Monday, April 26, 2021

Lawless Complexity

One reason why societies decline—and are then restored to life by revolutions—is lawless complexity. No. I’m not against complexity. But there is a lawful and a lawless variety. What lawless complexity is like is all around us—mostly on cable news. Each one of us, with our organs, muscles, lungs, hearts, circulatory systems—we’re lawful complexity. And woe to us when it stops obeying laws.

By the time the French revolution erupted—and we learned to spell “guillotine”—the country had become paralyzed. One simple example was the salt tax. If you wished to travel, every time you entered a new county you had to buy enough salt to last a lifetime. Nobody had that kind of money if travelling across a region—or paying bribes to avoid the tax. Paralysis. And the salt tax was just one of many such institutional knots that tied France into immobility.

Napoleon came and made order. All such nonsense was wiped from the blackboard. One faith, one law, one king—well, not a king yet. The same process happened in Russia where misgovernment had stopped Russian life in tsarist times.

A hint of what lawless complexity is like before everything stops is shown us daily by the Wall Street Journal. Companies that make things or provide services no longer appear very often on WSJ’s pages. What fills those pages are companies that buy and sell fluctuating moods. The companies are into futures—even if the future’s just tomorrow. They sell what many think will happen. What actually happens no longer matters. Futures, futures. If the future looks rosy that faith will build a Matterhorn of paper values—and they might disappear tomorrow. That mountain will be built even if millions are starving now. Conversely, a grim future might fill a Grand Canyon with losses even if everyone’s otherwise fine.

Revolutions work if lawless complexity stops all motion in a country or a region. But if the entire civilization has grown so complex that nothing moves any longer, the change is more profound and takes centuries to fix. Wait and see. As for us elders, we’ll see—but we won’t wait….

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Blinking Lights

Last night our overhead lamps in the house blinked out for a second or two and then came back on. This repeated with random pauses over ten minutes. Oddly, the plugged-in devices, including the TV, were unaffected.

I went outside to see if perhaps a bobcat had taken a bite into our main wire. No bobcat trail; no great broken branch either. Went downstairs to check the fuses. The fuses were peacefully in  the ON position.

Now this is a minor household hiccup; no harm done… Why then do I bother recounting it? Well, in my current mode of commenting on old age, I want to note that such events, signaling something unexpected (like hassling with workmen on the telephone, etc.), are a major fright if you live in a manner where even the rise and set of  the sun are somewhat traumatic (e.g. signaling dressing and undressing), never mind the moon’s eccentric coming and going—or NOT coming and going. Think I’m kidding? Just you wait!

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Our Physicality

It is odd to say this but true: Through most of life when we are most active physically we least notice that we’re animals; in old age our physicality becomes quite evident…perhaps because our soul is slowly detaching from the body.

Indeed a soul-body unit is characteristic of ordinary human life. That notion too is odd until at some point we realize that what we are is not our bodies. A little later we also realize that we’re our bodies’ prisoners.

In youth we never think it odd that we are clothed; it’s what we see everywhere—people clothed. Pondering life in old age, it’s more obvious that we’re a very peculiar species of ape, a species captured by souls and transformed into a kind of hybrid creature neither animal nor spirit.

One might argue that what in Christianity we call The Fall is precisely this temporary unity between animals and spirits—temporary because it ends. No. We’re not really physical. But until we return from this Eden to the Sky, it will be an issue, initially unnoticed, later rather to the front of attention. I better change my posture—my back, you know…

Friday, April 16, 2021

Weather Report

We’re usually only interested in weather immediately over us—unless we’re travelling today to another location. If so, and we’re driving and it’s winter, we will want to know about the weather along our chosen route. Will there be snow on the way?

A much smaller number, particularly those working in the weather business or have agriculturally sensitive businesses all over the geography, are much more interested in weather patterns on a larger scale and over longer periods—say decades.

The Wall Street Journal’s map shows parts of Canada and the entire United States. We look at it to see how our own area is forecast. Detroit itself is in a green-colored region (meaning colder) and just touching a region to the east which will have showers Buffalo to Boston and reaching down to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  The western regions and the southern range, extending from Vancouver down to Lost Angeles, and from there around the southern border all the way Richmond on the other side, are colored reddish because they’re warmer. No image of the jet stream; not even a hint of how the North Pole or Antarctica are faring.

Probably the smallest number of people is keenly interested in global weather, its patterns, and overall trends. These signal global warming—but global warming will not really touch me today. If it did, and more or less daily, public support of changes in our carbon consumption would be present and growing.

The small picture, the large picture. But I’ve said all that above to make another point. We know as little about global weather trends as we know about historic change. One might liken weather to history. It might “rain” here but not elsewhere. The very few aware of such matters as cyclic history—as presented to us by people like Arnold J. Toynbee (A Study of History), Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West), and Pitirim Sorokin (Social and Cultural Dynamics and, in a shorter version, The Crisis of Our Age)—have the best ideas of history as a system and where today’s history  will carry us sooner or later.

In one’s advanced years it is good to know not only about weather globally and history cyclically but also the ranges of reality well beyond either. Can anybody help me see the weather locally at Heaven’s Gate. I can leave knowing weather in Heaven more generally to a later time.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Refuge Harbor

In my last post I focused on Yves Paret, who died on the day of his wife’s, Madeleine’s, funeral. Madeleine was buried; Yves was cremated. Such choices of final disposal are real issues for those of our age group. Indeed, my father was buried, my mother cremated; going in different directions is not uncommon—at least not in our family writ large. The choice tends to reflect personal traits. My father was a traditionalist; the well-designed grave stone was, as it were, his last acknowledgement of social status; he valued standing in the world, and his stone still stands there today in Kansas City.

My mother drew her inspiration from nature and art; she was dynamic even in her passing. She’d go on as a flame, her residues ash—but with the wish, often expressed while she still lived, that her ashes should find their rest in water and, presumably, keep moving in rhythm with nature’s never-ending stir.

 

We’ve never lived on or near the ocean; if we had, we’d now remember Mother’s resting place as the Pacific or, preferably, the Atlantic. Preferably? Yes. We’re thinking of the Gulf streams motion. But, no ocean for her. Years after her passing she found her place in Lake Huron; if not the ocean then at least the Great Lakes.

 

The place we eventually found was on the east side of the Michigan thumb. The locality was Port Sanilac, the place Refuge Harbor. We learned the name of the spot after we had strewn Mother’s ashes in the Huron. And we nodded in wistful pleasure. Refuge Harbor. After a long, hard life Mother had at last arrived. And she would have approved.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Yve's Passing

Michelle’s Father-in-law, Yves Paret, only waited until his wife was buried; then he too died to join her in that world beyond. Both had been in the same hospital but in separate wards. Yves was heavily sedated with morphine to lessen the pain of terminal cancer. Did he know his wife had died? Or didn’t he? We can’t be sure because we cannot see beyond the boundaries of this dimension. But it is perhaps meaningful that these two people, having spent a lifetime side by side, departed together holding hands—or so we see it from this side.

A time of departures is now upon us. Susie’s Rex went first. Then my younger brother Baldy. (In the next world he’ll now be older brother Baldy.) That was 2019. Spring of 2021 Madeleine and Yves. Brigitte and I are next in line. We know this—but in a casual sort of way. In one’s advanced years such things as passing become quite commonplace.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Au Revoir, Madeleine

 Speaking of old age and its ultimate consequences, we learned four or five days ago that Madelein Paret—Thierry’s mother and hence grandmother of Michelle’s children—has passed away after brief hospitalization in France. As Brigitte put it hearing this news: “Madeleine is home now.”

We barely knew the lady, but in the course of at most three visits to France we came to like her very much. The elder Parets lived (and still live) in Haguenau, a small city almost at the north-western tip of France—close enough to Germany so that Madeleine and husband Yves could speak a little German. Our meetings go back some 30 years yet produce sharp images of crowded dinners (all family) and Haguenau, the curious border town. Between then and now, we kept abreast of one another by mail and, later, Facebook.

 

Memory at our age: sharp enough to picture vividly aspects of events. But structured and chronological memory is week. I had to look up Haguenau in a Christmas list and then on a map. How long ago? I got there by taking our oldest grandson’s, Max’s, age today…

 

Requiescat in pacem, Madeleine. We’ll see you probably soon when the Earth train stops us at heaven’s gate.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Longevity – Reality and Appearance

It seems to me that deeply layered as it has become over time, materialism is one of the reasons that long life—and the longer the better—and even when it is maintained by drugs and machinery—is viewed as a highly desirable condition. A minor side-effect of that view is that some in science and medicine are laboring hard to prolong life well beyond its utmost range, say 100 years.

Long life as actually experienced by most of us in our 80s and 90s is viewed more as a burden than delight. And if the life oldsters live would extend 20, 30, or 40 years longer, we’d dread the prospect rather than celebrate it as a wonder of science.

 

The physical side-effects of "being old" are obviously the most evidently undesirable—but these science might mitigate. A deeper problem is boredom and disgust. The "thrillingly new"? We’ve seen it all before. The trends, the trajectories? They are obviously down. We grieve for our grandchildren’s children’s future. No medication can cure that boredom and disgust; they are caused by cultural decline; and we’re not likely to live hundreds of years longer when, perhaps culture will be reborn.

 

These thoughts as a starter. The subject of aging is deep. The young can’t write about it effectively. But with a little help from lots and lots of drugs and vitamins, we can.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Passing Has Commenced

In December comes the task of writing the Christmas letter; it’s meant to help those people who are not in frequent touch keep track of our general status; the letter therefore is sent with some of our Christmas cards. Reading last year’s letter, I noted that 2018 ended with Rex Turner, my sister Susie’s husband, passing from our midst; Rex was the first of our generation to say farewell. In preparing the 2019 letter, I noted that this year’s early events circled around my brother Baldy. He was brought down by dementia at the time, roughly, of Rex’s death. Then Baldy deteriorated rapidly; he died early in 2019.

Age colors one’s own reaction. Rex was older; I expected him to leave before me; but Baldy was our “little” brother—and in every way, I think, healthier and more energetic than I am. So a kid brother passes before his creaking elder.

I note this here in passing, almost. The end days are not really in any sense a public matter. Others of our age, of course, will know what I am saying and can rest in the knowledge that the strange feelings of lifting a hand in farewell to someone you’ve lived with all your life is odd, to say the least. And the desire to see him or her again, soon (Auf Wiedersehen, as the Germans put it) is a quite perceptible feeling.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Good-Bye Old O

Through a glass dabble-blurred by raindrops and the faint presence of the summer screen I see the vague dark roof randomly decorated by wet yellow leaves from a combination of maple and linden. Very distantly it seems a tall dark green mass is the top region of a wide pine or fir; it never sheds. Very far away behind it trees light green and yellow brown stand in line like words that run together; the telephone pole in that direction is a very tall comma or perhaps a dash. Days on end with rain we cannot see but feel when outside even before the first drops touch our face. Halloween is here to put an end to a short October in which, it seems, the highlight came last night in Houston where Our team (we lived there once) (and yes, the oldest, as we are) won the World Series away from home. For some reason the word cilantro wants to be written. My mind wants to spell it with an S and the Internet tells me that it is coriander; confusing in a way. But it’s not even nine o’clock yet I’m already closing on October by wishing for a heat wave in November. With Global Warming here with us, anything is possible and in California already is.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

We May Have Been Immune

By a strange coincidence, Brigitte and I had a discussion yesterday morning about viruses. The context was reading the phrase “going viral” for the 50th time that  morning in the papers. Then, yesterday evening, we heard a new word on MSNBC’s The Last Word. Lawrence O’Donnell was interviewing Norman (“Norm”) Ornstein; Ornstein is a political scientist who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI is a conservative think tank.

Now the coincidence I started with is not at all obvious; but I discovered this morning that the word Ornstein was using, unknown to Brigitte and me, kakistocracy, had been virtually unknown until April 13, 2018. On that date, the former CIA director, John Brennan, had used it on twitter to describe Donald Trump’s administration: “Your kakistocracy is collapsing after its lamentable journey.” You know what comes next already. The word went viral!

Yes, it went viral. But to our great surprise in this humble household, it took 556 days to reach us. Thus something is wrong with us—or else we were immune to viruses. Another way to say that is to use another old-fashioned phrase: we must sit “below the salt” (link). Otherwise we would have been using the word by at least by April 15, 2018. But no. We’ve only heard it yesterday. Shame.

The Internet gave us choices when we tried a search: cacistocracy or kakistocracy. We were betting on the K; the start of the word sounds Greek. Yes, so it turned out. The Greek for “worst” is kakistos. And if children are listening, I must tell them that, yes, it derives from kakos, meaning bad, and may be related to kakka, “to defecate.” Anyway, kakistocracy means the worst government one can imagine.

Finally, what took us 556 years to learn took modern humanity 375 years to remember. (Trump would claim that he is the Greatest Word Associationist who’s ever lived.) The first usage of the word (link) has been traced back to a sermon given in 1644 during the Civil War—no, not ours!  —the English Civil War.

Now if you are sitting even lower at the table than we are, thus even further below the salt, then even you will now know what hides there in that potty.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

October Horse and Other Miscellany

I missed the feast of October Horse (Equus October in Latin), anciently held on the 15th of the month. I did so for a perfectly logical reason. I’d never even heard of this celebration! How could I observe it? It belongs to the oldest Graeco-Roman times; indeed, the Greek historian Timaeus (345 BC – c. 250 BC) was the first to mention it—and he got his explanation wrong. Timaeus lived in BC times; hence October Horse belongs to the very deep past.

To understand this festival (categorized as religious but more likely a vulgar entertainment), it might help to put it into modern dress. Imagine that every October 15 a massive auto race were held. No limits would be placed on the size and power of the engines used, hence some really fast and weird cars would race with predictably many hair-raising accidents along the way. At the end of the race, the fastest and therefore the winning car would be displayed with masses of spectators present. Then men with powerful hammers and saws would attack it. They’d cut into its engine compartment and extract the engine any which way—and never mind if it was damaged. Others would attack its rear end and saw away its exhaust pipe.

Both teams, front and back, would then rush away in a fleet of trucks, each truck going in another direction. They would carry the engine and exhaust pipe, hiding each. Which trucks did these end up in? Nobody in the massive audience could know. The very expensive vehicle, the winner of the famous race, would, of course be left behind, an un-drivable wreck.

Our explanation is only half finished, at this point. In the real October Horse, the race was run by chariots drawn by horses, two to each chariot. The left-hand horse of the winning chariot would be sacrificed, i.e., killed by a spear. Then its head would be cut off—and also its rump with the tail. These would be carefully hidden someplace in the city.

But let’s go on. The contributions of the spectators now began. They were divided into two groups. The first were drawn from inhabitants of a huge neighborhood in Rome, Subura. Subura was a slum, in a way, inhabited by the poor, miserable: red light districts, and so on. The other group was drawn from a wealthy neighborhood in Rome’s best area, the Via Sacra. Off these people raced, running in masses. Their job was to find the Head (engine) and Tail (exhaust pipe) of the Horse (car). If these groups clashed along the way and fell into violent battles, why that was just part and parcel of Equus October. Those who found the Head displayed it for the next year; those who found the Tail, likewise. If one group found both—why the next year would be glorious—until October Horse returned again on the ides of October. Image source.

Now did I get this all correctly? Of course not. Even Timaeus had failed. But I can add what both of us now know. The festival was held on October 15 because it was the end both of military activities and of agricultural labors. So it was a festival of Mars, the god of war, and agriculture, the Sustainer of All.

It’s best to absorb even the few details I’ve managed to put forth. Destroying (i.e. sacrificing) a very expensive vehicle or horse—just for the hell of it? Letting the poor and the rich fight each other for ownership of the engine? Vast masses assembled to take part in the “fun”? October Horse was something even worse than we see all around us. But our festivals are on the social media. And the destruction is harder to see but much easier to cost out using Big Data and 5G.

Now for some miscellany. I discovered October Horse because I thought I’d find some festival in October beyond the well-known “celebrations”—like beer consumption at the October Fest or the children’s Halloween. My mind produced “The Rites of Spring” as an example, the ballet composition. I asked Google to display what it had stored under “The Rites of October.” In due course, I chanced across two entries on October Horse. Whaaat? October Horse? Discoveries then followed.

I also found an article titled “The October Horse.” That is the title of a novel by the Australian writer Colleen McCullough. Her novel is based in Rome. The sacrificial horse of her novel is Julius Caesar. Caesar was certainly, as a political figure, one of the best, brightest, and thus one of the swiftest. And at the beginning of his reign, if we may call it that, he was sacrificed by being stabbed with a knife. Et tu, Brute?

The image I show is Laocoon spearing the Trojan horse—an act from which Timaeus derived the October Horse festival. Both ancient and modern historians think he was wrong. And when you think of it, the horse shown is not exactly huge—or wooden. Never mind. The Trojan war has at least as many landmines as does Equus October.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Late Statue of Humanity

Let me start with the Statue of Humanity (source). I am able to capture its image as it existed in 2011, shortly before it was demolished. If the statue itself could be made to disappear, so might images of it if Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, decides on erasing them.

The Statue stood outside of the Turkish city of Kars. The city is located near where the border between Turkey and Armenia runs, close enough so that, standing where once the Statue stood, one could see Armenia in the distance if powerful binoculars are handy. Why had this Statue been built? It had been intended to commemorate an uneasy peace formed between Turkey and Armenia in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1916); in that genocide at least 600,000 Armenians were killed by Turkish troops in an action weirdly reminiscent of recent events on the border of Syria. Meaning: is a Kurdish Genocide now to be anticipated? The next question? Why had this Statue been taken down? Well, Erdogan, then still only a Prime Minister, had seen the Statue on one of his trips in 2011; he had expressed a strong dislike of it, calling it a freak. Despite local opposition, the City of Kars had then begun its disassembly, removing the heads first. So there is a link between the genocide, back when, and the possibility of another genocide, in the future. That link is Erdogan.

Finally, concerning the Statue, its designer was the sculptor Mehmet Aksoy (1939-); he got his commission in 2009; he was still laboring on the work in 2011 when the men with the crane and front-end loaders to take it down again arrived.

Not that there is a bigger picture than Humanity, but there is an historical big picture here, best represented by a map. The picture is that the collapse of great social structures, such as the Ottoman Empire, leaves behind troublesome echoes for years, sometimes even for centuries. The Ottomans ruled from Turkey. Under their governance, the many peoples they oversaw included the Armenians to the east. Armenia is a thinnish wedge of land between Turkey and Azerbaijan. And the part of Turkey that Armenia adjoins is what is still referred to, at least by Kurds, as Kurdistan. The map I show will reveal the situation (source).

The lightly-colored region is labeled Kurdish-inhabited. Thus the Kurds inhabit parts of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—going clockwise. The map also shows Armenia, of course. The Armenians irritated Turkey in the early 1900s by being friendly with Russia. Ah! There is Russia, too, in this great ethnic mix.

Problems, problems, problems. Back in the good-old days (but don’t look too closely), the Ottomans kept the peace all around inside their domain of rule. My late guru, the historian Arnold Toynbee, explained that situation by saying that the Ottomans regarded the peoples they ruled as species of stock—cattle, horses, sheep, and such. It was best to keep the various stocks from fighting and profit from their use or sale. But the Ottomans didn’t last. Nor, for that matter, to name another large domain, did the Soviets. Hence we now have “residual” problems in the Ukraine too. All kinds of problems. In human history, bigness usually spells peace; breakup causes chaos. Perhaps we should replace the Statue of Humanity by renaming the Gobi Desert The Pasture of Humanity. But is the Gobi big enough?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Color of October

Noticed, on waking, that the two calendars on the wall looked very similar through blurred eyes. They were both patches of yellow-orange. Later I went about the house and examined other calendars too. Most were obediently pumpkin-colored.

But while October might be pumpkin-colored, another and more subtle question is What’s the Color of a Pumpkin? The kindly loan of the pumpkin picture I am showing came from this source. The blog is called my little cottage in the making. The image I show is the first of many more in a blog post titled “The Many Colors of Pumpkins.” Incredible variety, nicely displayed. Nothing’s simple in this crazy age of ours—not even the color of a pumpkin.

We Don't Need a New Thermometer

This morning after waking up and having a sip of cold coffee, I checked NBC News, curious, don’t you know, if Europe is still there. The headline in text at the bottom of the screen said:

Politics is taking a toll on Americans’ health, according to a new study

The text was actually shorter, but what I’m quoting is an online article by NBC published September 25, 2019. That date is what “new” means in the headline. The NBC article is here. NBC itself was summarizing the content of an article that appeared in Plos One, a recently founded scholarly journal. The original article, titled “Friends, relatives, sanity, and health: The costs of politics,” is available here.

The essence of the content? The study is based on a survey of individuals reporting their own feelings. One in ten of those participating reported feeling badly about politics these days. From the Abstract:

Though anecdotal evidence suggests that the costs of politics may in fact extend beyond economics to frayed personal relationships, compromised emotional stability, and even physical problems, no systematic evidence on these broader costs exists.

Thus the article thus is what you might imagine. Scientific up to a point, but mostly reporting on how people felt when asked about politics. One in ten is not a very high number. But the headline makes you think that things are in a pretty sorry state. “Even physical problems” were reported. We need a new thermometer now. On the other hand, I saw an ad the other day that showed a man giving himself an EKG by touching two tiny pads on a table with his left and right index fingers. The EKG results appeared on a cell-phone sized screen. So maybe we don’t need a new thermometer now. But we certainly need a new politics.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Snap Shot

From a living room window we see people walking their dogs every day, yes even in the rain. There are hardy types of owners who are not stopped by a little down-pour. But of them all, we know two very well.

One of them is Leo, the Shi Tzu in my picture. Leo lives next door with Pat and Lloyd. The other is Katie the Beagle, a personality who occurs multiple times on this blog. Katie lives across the street with Monique and John, who’re our family. This is Leo’s first appearance on Ghulf Genes.

Leo is quite young, energetic, and very territorial. It's quite possible to miss the genuine dog traits of a little dog with a name like Shi Tzu; but when you get to know them and watch them in action, you realize that the canine is as strongly present in these fur balls as it is in some giant labrador. I think of Katie, by contrast, as a great-grand-mother: she spent her early years in a breeding place; she's lived a "civilian" life now for many years and she is getting old; she's also suffering from chronic ailments. But a nice day will make her pull you on a leash so that you feel your own age. Can't walk that fast any more...