ice on the river, with Jekab insisting that if it could support all that snow, it could support a troika, and Gint pointing out that the weight of the troika would be added to the weight of the snow.  In the end, a wager was made.

The two men, along with a handful of the curious, stood in front of the tavern.  Jekab harnessed his horses to the troika and climbed aboard, turned it toward the river, and gave the reins a firm and resounding slap.  Off they went.

It must have been quite a sight.  Steam rising from the horses’ nostrils, the troika’s runners cutting through the mighty snow bank onto the river, Jekab swathed in fur, urging his horses into the blinding storm at the top of his lungs.  Then – silence.  They all disappeared.  All of them: horses, troika and great, great grandfather.  None of them was seen again until the spring sun melted the ice against the bridge down river.

Gint had won his bet, but lost his friend.  Life is like that.

T. Orloff.  19th c. Russian

T. Orloff. 19th c. Russian

What I think I believe: A prose poem

To say there is no duality is to concede there is.

To say God has a list is ignorance.

To say you know anything for sure is naive.

To believe in a separate, personal God is nothing short of ridiculous.

Every religion tells us that God is immutable, omnipotent, and utterly ungraspable by the human mind.  Every religion goes on to tell us exactly what is in the mind of God.

Do you think your one, holy, catholic and apostolic church has droned the same immutable message since it rose from the ashes of the Roman Empire?  Do you really believe your free-thinking, free-wheeling nihilistic Buddha is the same one who sat, perplexed, tormented and impatient under the Bodhi tree?  Can it be your quibbling, etymological Yaweh is the same brutal partisan of the Torah?  Is your pitiless prophet the same one who forgave the Meccans for trying to destroy him?

Congratulations, you have mastered the difficult art of intransigent gullibility.  Nothing is changeless, not even the divine genealogies your ancestors would find disturbing without their context.

Yes, there is a God, created and lovingly maintained by his human masters.  How could it be the opposite?  Does God shave?  What does he eat?  What use would he have of testicles?  Where does he get his clothes?  How can he have demands?

In my universe, there is no god but All.  There are no demands, no rewards, no punishment.  Leave that kind of stuff for humanity.  The meaning of life is life.  The meaning of death is life.  The meaning of humanity is arrogance.  The meaning of good is evil.  The meaning of my right hand is my left hand.

How can it be otherwise?