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Migrating Through the Problematic

Connections, Nature nurtures
 
We traveled to Nebraska this spring to see the Sandhill crane migration. “I guess that’s a thing” said a friend. Is it ever. Half a million or more of this one species of bird channel their way through a fifty mile stretch of the Platte River on their way to northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They stop over at the Platte for a few weeks before the final push, for the corn, for the flocking sociability and because the river has open shores.
 
The birds are accustomed to the wide vistas afforded by what was formerly a natural flood plain and they gain an understandable sense of security in maintaining clear sight lines on potential predators headed their way on their nightly roost in the river. But the open river banks were made problematic by human priorities. Damning for both power generation and flood control ended the scouring effect of the seasonal rush of waters which removed the small plant starts from the shore every year.
 

The river shores in this one stretch of the Platte are now cleared by human action; bulldozing, bush hogging, chain sawing. This is done in the off season so that the birds are accommodated and put at ease upon their return. Seems only right since they were the ones who got first dibs here.

 
It’s an anxious time for the cranes since they are on a timeline to stock up and get north to reproduce during the tight window that is the arctic summer. The flocking behavior provides some vital function for them during this stopover. It must help to ease the anxiety. This safety in numbers thing and the natural comfort of being part of a large community puts me in mind of some kind of large summer music festival. On the Platte the birds provide their own soundtrack with their Sandhill burbling, their hoots and cackles.
 

This huge celebration of youth and music disbands after the reproduction cycle is completed. After a brief summer of mating, of nesting and nurturing their young up north they return south in relaxed fashion, in much smaller family knots. 

 
On our way up there from western Kentucky we stopped in Kansas City and visited the Truman Presidential Library in Independence. It’s a shrine to a problematic individual. This mild mannered man with poor public speaking skills and a history as a failed businessman in the hat and oil trades also bears the responsibility of the decision to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese. There’s a weird irony in that personality making that particular decision. And the decision itself seems incomprehensible even as part of a practical expediency. A bookish Missouri farm boy becomes a presidential decision maker involving the use of atomic weapons on a civilian population, all tied to his nation’s psychology brutalized by the sufferings of war. 
 
From there the highway north passes right in front of Leavenworth Prison which is a massive monument to the power of evil sitting in the prettiest, more benign and lovely Kansas river valley you ever saw. The walls of Leavenworth extend forty feet each direction from the ground. Forty feet up and forty feet down. Machine Gun Kelly and Bugs Moran did time there. So did Tom Pendergast after riding high for many years atop his pyramid of corruption as the Kansas City political boss and Truman mentor. The problem of evil is not just about bad guys. Good guys sometimes get into trouble just migrating through the problematic.
 
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Really? I was just so sound asleep.

Humor or less, Philosophy with a tan

Mark Noble as Ötzi from the BBC’s “The Iceman Murder” (2005)

 
I used to do this weird thing as a kid. I would pretend to be asleep. My whole family would be up and about on a Saturday morning and I would just lay there in bed with my eyes closed trying to convince the world that I was still sleeping. I was awake and tracking the noises around me. I was also determined not to let anything perturb me or my self-imposed catatonia. This all came back to me today in a flash of memory; my brother screaming in my ear, “Wake up Dave. Wake up!!!” And me just laying there like Otzi the frozen man.
 
And now that I am thinking about this and laughing at my stubborn resolve in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, it occurs to me that my parents didn’t get involved. Or they probably were enlisted by my frustrated siblings, stuck their head in the door and figured out the game straight away.
 
I also now think back on the perverse pleasure I got just by causing my poor brother to engage in my madness. In the tight dark world of my adolescent sleeping fantasy, I just couldn’t believe that he actually continued to try and rouse me. Once the game was on there was no backing down for me. To suddenly “wake up” would be to admit my charade. So I just lay there with my brother shaking me and screaming “Wake UP!!!” in my ear.
 
This was all seems pretty silly now. At some point after my brother would finally give up I would get out of bed and claim obliviousness to the whole incident. I would actually insist that I was just very tightly sleeping. Very, very tightly.
 
Ridiculous, right? But it was about something. Maybe it was about control. And the joy of staying purely inside myself while the world went mad trying to break in. I read this wonderful essay by Chris Higgins where he says “…we all actively shrink from the world in countless ways, to what we can use and what we can bear.”
 
When I think of it like that I recognize the powerful impulse in us to be self contained and impervious. I also recognize how this comfort zone limits my ability to sense the world, to learn from it. The philosophical stance, the awareness of our ignorance as the beginning of knowledge, can only be seen as essential to break out of this limitation. It’s about fighting like the dickens to maintain an openness, especially towards well meaning individuals with whom we disagree. Believing what we believe is not the issue. We all need to do that. We must also remain open.
 
As Higgins says:
“Open-mindedness in turn appears first as a sort of aesthetic sensitivity, a capacity to perceive the uniqueness of a complex, irreducible situation. Then it takes the more familiar forms of humility and impartiality. Finally, it seems to represent a type of integrity, a capacity to avow the stranger within and reintegrate the self.”
(from his essay “Openesss in Three Dimensions)
 
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Layers

Art matters, Connections, Philosophy with a tan

 

I am building layers in my studio. My recent efforts in surface design involve pattern creation using stencils that I cut in acetate which are then used to print color onto fabric. I rotate the stencil (in this case a loose grid of rhomboids) and repeat the printing process with a second contrasting color. I use translucent dyes which when layered create a third color. In this case I started with a bright red-magenta and overlaid a muted blue. A lovely purple happened where the colors overlaid. 
 
In thinking about mental patterns and the benefits that arrive by allowing for the possibility of changing them, I recognized this artistic exercise as illustrating this process. The third color that appeared, the purple, was not possible without first creating one pattern and then starting completely over with another. The color also wouldn’t appear as visually striking if the colors weren’t profoundly divergent (red and blue).
 
Our patterns of thought have a certain beauty. They can be regular and uniformly pleasing. But a much more powerful and interesting thing happens when two opposing patterns interact. These interference patterns bring us a new level of understanding. They tease out something new that wasn’t in each pattern individually. Something emerged from the interaction. The overlayed patterns form points where they conjoin to make new information.
 
 
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Surprise!

Nature nurtures, Philosophy with a tan
I look out my window this morning and see the bare tree branches quivering in a slight breeze. A bird’s shadow breaks across and then the bird itself appears. Within that brief moment of awareness my brain informed me of something irregular to the pattern (the shadow) which allowed my perception to anticipate what followed; the sighting the bird itself, then quickly incorporating that feathered creature into my visual field. If I wasn’t open to it I wouldn’t realize that a surprise happened. Typically, because of the stretch of time I have spent on this planet, I would just automatically build it into my pre-organized familiarity. It would just “sort of happen” and I would move on the more important stuff. As if that event itself wasn’t really important. This morning that bird really happened.
 
 We lose the ability to be surprised as we age. And that’s not too surprising either. The long march of accumulated experience falls into pattern and becomes apparently predictable as time passes. Even novel interjections are de-mystified and flattened by this expectation of the ordinary.
 
 
Maybe this ability to be surprised is worth reconsidering. Maybe over time our natural astonishment about life needs to be augmented by a self-generated one. It seems that’s why bird watching is so engrossing. We allow ourselves an opportunity to set aside the knowledge that this is all familiar and open up to a different sense: All is Unexpected! Part of birding is seeing that rare bird of course. But in every bird-walk our joy in fulfilled when the stillness of the woods becomes animated. But first we must be open. Just because we opened our eyes by separating our eyelids doesn’t mean our eyes are open.
 
Assessment and categorization are automatic habits in us that proceed from surprise. We both desire surprise and also dispense with it as quickly as possible. Something strange is going on. When we get in “naturing mode” by heading out to the woods, by quieting ourselves, by letting our eyes dilate slightly, we beg for surprise. But just as quickly as it happens, as the bird finally appears, we change into the organizer of experience, we say “That’s a House Finch.” Because not to do this would be not to close the circle. But to close a circle is not to end our path around it. I’ve started thinking of this circle as the circle of effort and awe.
 
There are two goals in experience; to gain understanding through effort and to increase our awareness through awe. The trick is to keep our brain ready to move. Proceeding all too quickly from surprise into analysis is just the way we are wired. Survival relies on bringing the unexpected into comprehension, mainly to evaluate threat or to recognize possible reward.
 
Moving the other way takes practice. Disengaging ourselves from the identifying labels that we paste on experience, realizing that we have only managed to brush up against a small part of the surface of what we can know about something, turns us back towards awe. With practice we can remember the limitations that our categorizations impose. The sense of novelty is dependent on us as much as on fresh sensation. The deeper investigation of life relies on reanimating this cycle of wonder.
 
 

 

 

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Guiding Us To a New Future

Politics as unusual

After suffering repeated school shootings we have arrived at a point where the students themselves have taken the lead. They are showing how it’s done. They are confronting their elders with their impotency. They know the score. The adults are too scared, or too complacent, or just too burnt out to do anything about it. The future belongs to those with vision and energy. The future belongs to those who are oblivious to the fact that it can’t be done.

Our state governor (Bevin) gets a mike in front of him and makes his case for how this is a cultural problem, not a gun problem. He wants to isolate guns away from any discussion of the problem and shift the focus to the influence of video games, movies and music. In his view these influences are the major culprits. He has his personal reasons for doing that I’m sure. But his political reasons are also transparent. He says we wouldn’t have these impressionable youths gunning down their peers if they weren’t crucially swayed by the entertainment industry (hint: full of elite liberals). The breakdown in family structure and the general lack of moral tone gets the hammer next (hint #2: Godless liberalism causes that too). But not guns (hint #3: gun control is political anathema to his party). Because this is not a gun problem. Give him points for not budging from the party line.

But guns are involved here in some manner, right? His general point about cultural issues is valid but by refusing to talk about guns themselves he loses the plot. Yes, it is a culture problem. But no, the main element in that culture problem is not something like a gory video game. I’ll put this in caps here to make this clear: We Have a Gun Culture Problem. The argument “it’s not a gun problem” is the go-to rebuttal. The gun is inanimate. The gun has been with us for many years. Gun are part of our American identity. Guns need to be out there so that guns can be in the hands of the good guys.

Yes to all of that. But here is what his behavioral counter argument is missing: We Have a Gun Culture Problem.

To discuss the cultural issues mentioned above while keeping guns in some bubble of isolation is comforting if you own guns and if your worry is that they will be taken away. But it is also being willfully blind to what America is. We are a gun loving nation. All of the other things including these horrific killings draw their power this basic fact.

We sanction guns. We glorify guns. We worship guns. We fetishize guns.

We allow this pervasive and unquestioned identification with gun culture to win the day. In the face of an apparent pattern of killings in schools, instead of looking at the elements of this pattern; with the same type of weapon, by someone who forms an identity and sense of power through gun culture, because of a lack of community outreach that recognizes inordinate gun fascination, or because he can easily obtain the gun he shouldn’t have due to lack of uniform regulation, we shift the focus away. We minimize the part that guns themselves play in this pattern and compartmentalize them. We say: “It’s not a gun problem.”

As if any aberrant behavior was not bound up with either objects or other living beings. If you have a drinking problem and you say “it’s not the liquor” you have hit on a corner of the truth without exercising true comprehension of the entire dynamic. Let’s try a general equation: Object + Person = Problem. We don’t say “it’s not a liquor problem” to the alcoholic. We tell them that they have a disease and part of the cure is keeping liquor away from their lips. It’s liquor and them, To say it’s not a gun problem is to ignore the entire dynamic. In the case of a would-be criminal it is: Gun + Person = Problem.

The “Person” part of this equation is where all this discussion of societal and family dynamics plays a part. I am not arguing against any of that. By all means, limit exposure to violent media in young people, work to support healthy family and community life, look out for each other, be aware of who is being bullied or ostracized.

But next, let’s take another look at how a love of guns that sometimes resembles a sublimated sexual obsession works in this way to damage society. And not just among criminals but also in the law abiding gun community. How can we allow easy access to guns to the frustrated, isolated, and powerless among us by making an argument that guns should be universally accessible? Because of our blithe attitude towards gun culture, we give our tacit permission to use guns to solve these problems. Our love of guns and our lack of control with this obsession sends the wrong message: “We don’t care, so why should you?” Our blindness to this simple fact leads to tragedy. And it leads inevitably to doubling down with the following logic; when a problem of gun violence inevitably occurs, throw more guns at it (e.g.: arming teachers).

We have reached the insanity of a gun culture without limits. The way to demonstrate that we as a nation can control this problem is to actually exercise control. Over ourselves and over guns.

Until we look deeply into our individual souls, and our soul as a nation, and begin to see gun culture as a pathology (and yes, it is about guns too), one that needs to be examined and rationalized and tamed, we will move along into a future unchanged.

Bless those high school kids. They are guiding us to a new future.

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