Mom Died Recently

(About a 9 minute read)

One night, when I was about eight or ten years old, I woke up towards 11:00 PM and, sensing something was wrong, went looking for mom.  She was not asleep in her bed, but there was a light on in our living room.  I expected her to be awake reading, which she sometimes did.  Yet, when I got to the living room, her favorite chair was empty.  Almost the same moment, however, she came in through the front door.  Naturally, I demanded to know where she’d been.

“I’ll tell you”, she said, “But only if you first promise me that you will not tell anyone where I’ve been.”

I solemnly promised that I would not, for she was using her serious tone of voice with me, the tone she reserved for when she wanted her words to sink in.

“I leased an apartment to a new tenant today, a mother and her five children, and I discovered that she was out of money and without food for herself or her family.  She won’t get paid for a few days yet.  So after work, I went to the store and bought some groceries for them.  Then I waited up until I thought they would all be asleep before delivering the groceries to their doorstep.   I’ve just now returned from doing that, and you must not tell anyone what I’ve told you, not even your friends.”

“But why, mom?”

“Because it could rob them of their pride if it ever got around how poor they are, Paul.  Besides I don’t want them thinking they owe me anything.”

I don’t recall that I entirely understood her reasoning, but I did understand the gravity of my promise, and so I kept her deed a secret even from my two brothers.  Looking back now, I can see how that event Illustrated three of her character traits: Her compassion, her sensitivity to others, and her modesty.

To many people in our community, she was above all else a strong, stoic person, even a bit on the strict side — and while I think there was a great deal of truth to that — I knew her as also caring, compassionate, and considerate.  She was, however, a very private person, very modest about most things, and so somewhat difficult for most people to know.

In fact, I have wondered for some time how much even I and my brothers knew about her.  Some years ago, when she retired, the local newspaper ran a full page article on her accomplishments, positions, and honors.   My brothers and I were astonished to discover that about half of it was news to us.  I would not call mom an “intentionally secretive” person, but there was so much about her that she had simply not thought important enough to mention to us.

For 33 years, she was the CEO of a small housing company at a time and in a community where women were not generally thought to be extraordinarily capable of running a business.  She grew the company eight-fold.   When she took it over, it was in the red.  In relatively short order, she had it in the black, and she kept the company there for 30 consecutive years until her retirement.  Yet, when you spoke with her about it, she would modestly ascribe her success “mainly to luck”.   Mom seemed to feel no need for praise nor recognition.  In fact, she tended to shun it.

Like many people in our hometown, both of my brothers think of mom as an especially strong person.  My younger brother in particular has told me he believes “she was the strongest person he’s ever known”.   A story that’s still told about her in the town concerns a huge, burly contractor who once went ballistic on her, yelling and screaming at her in her own office.

She had employed him to build a six-story apartment building.  One day, she noticed a flaw in the brickwork and ordered him to tear down the wall in order to fix it.  That’s when he lost his temper, threatening her with, “I’ll have your job”.

It was no idle threat.  He was well-established and respected in the community, friends with several of her board members, and she was new to her job.  Moreover, she had three small children to fend for, no husband to fall back on for support (our father having died a few years before), and no prospects for landing a similar job in the local economy if she lost the one she had.  Yet, as the story goes, she didn’t blink.  She stood her ground, calmly presented her case to the board, and in the end, the wall came down and the brickwork was fixed.

I too remember her as a strong person, but even more, I remember her as a stoic person.  In all the time I knew her, I witnessed her crying once, and only once.  If you’re curious, I blogged about that here.  My brothers, on the other hand, never once witnessed her crying.

Only one of us ever witnessed her lose control of her temper, too.   My older brother has a memory of her engaging in a shouting match with a neighbor when he was about five or so.  That’s the only time anyone of us can recall her raising her voice in anger.  Of course, she would get angry at times, but — excepting that once — she kept her anger in check, never lashing out irrationally or unreasonably.

In fact, she could be a bit too stoic, I think.  During the earliest parts of my childhood, she found it difficult to express love or affection.   A friend — a psychologist — noticed that about her, and convinced her to reform herself.  Afterwards, she gradually got much better at it with practice, but I will always remember her very first, very awkward effort to express the love she felt for me.  She shocked me one evening with a hesitant but abrupt pat on the head — after which, she was so embarrassed that she fled into the next room.  Somehow I cherish that memory of her as much as any — it was, after all, part of her character.

Mom was an eminently reasonable person.  There were many times when I thought she was wrong, but there were few, if any, times when I thought she failed to listen to my side of an issue.   Even when as small children we challenged her rules, she would (at least at first) patiently explain her rules and seek to reason us into complying with them.

Only as a last resort would she fall back on, “When you’re old enough to make your own rules, you can make the rules you want, but you will obey this rule because I’ve made it, and I’m your mother, and responsible for you.”  Sometimes we could even reason her into changing a rule — especially as we grew older — and provided that she thought we’d made a good case for ourselves.  Friends of hers often enough remarked that she “spoke to us like adults.”

Mom was in the habit of gently interrupting us whenever we made an error in reasoning. She would then not merely point out the mistake, but also patiently explain to us precisely why it was a mistake. Naturally, as a child, I did not immediately appreciate her guidance in these matters. In fact, I came to think she was a wee bit obsessed. Or, as I once insightfully put it to my best friend, Dennis, “My mom is nuts”.

It wasn’t until I was at university taking an introductory course in logic that my opinion of her sanity began to change. When my class came to the section on informal fallacies, I was astonished to discover I already knew 35 of the 36 most common fallacies of logic – knew them backwards and forwards, and knew them only because mom had drilled them into my head over the years I was growing up. All I had left to do was learn their names.

She was quite reasonable in other ways as well.  I’ve blogged about one of those ways in a funny post here.  She also implemented a policy after we became teens that several parents in our community were inspired to adopt for their own kids.  She told us that if we were out drinking and we even “so much as suspected” that we’d had a bit too much to drive safely, we could call her at anytime, no matter what the hour was, to come get us home — there would be absolutely no repercussions.   She would not, she promised, so much as mention or hint about it the next day.   My brothers and I took her up on her offer more than once or twice, and she was always true to her word.

Mom took religion seriously, so seriously that she believed children were too immature to make any firm decisions about it.  Consequently, she forbade us from deciding whether we believed in God and such until we had, as she put it, “reached the age of reason” — by which she meant at least 18 and, preferably, our early twenties.  She went further than that, though.  She refused to tell us of her own beliefs while we were young on the grounds that we might go along with her just to ape our mother.  Of course, her rules for us about religion scandalized a few people in the county who thought she was hellbent on raising infidels.

She did send us to Sunday school each week, and when we asked “why”, she told us it was “to expose us to our cultural heritage”.   Around the age of eight, I got fed up with Sunday school for some reason that I now forget.  I pleaded with mom to allow me to stay home.

At first, she was adamant that I should continue to go, but then I had a rare stroke of genius.  The thought suddenly occurred to me that mom’s real objection to my staying home was that she cherished having an hour or so by herself without us kids underfoot.  I promptly began fervently promising her that I would be quite well behaved during the “church hour”, exceptionally well-behaved, even silent as a mouse well-behaved.

She held her ground until I blurted out my newfound conviction that what she really wanted was quiet time to herself, and that since I was willing to give that to her, she should give me a chance in return.   That struck her as reasonable, and so I was allowed to stay home on Sundays — on the strict condition that I kept my word.  The very next Sunday, my brothers cut their own deals with her.

In her later years, mom would reminisce with us about the days we were growing up.   What she herself seemed to remember best was the laughter.   One day the four of us were eating in a restaurant when a man approached us to remark that he’d seldom seen a family laugh together as much as we were doing.  And that was pretty typical of us.  Whenever we were together, whether in a restaurant, around our kitchen table, at friend’s homes, or in our car, we were often enough laughing.

Unfortunately, most of the jokes were of the sort that would take some explanation, for we seldom recounted jokes we’d heard, no matter how funny they were.  Instead, we made things up on the spur of a moment — and our family tended to see humor in nearly anything.  My mother, for all of her stoicism, never had a problem with laughing, and she especially appreciated self-deprecating humor and genuine wit.

She drew the line, however, at malicious laughter.  She simply did not believe in making fun of others if doing so risked wounding them.

The newspaper article published upon her retirement mentioned, among other things, that she had served on the boards of one university, one college, two poet’s societies, an historical society, a zoning and planning commission, and a welfare advisory council.

Much of that was news to us.  At her visitation, my brothers and I were still finding out things about her from the guests.  In some ways, I think I knew her well, but in other ways, I believe she will always remain a bit of a mystery to me.

She died peacefully, August 22, at the age of 99.  We buried her the 2nd of September.

Something quite unplanned happened after the graveside service. We were each of us holding a red rose, quietly conversing, when one of my young nephews approached the grave, stood silent for a few moments, and then dropped his rose onto her vault, which had already been lowered into the ground.

One by one, the rest of us followed his example, without a word of direction from anyone, until we had all said our silent goodbyes.

Late Night Thoughts: Ice Cream, Reasoning, Robots, Wisdom, and More

(About a 6 minute read) 

The other day I woke up feeling pretty much under the weather.  I stumbled onto my blog bleary-eyed and somehow deleted a whole post while trying to fix a mistake in grammar.  After that, I spilled half a pound of coffee beans on the floor while getting almost not a one of them into my grinder.  Not yet recognizing that it wasn’t my day, I wrote 500 words for a blog post before realizing I wasn’t making any sense even by my lax standards.  This time the delete was intentional.  A sane man would have gone back to bed at that point.  Naturally, I didn’t.

Instead, I somehow got it into my head to catch up on what’s going on in politics.  I was still catatonic when the paramedics found me two days later After reading three or four articles the thought occurred to me that any sensible and informed person these days must feel a whole lot like I felt that morning: Our hopes and intentions are so far out of line with the bizarre reality of the times.  It almost seems as if the feeling, “This isn’t my day”, has become expanded to include most of the world.

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It is sometimes said that a difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are more concerned with humanity than they are with individuals, while conservatives are more concerned with individuals than they are with humanity.  As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov,  “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.

It seems to me that — regardless of whether one is a liberal or a conservative — those two extremes are both inadequate in and of themselves.  The liberal position leads to treating the people one knows like dogs, the conservative position leads to treating the people one doesn’t know like dogs.

Now, the older I get the more I expect to find such “twists” in life.  That is, I have come to largely agree with Immanuel Kant:  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

What could our human nature not accomplish if our human nature did not stand in our way?

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I recently came across an article stating that eating ice cream for breakfast improves brain performance.  I immediately began dancing around my cottage for half an hour in gratitude to whatever deity or deities had arranged the world such than eating ice cream could be thought of as a duty.

Even since, I have been eating ice cream for breakfast, but alas!  With no discernible results.

Still, this is not something to be lightly dismissed.  One has a duty, you know.  I must redouble my efforts.  Obviously, the problem is I have not been eating enough ice cream to see any results yet.  Obviously.

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I think it was W. Edwards Deming who used to begin his graduate seminars with an experiment.  He would place a large glass jar full of marbles in front of the class, which typically numbered about thirty students.  Then he would ask the students to guess how many marbles were in the jar.

Their individual answers were typically wildly off the mark — either way too high, or way too low.  And yet — consistently in class after class — when their answers were averaged, the result was within 5% of the actual number of marbles.   As a group, the students were always more accurate than most of them were as individuals.

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It seems to me quite possible that how people reason might be almost as subject to fashion as how people dress.

The rules for what constitutes good reasoning might not change much, but certainly what constitutes “acceptable” reasoning can change quite a bit.   By “acceptable” I mean what a majority — or at least a large minority — of us think is good reasoning.

I suspect many of us don’t learn how to reason from a competent instructor so much as from media figures such as talk show hosts and their often questionable guests.  Even advertisements teach a form of reasoning.  It might not often be a sound form of reasoning, but it’s a form nonetheless.  It would make an interesting study to see if the popularity of certain kinds of arguments changed from one decade to the next.

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It seems possible that robots will at some point become sophisticated enough that someone will start making “lovebots”.  That is, artificial lovers.   At which point one wonders when sex education classes will become as hands-on as instruction in tennis or driving?

I have no idea whether such a thing will become commonplace in public education, but I can certainly foresee special academies for it — private schools that use robots to teach love making.

Then again, I think it’s only a matter of time before genetics advances to the point that we have pets with glow in the dark fur.  I am, quite obviously, bonkers.

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Is chocolate also good brain food?  Might be.   Better eat some just to be on the safe side.  Is duty.

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According to Barry Lopez, the Inuit word for “wise person” literally translates as, “one who makes wisdom visible [through their behavior]”.   If we in the West had a corresponding translation for “wise person” it would doubtlessly be something along the lines of, “one who speaks wisely”, for we typically assume that someone who says wise things is actually wise.

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Often enough, great intelligence, or great wisdom, is shown less by what someone says or does than by what they do not say or do.

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An inability to laugh at oneself can be as creepy as showing up in a clown costume at a funeral.

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We so often blame our emotions for the bad behavior of our psychological self.  We say, for instance, that our anger at Smith got out of hand.  But before there was our anger, there was our ego’s perception that Smith slighted us.   Without that perception, we would not have been angry at Smith in the first place.

Personality and Prediction

(About a 3 minute read)

Around 2500 years ago, the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers conceived the notion that nature operates in a law-like and impersonal manner.   As it turns out, that’s a rather interesting notion.

Consider, for example, the well-known tendency of thongs to ride up a person’s butt.  Today, we quite easily assume a thong will do that because of impersonal properties and forces.  We do not ascribe the action to the wicked will and personality of thongs — except perhaps in jest.  But the fact we think thongs ride up butts because of the laws of nature — and not because they most wickedly want or desire to ride up butts — is a legacy of the Pre-Socratics.  It was they who pointed out that nature is impersonal and obeys laws.

Modern science rests on that notion (and a hundred other notions).   If we did not today think nature operates in a law-like and impersonal manner, it would be impossible for us to do science.

But why hasn’t it always occurred to us that nature is law-like and impersonal?  Why did that particular truth need to be discovered by the Pre-Socratics?  Why wasn’t it always known?

Allow me to suggest that it wasn’t always known because for most of our evolutionary history, we have thought of nature as personal.  Not as law-like and impersonal.  But as personal.

It appears that thinking of things as having a personality is a way in which the human mind predicts what those things will do.  Indeed, it may be our oldest and most traditional way of predicting the future.

When I think that my neighbor is currently cheerful, I have not yet ascribed to him a personality.  But when I think that my neighbor is characteristically cheerful, when I think he is more likely to be cheerful than not, then I have ascribed to him a personality.   To think of someone as having a personality is to predict, to some extent, their future behavior.

It is easy enough to see why an ability to think of people as persons — as having personalities — would be advantageous to survival.  All else being equal, the better you can predict someone’s behavior, the better you can deal with them.   Yet, humans are not merely capable of seeing other humans as having personalities.  Indeed, we are capable of seeing almost anything as having a personality.

You can see this tendency of ours to personify things even today — even 2500 years after the Pre-Socratic philosophers told us nature does not have personalities, but is instead impersonal. It is quite common for people to think of their car or their computer as having a personality.  Or the weather.   It’s possible that many of us live with one foot in an ancient world where natural things have personalities and with one foot in a somewhat more modern world where natural things are impersonal.

So perhaps it took us so long to invent or discover the notion that nature is law-like and impersonal because our species has traditionally thought of things as having personalities.  If that’s true, then it would not seem intuitive to us to think of nature as law-like and impersonal.

At any rate, just an afternoon thought.


Originally published September 24, 2009.

Diane

(About a 7 minute read)

Diane had a wicked sense of humor.  Usually, she didn’t repeat jokes she had heard, but rather made them up on the spot.  But besides being creative, she was quite level-headed and down to earth.

She was the evening manager of a fast food restaurant.  After we’d gotten to know each other, I took to staying late in my office so I could drop by her restaurant around seven or eight o’clock on the nights she worked.  We’d sit together in the dining room for two or three hours until the restaurant closed.

Diane had the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen on anyone, a pretty good figure for someone who’d had two children, and dirty blond hair.  Her facial features included high cheekbones and an angular chin.  I think Diane’s most beautiful feature after her eyes was her grin. It was wide and generous.

Our conversations were rarely serious, or at least not wholly serious.  Once, Diane soberly mentioned she’d been raised in a nondenominational Christian church before becoming an agnostic around the age of 18 or so.  Somehow that quickly led to a flood of jokes about preaching.  Yet, there were almost always truths wrapped within the jokes — insights into each other’s lives, views, and values.

One of the very few times when we discussed something that neither one of us laughed at occurred about a year after we’d met.  As usual we were sitting in the restaurant when, for some reason I’ll never know, Diane’s mood abruptly changed.  “There’s something I want to tell you, Paul, but it has to be a secret between us.”

“Sure”, I said a bit too casually.

“No a real secret.  You can’t tell anyone.”

“I promise”, I said, becoming attentive.  After searching my face, Diane glanced away, as if gathering her thoughts.

“When I was seven years old, Paul, someone in my family taught me to give him blowjobs.  He’d pay me a quarter.  I’m not sure why, but I want you to know that about me.”

“God!  I mean…God!”  I was too shocked to say more at the moment.  “What…Who was it?” I finally asked.

“I don’t want to tell you who”, she spoke calmly,  “But it messed with me.  When I started having sex, I couldn’t at first take pleasure in it.  I thought I was fridged.  It took me a long time to learn how to enjoy it.”   Diane went on to describe how she’d overcome her initial inability to take pleasure in sex.  As she spoke, I became aware of the emphasis she was placing on her success at healing herself, and the almost casual way she now seemed to all but dismiss the early abuse of her.

“Diane…”  I paused, searching for the right words.  “A handful of women have told me about being abused as children, but I think you’re the only one I know who has gone so far in overcoming the problems it caused them.”  Diane thanked me for my understanding, and for the first time since she had begun her story, she smiled.  “It’s been quite a journey, Paul.”  Her smile, I realized, was one of victory.

Our evenings together lasted about two years.  During that time I came to regard Diane as my best friend in the city.  I wondered if she felt the same about me.  One night I decided to test her interest by suggesting we go to a movie that weekend.  She enthusiastically agreed.

When Saturday night came, however, she was late showing up at my apartment, where we’d arranged to meet.  A couple hours went by, and then another.  Finally, she called.  She was on her way, and would be there in 30 minutes.  Yet, by the time she arrived, it was too late to go to a movie, so we sat on opposite ends of my couch making small talk.

At some point during the evening, I decided on an impulse that it would be a wonderfully good idea to tongue her ear, so I casually crossed over to her end of the couch, and proceeded to do just that.  As it happened that was indeed a wonderfully good idea because her ears were among her erogenous zones, and she was quickly overcome with pleasure, which I thought was yet another wonderfully good idea.

We then spent the next six or so hours walloping each other with pleasure in every way we could imagine to do so.  Afterwards, she fell asleep in my arms for about an hour and a half until I had to wake her up, for she was pulling a double shift that day by working both the day and the night shifts.

Late in the evening of the day after our love-making, I drove over to her restaurant, parked my car, walked up to the door of the restaurant, and observed Diane behind the counter talking to a co-worker while grinning ear to ear and laughing uproariously.

It was the last time I would hear her laughter for several months.

The moment she caught sight of me, the happiness in her face popped out of existence almost as fast as it takes to snap your fingers. It was replaced by an expression of pure worry, and she placed her hand over her stomach as if something felt wrong with it.

I think I might have turned to look behind me to discover what had caused the change in her expression, because I couldn’t imagine it would be me, but I can’t entirely recall now whether or not I did.   At any rate, when we spoke to each other, she quickly asked me to go back to my car and wait for her.  I did.

It was a long wait.  Naturally, I had no clue what it all meant.  And I was pretty anxious when she at last came up to my car to kneel beside it and speak to me through the open window.

“I’m sorry I made you wait so long, but I was hoping you would leave so I wouldn’t need to speak to you.  Please, Paul, forgive me for being a coward.”

Leave?  Forgive? Coward?  I didn’t understand a word she said.

She went on, “All day today, I was happy.  I didn’t think about last night even once, but then I saw you and my stomach instantly dropped to my feet.  I’ve never felt it sink that fast and low before in my life.   That’s how I learned something was wrong, very wrong about what we did last night.”

I couldn’t believe what I was now hearing.  I stumbled out some question about whether last night’s sex had been that bad.

“No”, she said, “Honestly, Paul, that was some of the best sex of my life.”

I was now totally lost.  Some of the best sex of her life?  The worse sinking feeling she’d could remember having?  Nothing in what she said was aligning well enough to make sense, but it was just dawning on me that she was in the process of dumping me.

“You made me feel like a slut, Paul.”  She didn’t say it accusingly, but she said it with sad conviction.  “That was our first date and we should not have had sex.  We should have waited.  I can’t live with being reminded that I’m a slut, and you remind me of that.  That’s got to be the reason my stomach fell when I saw you.  It has to be.  I have never felt so guilty and ashamed in my life.”

Now to put all of the above in context, this was the first completely irrational thing I’d heard from Diane.  It wasn’t like her to run around with a tin foil hat on and a club for beating off alien abductors.  She was in my experience, always a reasonable person right up until that night.

I was so surprised I could think of nothing to say besides, “What do you want me to do?”

“Please leave. Please go home.  And please don’t come back unless I call you back. I think the best way I can get over it is alone.”

I drove off that night without having said a thing to change her mind.  I was so shocked I couldn’t think of anything that might persuade her she was being unreasonable, let alone persuade her to relent.

We didn’t see each other again for several months, but we eventually got together again a few times — albeit never sexually.  I was unsure of her now — too unsure to want sex with her.  But I wasn’t angry with her, and I bore no grudge against her.  Diane’s irrational behavior had been incomprehensible to me,  and — instead of resenting her dumping me — I came to feel a bit sorry for her.  Whatever had provoked her behavior was a mystery to me, but she was above all a friend — I was unwilling to condemn her for it.

I am still not entirely certain what her rejection was all about, but in the intervening decades I’ve come to know a great deal more about the likely long term effects of childhood sexual abuse.  Although I will never really know, it seems plausible to me now that the abuse of her lay behind her behavior towards me.  One thing I do know:  The victims of child abuse do not merely include the children themselves, but everyone who will ever love those children at any point in their lives — from childhood through old age — so long as any fallout from the abuse still remains.

It’s been decades since I last saw Diane, and I imagine, having known her, that she has worked out over time all or almost all of the problems the abuse of her caused.  She seems to have had a genius for that.  But I cannot imagine she’s paid anything but a heavy price, no matter how successful she’s been in the end.

Late Night Thoughts: Richard Feynman, Flirting, Contrary People, Big Ideas, and More

(About a 13 minute read)

To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.

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Some years ago, if I heard a pounding on my door around 11:30 on a full moon night, I could reliably guess it was Suzanne come by to demand that we go for a midnight hike in the mountains.   I always went for — after all — how often do you get to risk becoming a mountain lion’s next meal?  Besides, the mountains are magic at night.

Suzanne was, and still is, highly intelligent, creative, beautiful, and resilient.  At the time we were taking midnight hikes, however, she was also largely dysfunctional due to an untreated bipolar disorder.  That kept me from developing a genuine emotional intimacy with her, for it’s difficult to feel genuinely intimate with someone who — for whatever reason — is wrapped up in themselves.  Nevertheless, we did pretty good as casual friends.

One crisp night, we set out for a trail head, but when we got there, a noisy group of about seven or eight people were setting off down the trail, so we decided to drive on.  That eventually landed us on a dirt road high up in the mountains.  Since it was about two or three in the morning, and no one was likely to be traveling that narrow road but us, we parked the car in the middle of the road, put the top down, and threw a blanket over us in order to stargaze.

The moon soon enough went down behind the mountains.  The sky blazed with what seemed like five thousand stars, and Suzanne and I fell into silence.  After 45 minutes or an hour, Suzanne spoke.  “Why do I have to be in love with Jeff?”

“I don’t know.  Have you figured that out?”

“Not yet.  I just don’t understand why I get along with you better than I get along him, but I’m in love with him.”  After a moment, she went on,  “I love you too, of course; just not in the same way.”

Jeff was Suzanne’s boyfriend.  Like Suzanne, he was highly intelligent.  He was also abusive.  Whenever we were together, Suzanne would sooner or later start talking about him.   Usually, she spoke of his most recent outrages.

I knew, by that time in my life, that criticizing someone’s partner — even someone’s abusive partner — would most likely achieve nothing more than cause them to rally to the defense of their partner, so I carefully avoided giving Suzanne any hint of how profoundly I loathed Jeff for his abuse of her.   “That does seem strange”, I said as evenly as I could, “I mean that you get along with me better than him.”

“I do love him.”  She turned to look at me.

“Is he good for you?” I replied, looking at her and trying my hardest not to make my question sound like a challenge.  I thought that, if only she would ask that question, sincerely ask that question….

“But I love him!”  She protested.  “That’s got to count for something, right?”  She’d done exactly what I feared: Taken my question for a challenge, rather than genuinely think about whether he was any good for her.

Suzanne was twenty years younger than me.  She had yet to learn the difference between genuinely loving someone and merely being emotionally dependent on them.   Nor was there anyway I could have explained those things to her that night.  Although she never would have expressed it this way,  on some level, Suzanne believed the world was fair and just, and that Jeff had to sooner or later come around if for no other reason than she loved him so much.

In time, Suzanne came to her senses and dumped Jeff.

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Today, May 11, is the anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth.  He was born 1918 and died 1988.  Probably, I think, not only one of the greatest physicists of the 20th Century, but also one of wisest people of that century.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.  — Feynman

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I think Sarah was fifteen when I met her.  She and I were both regular customers at the coffee shop and we often enough sat together at the sidewalk tables.  Sarah was one of a small handful of girls who would keep me company even when I was not sitting with any handsome boys their own age.  She also struck me as generally cheerful, optimistic, and sensible.  The sort of level-headed, but occasionally mischievous, young person who gives you hope for the future.

One sunny morning,  about a year after Sarah and I first met,  I was sitting by myself when I happened to glance down the street towards the local high school.  About two blocks away, a woman was walking towards the shop, and though I couldn’t make out her face at that distance, there was something in the way she walked that made me recognize it was Sarah.  I think it might also have been the style of skirt she wore, for Sarah favored long, flowing skirts with a certain kind of print — almost paisley.

As I had guessed, it indeed turned out to be her.

When she arrived, she came straight to my table, and we were soon discussing her jewelry for no other reason than to pass the time of day.   “I have the worse luck, Paul.  Every piece I own has lost its partner.  This ring — see the naked man?   This silver ring had a naked woman that went with it.  That way you could divide the ring into two pieces, and give one piece to your lover.   But I lost the woman.  An ex of mine wouldn’t give it back when we broke up.”

“And you see the man in the moon in my earring? I used to have another earring just like it, but I somewhere lost it.”  She grinned.  “Now I have the moon in one ear, and a dragon in the other.”  She turned her head one way and then the other to show me.

We went on like that for an hour or two it seemed: Simply enjoying the sunny, but cool weather.  Eventually, she had to go back to school, for though her high school had an open campus policy, she was of course expected to attend classes if they were not study halls.

A few weeks later, Sarah and I were again at the coffee shop together.  At some point in our conversation, she decided to draw a dragon for me.  She explained as she was drawing it, that she had practiced and practiced drawing the dragon until she could almost draw it blindfolded.

“Ah! Well executed!  I know you like dragons.”  I remembered her earring.

“Oh yes!  Did I tell you about my dragon lamp?  I have a lamp that a candle fits inside.  When you burn the candle, it casts dragon shadows on the walls.  I love it! I use it as a night light.”

It all came together for me one evening a few months after that.  Sarah and I were once again at the coffee shop, but this time it was towards dusk.  Another man had joined us  — a guy about my age, which was twenty-five or so years older than Sarah.   He and Sarah were flirting with each other, which rather more bored me than anything else.  I became absorbed in watching the sunset.

Presently, the man left to go home, or go to his job, I don’t quite recall which now.  Sarah soon turned to me, “I love flirting with older men”, she said.  “I know I won’t let it go anywhere.  The age difference makes that impossible.  But you can learn so much!  Should I be ashamed of myself, Paul?”

I don’t remember now exactly what I said to her, but she responded by almost pouting — a very unusual expression for her — and then playfully suggesting that I was a public killjoy for refusing to flirt with people, especially with her.  That so surprised me that I felt I needed to make amends!  Hence, within a few days, I composed a simple poem just for Sarah.

She’s a woman in the grace of sixteen summers
With skirts flowing in the morning sun
And she speaks of the silver man ringed naked
A dancer who dances alone
For her jewels have all lost their partners
But the moon still laughs in one ear
And she sleeps in the shadow of dragons
With a heart uncorrupted by fear

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Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.  ― Richard Feynman

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Some “religious” people are just contrary.  They profess to be Hindus or Christians, Muslims or Jews, Buddhists or Taoists, but their real religion is simply to find fault with other people.

God, enlightenment, the Tao are to them little more than concepts that they imagine give them ultimate permission to condemn folks, to dehumanize them.  “I speak for God”, they imply.  “I speak for the Tao.”  Such strange people: Always hiding behind some pillar like “God”, peeking out only to snarl!

But such people are not confined to religions.

No, you find them in the lunatic fringes of every political and social movement, every ideology — including the better ones.  What sort of person makes it their life to condemn others?  What sort of person lives for it?

It is part of the comedy of our species that we often give them the time of day.

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The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.  ― Richard Feynman

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To me, the ultimate goal in life is neither meaning nor happiness, but to be as true to yourself as you can be in a socially and environmentally responsible way.   The way I see it, if you shoot for that, then you’ll find what meaning and happiness there is for you in life, like icing on the cake.  But I don’t see how living falsely can bring about either meaning or happiness.  Of course, all I really know is that it works for me.

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I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.   ― Richard Feynman

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Top 40 Lovers

I listen to the radio play those old two songs:
“How I love him more than life itself” and “How she did me wrong”.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple lover
If the goal’s a cosmic truth.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple friend
If we’re lawyers in the end.

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Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

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I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.  ― Richard Feynman

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“Hullo?”

“Don, this is Paul.  We’re rich!”

“We’re what?”

“Rich, Don, we’re richer than our wildest dreams!”

“Are you kidding me?  What happened?  Did you win the lottery?”

“Lottery?  You can’t depend on lotteries, Don.  This is so much better than a lottery.  This is Big!  Huge!  I’ve had an idea, Don.  An idea!”

“Paul, I have always believed you are capable of having good ideas.  Which is why I am still patiently waiting after all these years for you to actually have one.  But if this is like that last ‘good idea’…”.

“Don’t worry, Don, this one can’t miss.  It’s huge!  What is the number one complaint people have about foods, Don?  The number one complaint?”

“Paul, where is this leading?”

“Don, I’ve been researching this, and nine times out of ten, when people complain about food, it’s because they don’t like the taste.  It’s a scientific fact, Don.  Nine times out of ten!”

“So what?”

“Six words, Don, six words:  Spray-cans filled with liquid nitrogen!  Zap that awful taste right out of your mouth!  Instantly!  Never worry about a bad tasting meal again!

“Don we are going to get rich here!  We are going to get so rich!  I’ve already called some architects, asked for designs on our office building.  Are you excited, Don?

“Don?  Damnit, Don!  You’re a going to have to get a new phone.  Yours keeps dying on me!”

“The Point of Most Religions is the Betterment of Mankind”

(About a four minute read)

“The point of most religions is the betterment of mankind.”  — Posted on an internet religious forum.

A dear friend of mine is a kind, sweet lady who, with her husband, belongs to a fundamentalist church in the Midwestern county I grew up in. Her church means everything to her.

Besides that she’s retired now and spends most of her time doing one thing or another for her church community, her church community presents to her a sort of oasis of love, charity, kindness, compassion, and all around goodness in an otherwise rather disturbing larger world whose values are often alien to hers.

I suspect she would largely agree with the above quote. From where she’s at, the quote must make a lot of sense. She only needs to look at the way her church community took up a collection for the family whose breadwinners were out of work, or the way her pastor visits and comforts the sick, or how most of her church buddies believe in the ideal of treating each other with loving kindness — she only needs to look at those things to agree the point of her religion is the betterment of mankind.

Of course, her church is officially a busybody that’s intolerant of premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and many other private things it has no real business being intolerant of. Its pastor is also a staunch supporter of neocons in general, Bush and Cheney in particular, the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, and his side in the so called “Culture Wars”. And many of the people in her church community are bigoted, narrow-minded folk who would never vote for a Black, a Muslim, or a woman to be president. So, to an outsider, her church might appear anything but an oasis of love, charity, kindness, compassion, and all around goodness — let alone dedicated to the betterment of mankind.

Yet, how is she expected to stand back from her church community — which occupies her days and means nearly everything to her — and clearly see the moral ugliness of people who reserve their best “Christian” behavior for insiders just like themselves, while damning and condemning every outsider from scientists to liberals and beyond?

She would much rather help her elderly neighbor get out and about, or bake something to raise money for a needy family, than to consider her pastor’s outrageous notion that homosexuals undermine and destroy the sanctity of her marriage.

I recall a young fundamentalist here in town a while back who I overheard blithely telling her friend that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor”, he meant love those who belong to your church.

She was certain she was thereby realizing the highest Christian principle of universal love — because, after all, most of the people who belonged to her church were strangers to her, and hence her love for them was “altruistic”.

Yet, even the Bible says there is nothing remarkable about loving only those who are members of our own group.

Humans evolved as a social animal living in small groups. Most of us need little prompting to treat the members of our group with respect, compassion, kindness — even love. After all, we evolved to do that. It’s to a large extent instinctual. We’re almost always ready to “better mankind” so long as “mankind” is the group of people we hang out with.

On the other hand, there are very few Gandhis, very few Martin Luther Kings, very few people like Jesus — very few people who somehow realize in practice the notion the whole world should be treated with kindness, compassion, respect, and love. To most of us, such a notion is “wild”, suspect, perhaps even immoral.

Today, the world — the entire world — is involved in a grand experiment. An experiment to see whether we can all get along together in dignity, freedom, peace and sustainable prosperity. No one seems to have wanted that extraordinarily daring and risky experiment, but it’s now imposed upon all of us nonetheless.

So, what’s going to be the outcome? Will the world descend into endless wars as some think likely? Will it sink into corporate fascism as some others think likely? Will it be the birth of a new golden age for humanity — as very few seem to think likely? Or will something else happen?

More to the point, just what is going to be the role of the world’s religions in bringing about the “New World Order” — whatever that Order actually turns out to be? Are religions going to finally live up to their own professed ideals of universal compassion, kindness, charity, love, generosity, etc.? Will they ever, really, make “the betterment of mankind” their honest “point”?

Frankly, I strongly suspect that any sustained progress towards a world in which most people live in dignity, freedom, peace and sustainable prosperity will ultimately come — not from religions for the most part — but from Humanism. If such progress comes at all.


Originally published on this blog January 15, 2008.  Lightly edited May 6, 2017 to better reflect my current views.

And Though We Love Imperfectly

(About a 3 minute read)

And Though We Love Imperfectly

It was passing strange how we met:
She handed me a cigarette,
Then apologized for her ignorance
Of our ways and manners
Before declaring herself a spy
From a constellation in the sky
And could I spend the time of day
Revealing all to be revealed,
Leaving nothing significant concealed,
Of our species’ secrets:
“What makes us different?”

Well, I thought her quite insane,
But I admired her cheerful countenance.
And her pink hair, brown skirt,
Yellow shirt, and red socks
Made me sense she could not be bought,
So I thought her perhaps true to herself,
And vowed to humor her a bit
While the sun sat down from the sky
And the moon rose to sing to the stars.

Leaning to her ear I said,
“It is our species’ curse
That we often destroy ourselves
For our minds run far before us,
But our wisdom lags far behind,
For our hands fashion weapons
That our commonsense does not confine,
For our hopes create mirages
That our desires believe are real,
For our leaders practice falsehoods
And from the people steal.

After that we sat a while in silence,
Human and alien side by side.
“That my friend”, she said at last,
“Leaves me tasting dust.
I believe you’ve spoken truly
But I wish you hadn’t those facts to state,
For your words reveal so cruelly
The insanity that is your fate.
No other kind among the stars
Shares this burden of yours
Nor carries on its wandering road
So heavy a tragic sadness.
Is there nothing your species claims to possess
That redeems you from your madness?”

“We love”, I said, “bright and brief
As fireflies flickering in the dusk,
Luminous as the moon
Shining on a meadow path,
Passionately as a lightning storm
Crashing on a mountainside,
And sometimes as stubbornly as a weed
Rising amidst concrete,
And though we love imperfectly,
Our love is quite as beautiful
As the sun dancing on bright waters,
For that love has the power to affirm
Even our tragic lives,
And that love has the power to gift
Us with the magic of rebirth.
So don’t think that you must mourn
Our tragic insanity
At least not until you have loved —
Loved as wild and free.”

With that she said, “I thank you friend,
Your species is both cursed and blessed.
If you someday grow to reach the stars,
You’ll find you’re not like all the rest.
For like your rising weed,
Something in you pokes through the cracks
And you, O human, have a greatness
That all the others lack.