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.

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?

Walking

The sky, like a summer smile, is smudged with clouds, and the unwarm spring air baffles the jacket I grabbed on my way out of the house. I turn a corner, and there he is, walking towards me, eyes big with recognition. A few paces back, a woman in her fifties trails behind. It’s his mother, I know.

I see him often on my walks through the broad sides of the town, lying on the sidewalk, or sprawled against a curb, gazing at the meaning of things, his mother nearby but unobtrusive, though his age is at least sixteen. His discourse is with the wind, the texture of concrete, the colors of an oil slick.

Today, he sees me.

“Richard, Richard, Richard!” he shouts in an explosion of joy.

“It’s Mike,” I say. “You got it right last time, John.”

“Mike, Mike, Mike!” He extends his hand to shake. I take it. Like the sidewalk, it is surprisingly rough. A dark cloud scuds past, revealing the sun that was there all along.

We part, each of us with spring in his step.

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.

Courage, America, s’il vous plait

At this writing, the governors of 24 states, all but one of them Republican, have announced they will block the settlement of refugees in their states. It seems clear they don’t have the authority to do that under the constitution they are always on about revering, but it makes for political fodder in a year leading up to a major election. Conservatives contrast themselves from liberals by claiming they respect loyalty and duty above all. Such generalizations mean nothing if you can change the particulars any time a risk is involved.

I don’t generally bandy about words like courage and cowardice; God knows I’ve fallen short too many times in the past. But the bar for the settlement of refugees seems low enough even for someone like me. Yes, there is some risk involved, but relatively little. Only one of the attackers in Paris was identified as a possible refugee, the rest were either French or Belgian citizens. Even that one case is far from clear. The fact that the Syrian passport survived the suicide bomber’s destruction suggests it was meant to be found. French police are looking at the validity of the passport as a result.

In spite of your favorite movie or video game, courage is not a matter of acting without fear; it is acting in spite of fear, because a greater good will result. Surely we Americans, so proud of our toughness, can accept the small risk involved with the settlement of refugees from the very people we are so afraid of.

Actually, it would be comforting, in a weird way, to think all of these governors were simply cowards, but I think their real motivation lies in the realm of politics. The Republican party’s lifeblood is fear. They miss no opportunity to exploit it to their advantage, and this latest move falls right into place alongside their rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. This, to me, is far more despicable than mere cowardice, over which one may have little control.

I’ll keep this short. Do you remember all those veterans you were falling all over yourselves to thank last week? Well, this is your opportunity to step up and accept a small amount of risk, and show what you’re made of. That will make all that gratitude so much more meaningful; it won’t look so much like you were just glad to be off the hook for courage.