Sunday, January 02, 2011

A guest essay(-ish)

My nephew, John, and I have a long history of being at loggerheads, especially about his writing skills.  Recently, he sent me one of his year end missives for some suggestions.

I pretty much eviscerated what he originally wrote and made one or two pithy suggestions.  For the first time in years, he re-wrote it.  I think it shows a sense of humor and self-assessment that is not too bad.

It’s long (3+ pages), but you might, Dear Gentle Reader(s), find it amusing, especially if you remember the flowery language of high school and college freshmen writers.

Happy New Year.  (No one will ever know if you decide not to finish it. xoxox)

Winter Solstice 2010 (aka: “end-of-year greetings about which the writer began ruminating on the Solstice, but about finishing the writer procrastinated.”)

At the behest of my editor, I include a cautionary note. This year-end missive to family and friends may appear to contain some distracting nonsequiturs and “big words” that might offend some populist sensibilities and sentimentalities (i.e. I did not travel anywhere or accomplish anything worth bragging about this year). College graduates often develop a communication disorder that involves gratuitous use of obscure vocabulary (acquired at extravagant expense of anonymous donors). This disorder reflects a secret, or overt, resentment that graduation required actually leaving college and joining the ordinary work force. Further note: “dilettante” has nothing to do with lace doilies but rather curious, yet distractible, folk who lack the discipline to pursue scientific careers but like to pretend that reading an article in Scientific American made them some sort of expert. I like to use this word because it evokes misleading imagery for the reader.

Caveat (legalistic word meaning “beware”): The current political climate heightens the vigilance of those who worry about security matters, making it necessary for writers prone to exaggeration, allegory, and literary license to issue disclaimers. In no event should any reader construe anything in this document as an attack or threat to the “new world order.” The author possesses no desire whatsoever to spend the balance of his natural life in a cage in Guantanamo. Events, scenarios, or libelous speculation in this communiqué represent no particular person – quick, dead, Republican, or atheist. Some readers may find attempts at wry, or ribald, humor “lame.” Please take what you like and disregard the rest. In the interest of secular humanist inclusion, I call this document “Solstice Greetings.” Presumably, the adults will graciously perceive this title as inoffensive and the children will feed it to the dog with their homework.

Any perception of intentional threat, insult, or other offense to the reader, any national party, soirée, authority figure, action figure, figurine, or anyone else for that matter, resides strictly and existentially in the vivid imagination of the reader. I promise to attempt, but do not guarantee, to tie together the loose threads of this letter into a coherent and deep whole. Oh by the way, dilettantes take devilishly long and circuitous routes to make their points. Perhaps I digress…

“In the long run, we all die” (John Maynard Keynes, Wiki-apocrypha).

As a self-styled pseudo-intellectual, I tend to worry. Well, not worry, exactly, but rather spend hours staring at trees, listening to birds, zoning out, and wondering, “What if…?”I find it oddly gratifying and disturbing to believe that practically no one understands what I spend hours turning over in my head. I make the gross assumption that a significant portion of conflict between “liberals” and “conservatives” arises between the relative importance that each places on long and short term goals and consequences. For the sake of illustrative convenience – and sarcasm, I stereotype the “liberal” as the apocalyptic ADD environmentalist and the “conservative” as the capitalist captain of industry. Economists (like Keynes) fancy that they occupy some mythical objective neutral ground which justifies them to sneer at both left and right extremes. In our dreams, we play all the parts, right?

The apocalyptic ADD environmentalist, having completely disrupted his normal sleep schedule, peered worriedly past his breakfast table, through the blinds, and into the seasonally bleak garden. Heat death of the universe, not surprisingly, came to mind on a strikingly gray Tuesday in Central Texas. If climate change makes the weather weirder, shouldn’t a warm foggy day in late December, in Austin, cause alarm? An environmental fanatic with attention deficit disorder tends to expect the worst (e.g. Oh no, it feels neither especially warm nor cold today, the sun will run out of energy in only six billion years?!). The thought experiment that follows the rabbit hole, that physicists and engineers call “entropy,” to its absurdly disturbing conclusion reasons that matter and energy (possibly one in the same) will, at a point in the impossibly distant future, become so evenly distributed that all potential for motion (i.e. heat) becomes null and void. Imagine a room full of drunks, incapacitated by inebriation, all immobilized beyond reach of each other. The party ends, not with a fare-thee-well but with deathly silence. Even the dust has settled, motionless. (This analogy may or may not work for you.) (I believe political scientists refer to economics as “the dismal science.” The “green” liberal in me can’t resist the “more dismal than thou” challenge. After all, I must consider my reputation.)

Presumably, if insufficient “dark matter” or “dark energy” exists in the cosmic interstices and worm holes, the last gasp of the “Big Bang” that started the whole hullabaloo will not reverse onto itself – unlike an apple tossed into the air that fails to triumph over gravity and therefore returns to an intimate repose on, and with, the ground. Presumably, this dark matter, or dark energy if you like – which, for the most part, we can neither see nor detect beyond the shadow of a doubt – or a neutrino, will save the impossibly distant future universe from the ultimate entropic indignity of heat death. If sufficient but heretofore unsubstantiated matter, whether dark or light, exists, the whole kit and caboodle will succumb to interstellar (or perhaps inter-dust particle) gravity and proceed to collapse in a reverse Big Bang, which, for the sake of brevity and convenience, we might call “the Big FUBAR.” I didn’t make all of this up. Lord Kelvin, William Thompson, presumably preoccupied himself with the ultimate consequences of entropy and conceived the idea of universal heat death in 1852. Who knew that anyone before Ralph Nader worried about inconceivably remote catastrophes?

So, does that make me feel any better about sitting around procrastinating? Alas, no.

Of course, the sun would intervene and ruin a perfectly good depressing metaphor by burning off the clouds by noon. With a temperature around 72° Fahrenheit and low-ish humidity, Austin suddenly feels like Southern California… Not the way it feels at the moment – in the midst of a Biblical flood – but the way I remember it feeling back in 1979. Austin did reach 79° on the Solstice. Just enough atmospheric haze lingered to mimic the ubiquitous LA smog.

As a dilettante, who dabbles in art and science, I obsess about these things (and wonder: would-a? should-a? could-a?). So, I read a book about impressionist painting. Unlike me, the inspired genius of the artist deftly manipulates light, dark, and color in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum (they discuss this stuff in science lectures at UT) to evoke imagery that captures the imagination of viewers and sometimes perturbs the purveyors of prudery. The musician-composer manipulates the auditory portion of the EM spectrum, which, for the sake of convenience, we will call “sound,” to touch emotions that resonate in listeners.

The writer works with what I consider a most abstract medium. (Does this sound like “mid-life crisis” thinking?) Characters on a page possess no inherent meaning universally understood by anyone. Readers, in order to appreciate the writer’s work, must study these cryptic glyphs and their ascribed meanings for years in order to attain a certain competency that for convenience we may call “literacy.” One might gain a greater appreciation for the works of artists and musicians by studying their work or probing the depths of their philosophical underpinnings, but great art and music can stand on their own to nurture the soul of humanity. Their magnificence makes them enjoyable to anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear, but not vice versa.

Enjoyment of the writer’s arts and crafts transpires inside the rarified confines of privileged societies. Alas, a majority of humanity cannot read. A fraction of those able to read can understand the writer’s language and idiom (& weird words). A fraction of those who know the language and peculiar terms either care to read his work or enjoy the luxury of time to do so. Having ventured thus far, a portion of those who read his work feel dissatisfied, disgusted, or offended by having wasted their precious time on such drivel (so what? MS Word disdains this construction as a “fragment”). Does this sound like a gratitude list or resentments? I can’t always tell. Musician? Artist? Writer? …hmm… decisions…

Ironically, this medium of symbolic interaction (text), possessing the least inherent universal meaning, can become the most concrete and explicit of the arts to those who might read it. Unfortunately, the writer can only succeed by persuading many people. An artist only needs one person to buy a canvas. A seascape portrayed either musically or visually invites the audience to enjoy the scene for its own sensations. Think of Debussy’s “La Mer” or one of J.M.W. Turner’s vignettes of tempest-tossed tall ships. (Pretend for a moment that Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” did not provoke a Paris riot in 1913.) The writer might paint a conceptual picture with words but usually superimposes facts, opinions, and obfuscation that support a particular agenda. Generally speaking, a psychological or social disturbance invoked by a symphony or painting relies on highly interpretable, suggestive, or abstract imagery – not everyone experiences it the same way. Writing that disturbs the reader may involve particular and concrete ideas that conflict with preconceived notions held by the reader – or may simply pile up an unmanageable number of random non-sequiturs.. Any of these creative forms might strike the audience as confrontational, reassuring, or escapist. A visceral response to art grabs one’s attention and causes one to consider reality in a new headache. A visceral response to writing might get one fired or sued.

Contrariwise, the amateur environmentalist (a particular kind of writer who clogs the in-boxes of newspaper editors and elected officials) often confronts people with a disturbing message. He might suggest that the habits and customs we take for granted in our comfortable, convenient, secure, and modern existence will exact costs on future generations that we would rather not contemplate or simply dismiss as preposterous. He quite often envisions himself as an enlightened martyr (and not a slave to fashion), chosen by Divine lot to wage jihad against the infidel capitalist robber barons! He might perceive the general public as either pathetic clueless rubes duped by the robber barons into sustaining the corrupt establishment or as nefarious shills and minions in thrall to the evil industrial empire (buwahaha!). More often than not, the presumed converts, whom he heroically struggles to “save,” resent his guilt-soaked hectoring and consign him to the realm of nincompoops.

Now we lurch to the presumed opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Lacking a statistically valid sample of capitalist captains of industry in my personal circle of acquaintance, I can only surmise that they do not consider themselves evil (gospel according to Dale Carnegie); they strive to ensure the general welfare and the rational allocation of resources by increasing their own wealth (see Adam Smith); and they strive to produce useful goods affordable to the hoi polloi (ordinary folk, like moi), and that consume vast quantities of fossil fuels (see Henry Ford and J.D. Rockefeller). The charitable social scientist might characterize industrialists as “amoral” because they make business decisions without regard to social or ecological consequences. Ostensibly, they measure success in terms of gross units produced and net profits, not in terms of coexisting with other inhabitants of a global ecosystem in such a way that will preserve it for the benefit of future generations. The amoral companies that manufacture machines and tools spend fantastic fortunes on advertising in order to convince us that using their products will make us happier, more prosperous, and more attractive to potential in-laws and American Idol judges. Whether for convenience, security, or conformance with social norms, we do innumerable things that damage the planet’s life support systems because we inherited a flawed economic system. We “throw stuff away.” Did I mention worrying about “sustainability” issues?

So, what can, or should, I change and what can I not? Original sin, in my quixotic conception, places me in a flawed economic system, with limited ability to ameliorate the destructive tendencies of society. I survive by eating things that once lived, on the other side of the planet. I abet the destruction of habitat by leading a suburban consumerist American lifestyle. I sometimes dispose of household toxics in the ordinary garbage. I waste water compulsively washing my hands. I use electricity generated by burning coal – even though I voluntarily pay extra so some rancher in West Texas can enjoy wind-powered electricity. I drive my car on weekends. I use plastic. On some other hand, I believe that beneficial changes will come about incrementally; that “a power greater than me” controls everything; that the laws of physics will endure, and that if something cannot go on indefinitely, it won’t (Herb Stein or J.K. Galbraith, dubious).

As hobby, psychotherapy, penance, and palliative, I plant and nurture trees, shrubs, and flowers that need little artificial supplement, once established. The beauty of the pseudo-naturalistic landscape that I help create, and that comforts a few wild creatures that happen upon it, rewards me and in some small way allows me to salve my conscience. May God enable me to learn and model worthy examples, express compassion for the travails of others, and find my appropriate cosmic path – whether in writing, paint, or song.

May you enjoy the Grace that exceeds all understanding, not worry too much, and may your successors do so also.

John Touchet, December 21, 2010, revised 12/27/2010

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