Normal, anyone?

These days, it’s impossible not to daydream of “getting back to normal,” though it gets complicated the moment you try to figure out what that means. Much of “normal American life” led to our current messes, and some of the least desirable normal things, like mass shootings, have been the first to return to our not-yet, post-pandemic world.

I am profoundly fortunate, with a reclusive temperament and a living situation that allowed me to weather 2020 safely, with a fair amount of residual sanity. Even so, yesterday, I discovered how much I miss some normal things. Mary and I left for an errand near downtown, with nothing more than a piece of toast, so by 10:30, when we were done, we were more than a little ravenous. An impulse led us to Lido’s, on Fair Oaks Boulevard, which has always had outdoor dining on the front porch. Several tables were open by then.

We hadn’t been to a restaurant since the second week of March, 2020, so scrambled eggs, country potatoes, a bowl of fruit, and coffee seemed like the finest breakfast I’d ever had. The good spirts of those dining on the porch were contagious. The downside became apparent after breakfast, when I masked up to go indoors to use the restroom – the place was jammed with maskless people, and I could only reflect that the end of the pandemic is in no way assured!

Stupidity is as normal as genius in this country, and I think we’ve become conditioned, especially after the last four years, to pay closer attention to the former. And yet…

In the afternoon, as I sat on the back porch, two hummingbirds joined the bees in circling and darting through through the apple blossoms.

Cheri Huber, a Zen teacher I met years ago, had a favorite saying: “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”

She was right.

Fear in a Handful of Dust

T.S. Eliot, 1934. Public Domain.

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in handful of dust.
— T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” 1922

For me, the phrase, “fear in a handful of dust” signifies that sense of nameless dread that can arise without an immediate cause. Anyone who hasn’t experienced such a sense of impending doom sometime this past year was not paying attention!

The poem from which the line was taken, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste land, is considered one of the most important early 20th century poems, announcing the ascendency of modernism in poetry – there was little appetite for 19th c. romanticism after the First World War. At the same time, as Eliot made clear in extensive notes, he drew heavily on an ancient legend, that of The Holy Grail, a central image in the Arthurian legends, but with roots stretching back to the Bronze Age.

Like Eliot before him, Joseph Campbell wrote extensively of the Waste Land. The legend revolves around Sacred Kingship, where the health of the land and the health of the sovereign are one. Behind the ailing Arthur is the Fischer King, with a wound that will not heal. The land is waste and can only be healed by the recovery of the Holy Grail. (The Masks of God: Creative Mythology).

Quest for the Grail, Creative Commons.

In Christianized tellings the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, but in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the version most quoted by Campbell, the Grail is a stone: “Its name is ‘lapis exiles,’ which is one of the terms applied in alchemy to the philosopher’s stone.” The gifts of the Grail are different for each person, corresponding to their deepest desires.

In Wolfram’s telling, to redeem himself and the land, the Grail seeker must ask the right question: “Whom does the Grail serve?” For all my fascination with the Grail legend over the years, I’ve never been able to understand that question. Until maybe last year.

Sheltering in place, cut off from most ordinary activities, there was plenty of time to reflect. The most important reflection was probably, “What is most important?” What matters most to me? What do you say to fear in a handful of dust, or fear in the darkness when you wake up at 3:00 am during a plague year?

At this moment in time, I’m old enough to say I know. For now. Answers change as we change, but answers may not be the main thing. To redeem the Grail what matters most is asking the right question.

At Year’s End

Winter sun and shadow on the back fence

A week or so ago, at noon, I was sitting on the back porch, gazing at the sky. I was dressed warmly for it was 50 degrees and windy, which is cold if you live in a hot climate. Suddenly – and this made no sense – I heard the distinctive jingle of an ice cream truck. Stephen King came to mind, and I imagined a truck full of killer clowns. It has been that kind of year.

King himself has tweeted that nothing he’s written is as scary as 2020 has been. To be precise, he said nothing he’s written “is as frightening as the current administration,” which is to state more clearly what has made America the epicenter of many of the horrors the world has endured this year.

My father was born exactly 100 years ago, on December 31, 1920. As I sat on the porch this afternoon, on another chilly day, I was thankful that he didn’t live to see this year. Then a pleasant memory came to mind. Continue reading

2020 Notes: Survival of…

On Friday, a few days after the CDC recommended that people avoid Thanksgiving travel, someone tweeted a video clip of a crowded terminal at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. Other tweets have confirmed that this is unfolding in many airports.

On the plus side, everyone was wearing a mask. The ceilings were high and there may well have been good ventilation. One man was using hand sanitizer. I’m sure some had purchased non-refundable tickets even before the current coronavirus spike. Most had probably done so before the CDC announcement. But the virus doesn’t care, and many of these travelers were going to be crowded together in terminals and airplanes for hours.

It struck me that this is truly in an evolutionary moment. As in, survival of the fittest. But what is fitness now, in this situation?

Surviving the first wave had much to do with luck – or karma if you wish. We did ok if we weren’t in a nursing home or on a cruise ship. If we weren’t a New York City bus driver. It helped if we were young and healthy, were not homeless, and didn’t have to work in a meat packing plant. It helped to be distant from the first epicenters while scientists worked out aerosol transmission and our current distance and mask protocols.

But now, a year after the first appearance of the virus, when everyone knows the guidelines, what attributes give us the greatest chance of survival? I’m thinking just of western nations for now, for I don’t know much about the cultural dynamics of places like China or Korea. What are the attributes that will keep us alive?

The first thing that comes to mind is compassion, a concern for others, born, at a minimum, of an understanding that we are all in this together – that no one survives by themselves. We wear  a mask, not just for ourselves but for the grocery worker who stocks the shelves with toilet paper. It’s the opposite of the adolescent, “You’re not the boss of me,” concept of freedom which lies close to the core of the dismal failure of the US effort to contain the virus.

In addition to an open heart, it helps to have an open mind, open to evidence and not locked into concepts, blind beliefs, or dogma. A South Dakota nurse recently lamented that some of her patients have died proclaiming that covid is a hoax.

And finally, despite the teachings of “positive psychology,” there seem to be times when pessimism is an asset. A few years ago, I heard a discussion on NPR, of research, including a study by the American Psychological Association, that pessimists may live longer – if we are worried about our health, we may guard it more carefully. “Two of our hunter-gatherer ancestors are caught in a violent storm, but see a dry cave on a ledge above them,” said the narrator. “One of them says, ‘Oh look, a dry cave!’ The other hunter says, ‘I don’t know…there might be a bear inside.’ Which hunter is more likely to live long enough to pass on his genes?”

I find it interesting that two of the western nations that have best contained covid-19, New Zealand and Iceland, are islands, while Hawaii has consistently been at the top of American states in that regard. According to today’s (Nov. 22) New York Times update, they have again been at the lowest level, of 10 or fewer daily infections per 100,000 people over the last week. There’s no way to prove it, but my hunch is that residents of an island know that they’re all in this together more viscerally than we on the mainland can.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, as the pandemic rages out of control and even our best prepared hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, our public response is irresponsible travel and hoarding toilet paper. Our mythic, “American Exceptionalism” has come to mean exceptionally stupid. I am reminded of the challenge back in the ’60’s as the Vietnam war raged: “America – love it, or leave it.”

It’s easy now to think that leaving, if and when other nations would even have us, is a reasonable survival strategy. And yet that part of me with roots deep in this land, that grew up feeling pride in this nation, can only offer the same response we gave in the ’60’s: “America – change it or lose it.”

The Social Dilemma: A Movie Review.

The Social Dilemma, released on Netflix on September 9, is a comprehensive evaluation of the dark side of social media, by some of the senior engineers who designed the underpinnings of these systems:

What is your history with social media?

I started this blog in the summer of 2010, after attending a seminar presented by the California Writer’s Club. I learned about “clickbait” from the blogger who led the session, who made his living managing eight blogs, and drew 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month. He used Twitter and Facebook to extend the reach of his blogs.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to hustle a profit from blogging, but I did take to social media to further publicize each post. For five years, I used it for little else.That changed in 2015, during the presidential election season and has only accelerated during our nation’s and the world’s accelerating disasters.

When I worked in the tech industry, we constantly had to think in terms of “cost vs. benefit.” By the start of this year, the benefit I received from social media was maybe ten percent – about the percentage of non-political and non-end-is-near posts my newsfeed provides. Continue reading

2020 Notes: This too…

Anam Thubten, a Tibetan meditation master, recently told a story that illustrates the Buddhist concept of “impermanence.” Long ago, a king gathered all the sages in his realm and asked them to tell him something that is always true. After conferring among themselves, the wise men and women returned and in just four words, told the king the one thing that is true in every possible circumstance: “This too shall pass.”

Sometimes that’s good news, but in 2020, it seldom is. This year, everyone has experienced loss and the fear of loss. Significant among the losses in this country is the loss of confidence in our future and in “the American way of life.” In a recent Gallup poll, only 13% of Americans expressed “satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S.”

That many???  I don’t personally know anyone in that 13%, and it’s hard to imagine who they are. Extremely rich? Comatose? Living with wolves? The rest of us may be split over which outcome in November will benefit the nation or destroy the remnants of American greatness, but for most of us, the sense of multiple crises is pervasive.

I’ve long had the sense that the arc of that greatness and its decline extends over many decades, but I’ve not been able to express it or find someone who could until now. I highly recommend an article which appeared on August 6 in Rolling Stone: The Unravelling of America, by Wade Davis. It’s a long article, but worth it.

Davis relates that six weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had captured 90% of the world’s rubber making capacity. To ramp up the war effort, the U.S. government called for a speed limit of 35 mph to extend the life of existing tires, and the nation complied! No one accused the government of overreach. No one complained that their freedom was compromised or suggested that mandating shared sacrifice during a crisis somehow violates the Constitution.

Perhaps that aspiration for greatness was best expressed by John Kennedy, when he said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country  can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That spirit probably started to die when Kennedy did, and Davis reviews, in heart-rending detail, some of the missteps that led us from then until now.

Wade Davis’s article concludes with the observation that when Trump said of the coronavirus, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” he might as well have been speaking of the American Dream…

And yet, to start to imagine solutions to a problem, we must begin by trying to understand what the problem really is. It also helps to remember what the ancient king’s philosophers told him: this too shall pass. 

Anti-vaxxers, mask-slackers, and maybe pessimism is good for you.

Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, 1954

When I was a kid, scientists were a big deal, almost as important in the movies I watched as cowboys. At the Saturday matinees, we learned that when you’re under attack by Godzilla, or the Blob, or space aliens, things always go better when you listen to the people in lab coats. In the world outside, hydrogen bomb drills and the fear of losing “the space race” to Russia, added to the mystique of scientists.

So why is it now, when the world is under far greater threat than it was during the Cold War, that so many people don’t just ignore, but actively denigrate the advice of scientists, and especially medical scientists? It’s not just in America.  Recently, a large crowd marched in Berlin, packed close together and without masks, to protest covid-19 restrictions.

In a twisted way, it was comforting to learn that America isn’t the only land of idiots. It also makes the issue more complex, for the German protestors are clearly not members of the Cult of Trump. One clue is afforded by historical precedents – fear and denial are nothing new in the face of pandemics! Continue reading

2020 Notes: A Truth Teller

If you go online anywhere these days, you see advice on how to reduce stress. Mostly the suggestions are ones I’m familiar with and already try to practice: diet, exercise, sleep, meditation, contact with others by whatever means are possible, and so on.

A few weeks ago I saw a suggestion that keeping a journal reduces stress. I first started a journal when I was a teen and have done so on and off ever since, but it’s no easy task when all of our structures appear so fluid and ephemeral that nothng seems constant from one day to the next. “All the children are insane,” sang Jim Morrison when I was in high school. Nowadays truly insane adult children run the country.

We are inundated with learned essays by people trying to make sense of it all, but even the best analyses are also fluid and ephemeral. Their relevance barely lasts a day.

I often think that if we want truth, we’re better off looking to poets. Think of The Second Coming, which has only increased in relevance in the hundred years since Yeats wrote it.

This morning, Mary showed me, Of the Empire, a 2008 poem by Mary Oliver which also seems more true today than it did a dozen years ago when it was published.

Of the Empire
by Mary Oliver

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Finding a truth teller these days is infinitely precious.