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Thursday
Mar142019

Goodbye don Juan Matus

I first read Carlos Castaneda in the early 1970s when I was just out of college. He wrote twelve books, the first being The Teachings of Don Juan published in 1968. I think I read the first three in the series, but I can’t be sure. What I do remember vividly was getting in an argument with the best friend I’ve ever had on this planet about the veracity of the books.

The books were about Castaneda’s training with a shaman by the name of don Juan Matus, or “Man of Knowledge,” a man Castaneda claimed was a Yaqui, and particularly a group of Yaqui that was descended from the Toltecs. The books were written in the first person and Castaneda claimed that they were factual, that what he was presenting was an anthropological ethnography. Based on these writings, the University of California, Los Angeles, awarded him bachelor’s and doctoral degrees.

It didn’t take long for critics to start questioning the truthfulness of his claims and descriptions. Some pointed out that he showed almost no knowledge of the Yaqui. Others that while his writing may be philosophical in nature, they were in fact a work of the imagination that did not warrant the bestowing of a Ph.D. in anthropology. Simply put, what he wrote could not be literally, scientifically, factual.

Be that as it may, the reason I bring this up is because of Castaneda’s assertion that don Juan Matus was a nagual, that is, a leader among seers in his ancestry, and that he, don Juan Matus, recognized Castaneda as a nagual. But here’s the rub, and the source of the argument with my friend those many years ago. The term nagual also signifies a type of shaman that claims they can change into an animal, or “shift” into another form with the aid of, for example, Mescalito. If I’m remembering correctly, Castaneda at least implied that he actually witnessed don Juan Matus go through such a transformation, and that this shift was not an illusion created by using psychoactive drugs, but that it was, indeed, a literal, biological, change.  

I can’t imagine I literally believed that a nagual shaman under the influence of Mescalito or Jimson Weed could actually shift in form from human to animal. Or at least I hope not. I was young, but still…However, I did argue with my friend, who never would have believed such a thing, that it might be theoretically possible, that we western, rational, scientific types might not know all there is to know about reality. I have to say, my friend found my proposition ludicrous. And while my suggestion that we western types didn’t know everything about reality there is to know was sound, my implication was not. So why did I do it?

I did it because I wanted to believe in the possibility of the unexpected, the mysterious. I wanted to believe that there were alternatives to the way I had been raised to see reality. I wanted something profoundly surprising to happen.

I confess that remembering the argument and my youthful enthusiasm of wanting to believe in the unbelievable is now embarrassing, there is also something a little sad about the remembering. The sadness, minor to be sure but nonetheless present, is that I would never today even give such a thing a moment’s thought. I know longer want to believe the unbelievable. I no longer expect the unexpected. I assume that most, if not all, mysteries are not supernatural, metaphysical, other worldly, parallel realities, but a lack of knowledge.

So, this is a kind of goodbye to that young man who read don Juan Matus and argued for alternative interpretations. And a goodbye to don Juan Matus himself. I now believe more in the fictional characters in novels then in fraudulent representations of reality.

Copyright © 2019 Dale Rominger

Thursday
Mar072019

Impossible Contemplation and Our Existential Threat

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

That’s the first line in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Here’s the last line:

“You can’t choose the planet, which is the only one any of us will ever call home.”

I’ve only just begun reading The Uninhabitable Earth, so this is not a book review. I did, however, read a couple of reviews and apparently the book is quite devastating—unless you are a climate crisis denier, or are in deep denial, or you just don’t give a shit. Why I’m reading the book is, well, at least interesting. It’s not as though I need more information to drive home the reality of the existential threat that we are now facing. Every day in the newspaper I read about:

  • melting ice;
  • rising sea levels;
  • heatwaves running through the oceans killing life in their paths;
  • coral reefs dying; mass extinctions;
  • the collapse of biodiversity;
  • the significant, and frightening, decline in insect populations;
  • the increase of areas on the planet that for periods of time in the summer months have already become uninhabitable for human beings without air conditioning (google WBT, “wet bulb” temperature); the increase in extreme whether events;
  • the truly frightening release of methane bubbling from the oceans and spewing forth from permafrost (CH4 traps up to 100 times more heat than CO2 in a five year period and 72 times more heat in a 20 year period);
  • the decay of the Antarctic glacier;
  • the rise in sea levels and increased coastal flooding;
  • longer and more damaging fire seasons;
  • more severe droughts;
  • disruption of our food supply;
  • changing seasons;
  • widespread forest death.

The climate crisis is not some distant future event. It is happening now. Just ask insurance companies and the U.S. military if you don’t believe me.  

It’s common to blame our predicament on the Industrial Revolution, placing it back in history far enough to absolve us of responsibility. While it’s obviously true that the crisis can be said to have begun with the Industrial Revolution, Wallace-Wells points out that more than half the carbon being released into the atmosphere by our burning of fossil fuels has happened in the last few decades. As he says: “The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since the end of World War II, the figure is about 85%.”[1] This is a crisis created in one human life time.

Many believe we can still avoid the worse of the predicted disaster. Some turn to technologies not yet invented, some to technologies we now have, and others to the human spirit. What is of considerable concern, however, is that we are running out of time. A couple of years ago the UN announced we had twelve more years to deal with the climate crisis, after which it would be too late. Whether or not you believe that seemingly extreme assessment, most who are paying attention admit time is now short and fixing the damage we do to the planet takes time. An example.

In 1987 the world came together in the Montreal Protocol to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were destroying the ozone layer—no ozone layer, no life on earth. CFCs can take 50 to 100 years to completely disappear from the atmosphere. The effort to fix the ozone layer, begun in 1987, will only reach completion sometime between 2060 and 2080. Time.

So, time for true confessions: I don’t believe there is any hope for us. First, we will experience the collapse of human civilization. Second, the extinction of the human species.

The definition of “contemplation”: the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time; deep reflective thought; religious meditation. 

I find it impossible to contemplate the end of us all.

Some who agree that at the very least human civilization is doomed, while perhaps being agnostic about our extinction, feel we are only getting what we deserve, just punishment for our destruction and stupidity. I can almost agree with that sentiment, but then, and this is very unlike me, I think for every act of human destruction there is an equally profound act of human creativity. For every moron defecating the public square and polluting the internet, spouting absurdities and fantasies or just plain lying, there is an intelligent, caring human being seeking information and truth and proclaiming reality.

Amazingly, again for me, I would, if I had the power, give the human species a reprieve and tell it to try again. Except for one thing. The reason we become extinct may be justice or simple cause and effect, but the fact that we will be taking millions and millions of innocent species with us is utter sinfulness. I use the word “sinfulness,” not because I have a literalist biblical and theological understanding of sin, but because I can’t think of another word to communicate the utter horror and depravity of what we are doing to life on this plant—both flora and fauna. If there were some kind of ethical intelligence overseeing this vast universe, surely it would find the time to never forgive the human species for what it is doing and will do.

So, how do I embrace, incorporate into my life, the conflicting truths that, one, I believe the end is coming and, two, that I find contemplation of that fact impossible (meaning I can’t think about it for long and not very deeply when I do)? That which I believe is so overwhelming I cannot think about it, let alone make peace with it.

Well, first I do what I can do. I participate in the basic efforts to right the wrong. I recycle, of course. Except for one or two hamburgers during the barbeque season, I don’t eat red meat. I bought an all-electric car and pay extra to the energy company to help the transition from coal to renewables. I’m putting solar panels on the roof of my house. As much as is possibly, I avoid buying products packaged in plastic. I do what I can do, not because I believe it will save us, but because I have to look at myself in the mirror every day. I do these things to maintain some semblance of integrity. Though I don’t believe there will be some cosmic reckoning when I am personally called to account, I nonetheless have to call myself to account each and every day.

Second, I live within the dilemma. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about what will happen. It’s my default setting. I read about some scientific breakthrough that will enhance human life in, say, twenty years and I think, By that time we will have begun to collapse so it doesn’t matter. The end is there all the time. And yet, though I’m aware of its coming and profundity, I don’t let that knowledge seep into my marrow. Or perhaps, I am just incapable of doing so. How do I live with the knowledge, not only that I am going to die, but that my species is going to die? Perhaps I don’t or can’t live with that. And so, I go about my days as if it will be okay in the long wrong. I’ve come to think I cannot live without the application of “as ifs.” Without them I would become paralyzed.

When contemplation becomes impossible, as ifs become important. This is what I mean by their usefulness and importance: “Very often we can reasonably proceed as if what we know to be false is true because it is useful for some purpose to do so.”[2] The quote comes from As If: Idealization and Ideals by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Put simply, I choose to live as if my behavior, and that of others, will eventually result in a happy ending even though I know it to be false. In that way, I still see beauty, enjoy my relationships, and continue to laugh (though it is easier for me because I do not have grandchildren).

So, my closing advice? Do what you can as if it will make a difference. And after you have read The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, read As If: Idealization and Ideals.

Copyright © 2019 Dale Rominger


[1] Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming. New York: Tim Duggan Books. 2019, p. 4.

[2] Anthony Appiah, Kwame. As If: Idealization and Ideals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,2017, p.3.

Thursday
Jan172019

Not Quite Sleepless in Nearby Seattle

I tell people I live in Seattle, but it’s not true. I live in Renton, which is south of Seattle. When I tell people I live in Seattle they get a sense of where I am. If I tell them I live in Renton, they’ll have no idea where I am. I live in Renton because I found a nice house that I liked and could actually afford. A friend told me that Renton was once the place where criminals and prostitutes lived and worked. Been here three and a half years and haven’t knowingly seen either. But who knows? The key word is “knowingly.” In any event, Seattle sounds much more romantic than Renton. So, I tell people I live in Seattle.

It’s not that I can’t sleep. I can. It’s just that I can’t sleep at night. I’m wide awake at four, five, six in the morning. I’m up all night. When I do go to bed, blinds closed, I sleep quite well for five or six hours. This happens to me every twelve to eighteen months. Don’t know why it starts and don’t know why it stops, which it does in a couple of weeks. It does throw off my day, and night obviously. When I have dinner at 5:30 with my wife it can feel like I’m having wine with brunch, which I guess people do, but not me.

For some reason, when I’m in this phase I don’t have the same energy, drive, enthusiasm, creativity. I’m just wide awake all night. So, the question becomes: What to do with the time? I could read, but I can’t concentrate for long so don’t get that many pages read. I could listen to music but get bored. I could be up in my study writing the great American novel, but see above concerning enthusiasm and creativity. That leaves television or just sitting staring into space.

This not-quite-sleepless-in-nearby-Seattle started four days ago. I had a browse through Netflix offerings and found Dexter. I had watched the show years ago, but it seemed appropriate for all-nighters, so I’ve been binging on Dexter. I guess the first thing to say is I’ve fallen in love with Julie Benz who plays Rita Bennett, which actually means I have fallen love with Rita Bennett played by Julie Benz. Still, if I were sitting in a café reading a book drinking a latte and Julie Benz came in and sat next to me, I’d be well on my way to falling in love with the real live her, that is if she acted like Rita Bennett. I’m reaching the conclusion of season four and I know they kill off Rita at the end. Poor Dexter Morgan finds her dead in the bathtub filled with water and her blood. Big mistake, and personally devastating for me. Why wasn’t I consulted?

Here’s how I imagine our encounter: I’m sitting in the crowded café of the Elliott Bay Book Company reading a book, sipping a latte, minding my own business. I hear a voice ask if she can share my table, I look up and it’s Julie Benz. Of course, I say yes. She sits down, let’s her coat fall onto the back of her chair, and places her bag on the floor to her right. I can’t help myself and say: “Just let me say, and I promise I won’t bother you after I say it, you created a great character on Dexter. Fragile and vulnerable at the beginning, becoming confident and strong by the time she ends up in a bloody bathtub 48 episodes later.” She will thank me and ask what I’m reading as she reaches down into her bag to retrieve a book. I tell her, and as she puts her book on the table, I see it’s one of mine. I ask her if she likes the book and she, of course, tells me it’s absolutely great. Best book she’s ever read she says, but hasn’t made the connection that she is sitting with the author. I reach over the table and take the book. I ask her if she has a pen and she reaches back into her bag on the floor, pulls out a pen, and hands it to me. I sign the book. She is beautifully puzzled staring at my signature. She turns the book over and looks at my photo on the back cover. Finally it dawns on her who I am. She blushes. She tells me in minute pleasurable detail why the book is so great. With a very flirtatious smile and silken voice she suggests we leave the café and go to the restaurant bar a few doors down. Wisely she is unconcerned about age difference. We drink Cuba libras. We sit close as if sharing intimacies. When the evening is over, we stand outside the bar in the light rain and say goodbye. She turns to leave, stops, turns back to me, and kisses me. She smiles and then walks away. I stand in the rain watching her disappear. Because I’m married, I never see her again, but the kiss sustains me for years.

Well, something like that. I’ll work on it when I go to bed at five this morning. For now back to Dexter.

I find it is mildly disconcerting that my affection for Dexter Morgan, an obviously deranged, antisocial serial killer, is also strong, though in a different way from my feelings for Rita Bennett. From the very beginning I am rooting for him, hoping that he gets away with brutally killing yet another human being. It helps that Dexter’s “code” demands he only kill bad people, people who have kill other human beings. But still, my feelings of pleasure in his kills seems somehow ethically suspect. After all, he killed  around 130 bad guys in eight seasons. I blame the writers and Michael C. Hall for acting so well. I excuse him, Dexter not Michael, for his evilness through psychological explanations that quickly become ethical justifications. When he was three, he watched men cut up his mother with a chain saw and then leave him in a closed shipping container sitting in her blood. He sat there for two days before being rescued. So, obviously, it makes sense, it’s reasonable, that he became a killer. Thank God for that “code.”

The show is well written and well acted. If someone were to wrap me in yards of clear plastic tight to a table in a room completely covered in 4 millimeter thick high density tear resistant film and demanded I declare which actor I thought was the best, I’d have to say Jennifer Carpenter, who played Dexter’s sister, Debra Morgan. She was great. She had to cry in every other scene. Sometimes just tearing up, while other times collapsing in full blown on your knees break your heart weeping. Just to make things interesting, Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter started dating and eventually eloped one New Year’s Eve. It’s never good when our real world intrudes on our make-believe worlds. In this case it leads to an unsavory sense of incest. Thankfully they divorced. However, if my memory serves me well, sometime before the program ends, Debra wants to get it on with Dexter. Thing is they are not biological siblings. Dexter was adopted. Still, that shady sense of incest sticks like a stain on an old mattress.

Binging on Dexter also makes me realize if I were a good American patriot I’d learn how to speak Spanish. That’s for another day. It’s 5:00 a.m. and time to close the blinds and crawl into bed.

Copyright © 2019 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Dec122018

A Christmas Carol for Trumbland

A Christmas Carol for Trumbland

{Each year I reflect on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. 2018 has been the year of children in cages. Not our white children, of course, but children of color from way down south. It’s been the year of National Guard and active military personnel at the border. It’s been the year of teargas. It’s been the year of huge tax cuts for the very wealthy and the attack on welfare programs, which means an attack on the poor, both working and unemployed. It’s increased foodbanks and anger. It’s Trumbland.

Dickens did not write the sweet tale that made it to our movie screens: This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!"}

Scrooge had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

One of the saddest events in popular culture is the continual distortion of a great literary character through the romanticizing of Tiny Tim, transforming him into a sentimental, sweet character, whom we can first pity and then exploit, using him like a sponge to soak up our spilt Christian goodness. In fact, Tiny Tim is one key to "Keeping Christmas well”.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the first of five "Christmas Books" written from 1843 to 1848. In each book a central character suffers from a loss of faith in human dignity, but is eventually brought to realize the value of human spirit. The transformation each character goes through, and we must call it a transformation and not simply a change of mind or even heart, is accomplished through spirit intervention, or in other words, by spiritual means. In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote he hoped the story would "Awake some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." In fact, he wrote the story because, in his opinion, "Keeping Christmas well" was out of season all the time. Dickens' ultimate hope was, of course, that through the power of his narratives the reader would, like the main characters, be transformed as well.

A Christmas Carol is not about a sweet little crippled boy, but instead is about the social conditions of Dickens' Britain. The story had (and still has) a strong social message. In and through the story, Dickens was appealing in general to the people of Britain to lead less selfish lives, and in particular to the rich to take seriously their duty of care for those less fortunate. He had visited Cornish tin mines early in 1843 and saw children laborers at work. He visited the Field Lane Ragged School in London, one of several institutions trying to educate hungry and illiterate children. After these experiences, he wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. During the writing of the "hymn" he said in a letter that he "wept and laughed and wept again...and in thinking walked the black streets of London...when all sober folks had gone to bed". In fact, the magic and mystery of his literary hymn exhibited a "strange mastery" over him, but a mastery of joy and love which he was impatient to return to each working day.

Dickens had a lot to weep and laugh about. For years the poor had not only been neglected by society, but also lived under the burden of a social philosophy and political policies that actually justified that neglect. In 1803 Thomas Malthus wrote the essay entitled Principle of Population. In it Malthus argued that any human being that could not be supported by his or her parents, and could not provide labor that was useful and required by society, had "no claim or right to the smallest portion of food." He went on to say that such people also had "no business" even being in society and that their death would "decrease the surplus population."

When society refuses people food, shelter, and work, there is only one place for them to go, or to be, and Scrooge, the character representing the Malthusian position, had no difficulty in saying precisely where or what that place was -- death. Scrooge, of course, had no time for the celebration of the child of salvation. For him Tiny Tim, whose parents could not support him and whose ill health made it impossible for him to become a good laborer for society, could simply die. When just before Christmas Scrooge was asked to make a contribution to help provide for the "Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present," people in the thousands lacking common necessities and in the hundreds of thousands wanting common comforts, he responded:

"Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman laying down his pen again.
”And the Union Workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. Are they still in operation?"
"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then? said Scrooge.
"Both very busy. sir."
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

The gentlemen, not giving up, explained to Scrooge that such provisions hardly "furnished Christmas cheer of mind or body to the multitudes" and that they were collecting funds to give the poor "meat and drink, and a means of warmth." But again Scrooge refused to give saying he wished to be left along. He then said, in full Malthusian passion:

"I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned--they coast enough; and those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Hope and warning are powerfully told when Scrooge met the Spirit of Christmas Present. As the evening passed the Spirit took Scrooge to homes where they stood beside the bedsides of the sick who, nonetheless, were cheerful. They visited those who struggled and were still living in great hope. They visited those who lived in poverty and were rich in spirit. And they visited the almshouses, hospitals, prisons where people experienced misery but had not "made fast the door and barred the Spirit out" thus allowing him to enter their misery and give the gift of blessing.

As the long night unfolded before him, time and space seemed to lose meaning for Scrooge, except that he noticed the Spirit was growing visibly older. He asked if life was so short for all spirits and the Spirit replied that his life would end that very night at midnight. As the chimes rang three quarters past eleven, with death approaching, hope turned to warning. Scrooge saw something in the folds of the Spirits clothing...

"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"

"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here!" exclaimed the Ghost. "They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.”

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit! are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand toward the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit if for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end! “Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.” Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no work-houses?"
The bell struck twelve.

Dickens speaks with passion and power about the Spirit of Salvation. He sings the Spirit's blessings, for where he visits there is health, joy, home, and hope. Where the Spirit smiles, needs are met and comforts are offered. Dickens does not, however, sentimentalize the vision, for wrapped within the very clothing of the Spirit is the misery caused by human thought and deed. We shutter when we realize that the grotesque monsters revealed are the results of human exploits. We reel at the devils before us are in fact human beings and, once again, children. We desperately reach for a self-defense, any self-defense, when we are reminded that such human suffering belongs not to God but to us. We ache when we see how the suffering cling to the Spirit and look upon us with fear.

Perhaps it is time we re-read Dickens. If we were to "keep Christmas well" we would experience the wholeness of salvation's blessings. We would be filled with joy and pierced through the heart. In this world, both must be ours.

A Christmas Carol Scrooge ends with these words:

Scrooge had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every one!

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Oct312018

Did I Tell You I Used to Hate Books ~ I Mean Really Hated Them

I don’t know if any of you watched the PBS Great American Read and, indeed, participated in some way. I watched all the shows, which I found interesting, and voted several times.

The Great American Read started with 100 books, chosen, they told me, by readers “just like me.” I’m a little skeptical. If they were readers just like me then Fifty Shades of Grey and even The Da Vinci Code wouldn’t have made the top 100. Don’t get me wrong. The Da Vinci Code was a real page turner, which I enjoyed. And I’m fully aware that Dan Brown has sold millions of books and I’ve only sold a handful. I’m suitably impressed by Brown’s storytelling ability (and I believe his wife’s research), but good writing it is not. I had to keep reminding myself that the Great American Read was not necessarily about good or great literature, but about books Americans enjoy reading. And so you get the likes of I, Alex Cross next to Don Quixote, and Twilight next to The Grapes of Wrath. It really hurt to hear that The Sirens of Titan, at #87, came in one behind Fifty Shades of Grey at #86. Anyway, the top five finalist were in order of first to last: To Kill a Mockingbird; Outlander (series); Harry Potter (series); Pride and Prejudice; and The Lord of the Rings (series). If you want to look at how the voting ended, click here: The Great American Read

I bring this up because the program, while about authors and their books, was also about the importance of reading, and that element got me remembering. When I was young I hated reading and I hated books. I literally had a negative physical reaction to books. They made me ill. The reason was simple. I’m slightly dyslexic—not debilitating so, but enough to cause real problems when you’re young. And I was young long before anyone wrote their Ph.D. dissertation on the subject. We had to read out loud in class and that was a real difficult and humiliating experience for me. If I had to read “The dog chased the cat down the road,” my eyes and my voice could get stuck on the word cat, for example, and so I stopped reading, stuck. I knew the word was “cat” but I just couldn’t get it out of my mouth before my teacher hit me with a ruler and announced to the entire class that I was stupid. I kid you not! So, I hated reading and I hated books.

Two things happened to me that saved my life. First, even though books made me physically ill—did I say I hated books!— I still told myself I had to read a damn book, and then another, and then another. If I didn’t read several damn books I’d never get into college, and I was telling myself this as a little kid (I tended to worry about the future). And so, I went to the library and found Powder Keg: A Story of the Bermuda Gunpowder Mystery by Donald E. Cooke, The John C. Winston Company: Philadelphia and Toronto, 1953. The book is 179 pages long. I took it home, and at night while in bed, I made myself read ever damn word in the book. Every damn word! I couldn’t skip even one. It was important to me. If I failed to finish the book, or skipped even one word, then I would have failed. I had to read the entire book. As it turned out, I really enjoyed it. By the time I got into junior high school (which I guess is called middle school now) I was heavy into sci fi. I’d lie in bed in the summer reading to three in the morning. But Powder Keg is the first book I read, and I mean every damn word.

About five years ago I started thinking about that book. I didn’t have the title right in my mind, and I certainly didn’t remember the author, but I went to abebooks.com and started putting in titles. Eventually I found it and now I’m a proud owner of a first edition of Powder Keg.

The second miracle that saved me from a life bereft of books was a teacher. I think I got all the way to the 5th grade without being able to read worth shit and one day at the beginning of the year we were, of course, reading out loud in glass. At the end of the day, the teacher asked me to stay and when everyone was gone, she sat with me and simply asked straightforwardly if I could read. She asked in such a gentle and respectful way I simply said no. For the first time I told the truth about my inability. After faking it for years, it did feel good. She arranged for me to come to her house on Saturdays and she and her daughter, who was young than I, taught me to read. We ate tapioca pudding and read. Truly amazing. What a good person and teacher. I can still see her face, and interestingly her hands, but I do not remember her name. She’s long gone now, but she saved my life.

I now read all the time and love books. As I write this I’m in my study surrounded by books: fiction literary and popular, philosophy, theology, history, politics, narrative theory, theater and film theory, robotics and artificial intelligence and on and on. Now, I write books, though none of them got into the 100—go figure. Perhaps my time will yet come, but if it is going to come, I’d like it to be sooner rather than later.

So, forgiveness (if you can) to all the stupid and mean spirited teachers, and blessings and thanksgiving to all the intelligent and lifesaving teachers.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Oct172018

Is Laughing at Trump a Good Idea?

From the moment Trump announced he was running for president a lot of us have been laughing at him. There’s so much material. If you are a satirist, you must be hoping he’s elected again in 2020. We laugh about his hair. We laugh about his small hands. We laugh about his long red tie. We laugh about things he says. We laugh about is narcissism. We laugh about his lack of experience. We laugh about his lack of knowledge. We laugh about his worldview. We laugh about the way he expresses himself. We laugh at his tweets. We laugh about his bankruptcies. We laugh because he so often seems so stupid (even as we recognize he is a genius at manipulating the narrative). We laugh. However, several months ago I started feeling uncomfortable about my laughter. Something started feeling wrong.

I’m not totally sure where my disquiet came from. In part it is linked to the fear and danger that as a country we are normalizing his abnormal category difference presidency. When he was first elected, there were almost constant reminders not to normalize what was happening. Not anymore. His ongoing attacks on the foundations of our democracy are now only expected. We hardly notice anymore. We all know he likes white supremacists. Nothing new there. We know he demeans women. Same old same old. We know he loves authoritarian leaders and dictators. So what? I’m worried that our laughter is simply part of the new normal. Every late night talk show host has a field day with him almost every night. Every day he creates new material for mockery. However, it’s hardly shocking because it’s now what we expect, it’s routine. What absurd, or immoral, or outrageous, or dangerous thing did he do or say today? Let’s make a joke.

I think also I associated the laughter with the hope that Trump simply wouldn’t, couldn’t, be around that long—and I felt that even though I have never thought, and do not now think, that he will be impeached. I think the deep down feeling that he was surely only a temporary aberration was because it was so difficult to believe that he was actually elected in the first place. It was, and perhaps still is, as if we elected to the presidency a man who openly defecates on the Oval Office carpet and brags about it as millions of his supporters applaud the act. He tells it, and shits it, like it is. Surely this was just a mistake to be corrected soon, and in the meantime we could have a good time laughing at him until he was gone. Thing is, he is not gone. The only way we will get rid of him is by winning an election, and with the Electoral College favoring the red states and the GOP doing everything it can to suppress the vote, winning elections gets harder and harder. So is my laughter now simply a way of hiding the terrible fact that we really will need to replace the carpet when he finally leaves—cleaning it just won’t do. Is my laughter an act of self-deception?

A couple of weeks ago my wife bought me a copy of #SAD!: Doonesbury in the Time of Trump by Garry Trudeau. It’s a great little book reproducing many of Trudeau’s cartoon strips he wrote and drew “in the time of Trump.” Reading the book I particularly loved Fox News reporter Roland B. Hedley’s and his tweets. However, I mention the book here because of Trudeau’s short introduction. In it he addresses the purpose of, in his case satire, but I’m including also the purpose of the laughter—the jokes, monologues, single cartoons, SNL skits, etc. He was asked if the flood of satire has changed even one mind. That question itself was interesting because I realized I had associated my laughter to the hope of change. Surely Trump couldn’t stay above water given the tsunami of satire and laughter at his expense. Could I be so naïve?

Trudeau’s answer to the question was: “That’s not the goal. It never was.” Trudeau wrote:

If satire has a mission statement, it’s surely a variant of humorist Finley Dunne’s famous prescription for advocacy journalism: to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. On this first point, it’s well know how sensitive the president is to ridicule…”

So, I guess I’m to take some pleasure that my laughter might make Trump uncomfortable. I can accept that, but it doesn’t strike me as a very noble aspiration, to cause discomfort, unless…Unless, I take pleasure in afflicting what he’s doing rather than who he is. Having said that, it is difficult to separate the man from his performance.

As to the second phrase—to comfort the afflicted—Trudeau suggests that laughter and satire are at least antidotes to Trump’s bumbling and cruelty. Again Trudeau wrote:

If the president is determined to fill our every waking moment with revulsion and outrage, our solace is to see it all mercilessly mocked in a kind of therapeutic reset before bedtime.

And:

[J]ust because two-fifths of the country are still in the thrall of a humungous con 'like no one’s ever seen before,’ doesn’t mean that the rest of us—appalled, disenfranchised, withering in embarrassment for our country—should forgo the comfort of laughter. At this benighted moment, it’s all we have.

Sobering but encouraging. So, I laugh because it’s therapeutic and comforting, and because it’s all I have. I laugh because it mocks the new American normal where the leader of our country falls in love with a cruel dictator and calls a woman Horseface. I laugh because, at least not yet, our man-child president and his supporters can’t stop me. Admittedly, my laughter won’t bring down a president, but still it is something.

I had a dear friend many years ago who said that in our age laughter is a prophetic act. That is so true now. We must laugh in the face of this political and personal cruelty and danger as if it will change the world.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Oct102018

Rainy Day Musings on My Insignificance

It has occurred to me that I serve no purpose. I don’t say this because I am struck with some morbid debilitating melancholy. I don’t say it because I am depressed by self-doubt. I don’t say it because I am afflicted with self-loathing. No, all in all, I’m okay with myself. Yes, improvements could be made, but overall I’m okay. At least for now. Still, three immediate points need to be made.

One, a cold hard rain is falling outside my window.

Two, I’m saying I serve no purpose, not that have no purpose.

Here’s the definition of “have”(today I’m using the English Oxford Living Dictionary):  

  1. Possess (a quality, characteristic, or feature)
  2. Provide or indulge oneself with (something)
  3. Be made up of; comprise.
  4. Used to indicate a particular relationship.
  5. Be able to make use of (something available or at ones disposal).
  6. Have gained (a qualification).
  7. Possess as an intellectual attainment; know (a language or subject).

I clearly have a purpose. My very existence mandates I have a purpose. Well-being. Health. Self-improvement. I have qualities and characteristics and features. Who doesn’t. Yes, I do indulge myself (sometimes). Not answering the phone. The extra glass of wine. The money I spend on books, cooking magazines, the occasional t-shirt advertised on Facebook. I’m made up of a seemingly endless assortment of experiences, influences, memories, thoughts, feelings, and relationships. I have a wife. I have friends. I have acquaintances. I have enemies. I make use of many many things. How could I not? I have gained qualifications. Two, almost three. And I know a hell of a lot of things. I’ve been around for a while after all. I have purpose. But none of this is what I’m talking about.

Here’s the definition of “serve” (again the English Oxford Living Dictionary):

  1. Provide (an area or group of people) with a product or service.
  2. Be employed as a member of the armed forces.
  3. Spend (a period) in office, in an apprenticeship, or in prison.
  4. Present (food or drink) to someone.

At first glance, it would seem I also serve a purpose. While I do not provide anyone with a product or service, at least not in the formal sense, I’m not in the armed forces, and I’m not in an office, apprenticeship or prison, I do provide someone with food and drink. Which leads me to the third immediate point I need to make.

Three, when I say I serve no purpose I’m talking about the big picture, the grand scheme of things, the whole damn universe, not the everydayness of life. In the everydayness  of things I cook my wife’s dinners and she counts on my doing so. I serve a purpose. I share my body with some 90 million microbes. About 57% of the cells in my body are not mine. They belong to around ten thousand other species. I’m a walking ecosystem. I definitely serve a purpose every day. I keep 90 million microbes alive, not to mention all the tiny creatures making their home in and on my skin, and I present food and drink to my wife, just to name two of the more important services I provide. But again, these kinds of services are not what I’m talking about.

Perhaps if I quote John Lennon it will help to make my point. Actually, perhaps if I tear All You Need is Love[1] apart a bit, leaving out the “all you need is love” bit, you’ll understand.

There's nothing you can do that can't be done Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy
Nothing you can make that can't be made
No one you can save that can't be saved
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time
It's easy

There's nothing you can know that isn't known
Nothing you can see that isn't shown
There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be
It's easy

I’m a big Beatles fan and I know the song was more than well received in 1968. All you need is love, and flower power. But for me at least, while love is great, love is imperative, it’s not all we need, not in the face of the above lyrics. Not in the face of one’s utter irrelevance, so callously made obvious by Lennon. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I relate better to what Devin McKinney wrote about the song[2]:

Even the anthem written as benedictory to the Beatle-hippie triumph, “All You Need Is Love,” was conflicted: buoyed by an aura of revelry, it was at its core as bone-tired and fuzzy-tongued as the ragged end of a long party. John sang the words of the title with an unmistakable flatness of vocal aspect, laying sarcasm and the smack of chewing gum between the lines.

And, of course, “it” isn’t easy. More than not “it” is hard. Certainly learning how to play the game, which ever game you’re talking about, can be hard. Ian MacDonald described the “It’s easy” refrain as “half-ingenuous, half-sarcastic.”[3] However, I digress. I don’t really care if the song was the flower power anthem of all time or the most shallow, lazy, cynical lyric ever written. My point here is that it nicely represents how I feel about things on this raining cold day. Nothing I have done hasn’t been done before. Nothing I can imagine hasn’t been imagined before. It’s even possible, nothing I have thought hasn’t been thought before.

Over dinner I asked my wife what the difference was between having a purpose and serving a purpose. Without hesitation she said: “Having a purpose is about identity. Serving a purpose is about utility.” She was right. Having a purpose is easy, in that I am the purpose. But serving a purpose, having genuine and unique utility, now that’s something else. I serve no unique utility, or if the word utility seems too mechanical, substitute efficacy, or effectiveness, or even worth.

Remembering we’re taking about the really big picture, it’s time to ask: So where’s the light?

Václav Havel wrote, and I must confess I don’t remember where, that the Soviet dominance in eastern and central Europe collapsed in part due to the almost entirely unnoticed actions of individuals. He gave this example: A person writes an samizdat essay, makes twelve carbon copies which are handed from reader to reader. The act itself is insignificant—twelve copies of one essay read by a handful of people in the face of Soviet oppression. However, Havel insists that the accumulation of virtually invisible acts brought down the great Soviet edifice. If true, that unseen writer with his almost unnoticed essay had a purpose in the big scheme of things. 

Let me put it another way. The moral and ethical integrity of an act is not determined by its efficacy. Years ago when the world began acting to end apartheid in South Africa, I withdrew my $500 from the Bank of America because of that bank’s investments in that country. I wrote a letter to the bank president explaining the reasons for my decision and actions. I never heard back from the president. I dare say, the withdrawal of my pitiful $500 went unnoticed in the bank. However, two things are important here.

First, the moral integrity of my decision and action was not undermined by the efficacy of the action. Regardless of the acts almost meaninglessness in the big picture, the bank, it still had value and served a purpose, in this case the purpose of moral/ethical integrity. Obviously I’m making an assumption here, that moral and ethical integrity are import in the big picture.

Two, like the thousands of invisible samizdat writers in Eastern Europe years ago, the accumulative effect of little people like me removing our money from a big bank did eventually have an impact, and since I was one of the invisibles, I too served a purpose.

I think that’s the best I can do, though more thought may be needed. Or, perhaps, a sunny day would help.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger


[1] All You need is Love by the Beatles, credited to Lennon—McCartney, but written by John Lennon.

[2] McKinney, Devin. Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 200.

[3] MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. London: Fourth Estate, 1994, p. 210.

Wednesday
Sep262018

The Great Philosophical Question about Half Filled Glasses

I often say this to people:

When someone asks me if my glass is half empty or half full I say: ‘Glass? What glass? Where the hell did you get a glass?’

Of course I mean it as a joke, an exaggeration. Still, while it implies that sometimes my glass is way worse than half empty, it certainly does state that within the parameters of the question, my glass is always half empty.

I suspect it is generally thought that having a glass half full is better than having one half empty, and the implication of that is that people with half full glasses are better off than people with glasses half empty. After all, being an optimist must be better than being a pessimist. Optimist are happy, pessimists are unhappy. Right?

I googled like crazy to discover the etymology of the idiom, but could find no consensus. However, I did find two references. The first claims the first recorded citation of the words came in 1985 from a Ronald Reagan quote in the New York Times: “you can say it’s like the glass half full or half empty…” I confess it’s hard for me to believe that a great psychological and philosophical tool came from Ronald Reagan, but as we know Trump is making all past Republican presidents look great.

The second reference claims that the expression is part of a proverb that originated in the first half of the 1900s. The proverb asks whether a glass that contains 50% water and 50% air is half full or half empty. Obviously in the proverb the glass is always full, so if you say the glass is half empty you have a negative worldview and if you say it is half full you have a positive world view.

There are, of course, two ways to ask the glass question: Is your glass half empty or half full; and, is the glass half empty or half full. The first is psychological and the second philosophical. The first can be seen as a kind of litmus test to determine a person’s psychology and/or worldview. The second indicates that a particular situation can be seen in different ways, both positive and negative.  

I’ve often found that half full people don’t appreciate my half empty perspective, and on occasion get downright annoyed with me—for God’s sake quit all your bitching. Here’s the thing:

Whether it was the cause of nature or nurture, or both, ever since I can remember there has always been a “but” in my life. My mom says, “It’s a beautiful morning,” and I respond, “But it might rain this afternoon.” My wife says, “The Paris climate change accord is a great step forward,” and I respond, “But it all depends on follow through, which is doubtful.” I say to myself, “I have a wonderful home,” and respond to myself, “But millions of people are living in abject poverty.”

Somewhere along the way I realize that this “but” and my half empty glass area a sensible technique for maneuvering my way through life. It dawned on me a long time ago that my “but” and my glass are not signs of negativity but evidence that I embrace a hermeneutic of suspicion and always have.

The term “hermeneutic of suspicion” was first coined by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his work of interpreting texts. In general “hermeneutics” is the theory of interpretation and began with the interpretation of biblical texts. Since the nineteenth century the term and methodology have been expanded to include the interpretation of all texts, including literary fiction, pop songs, legal documents, etc.

Ricoeur was uncomfortable with, indeed suspicious of, the notion that we the reader are capable of discerning the intentions of the author, especially if the author had been dead for some time. He thus wanted to ground his interpretation in objectivity, rather than in a subjective reading of an author’s intentions. In other words, he wanted to ground his interpretation in the text itself, not in the author’s mind. He believed that the text itself will guide us to its correct truth, though it is imperative to appreciate that “the truth” included a range of possible understandings. But, while there may be many interpretation of the truth of a text, there is not an unlimited number of valid interpretations. Because there may be a range of possible truths, but not an unlimited number of truths, it is important to proceed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Ricoeur argued that we had to remain open to what the text is saying to us, which he believed could and would lead us to its truth. Ricoeur wrote, "Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience."[1] In a nutshell: be suspicious and be open; remain disciplined and meticulousness.

As the term and methodology moved from biblical texts to all texts, it has also moved from textual analysis to the areas of cultural, social, anthropological, feminist, and theological studies.[2] In cultural, and particularly feminist interpretations, the methodology demands we are suspicious of the dominant culture, politics, status quo. A theologically a hermeneutic of suspicion states that all aspects of God’s good creation can become bad.[3] So, borrowing from Ricoeur’s textual methodology, we must be suspicious of human thought, practice, traditions, behaviors and be open to what they can tell us. We must be disciplined and, as far as possible, objective in our study.

I had no way of knowing it, but as a child I embraced a hermeneutic of suspicion. It’s the “but.” It’s the half empty glass. It’s the best way I can survive the journey of life. It is not negativity or negation. It’s suspicion. It is not hopelessness. It is suspicion. It’s not the denial of sunshine. It’s the steadfast refusal to forget or ignore that dark clouds have gathered somewhere.

Admittedly, an all embracing hermeneutic of suspicion is a challenge to maintaining a steady state of happiness. Still, I’m comfortable with who I am. Those who find me unbearable can always unfriend me, though I bet they wouldn’t mind having me around if those dark clouds are gathering around them.

I do wonder from time to time what I would say about the glass if it were half filled with red wine and air.


[1] Ricoeur, Paul, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 27.

[2] Often people utilizing a hermeneutic of suspicion treat the cultural, social, or theological area of study as if it were a text.

[3] Even love if an obsession becomes a negative.

Wednesday
Sep122018

Remembering One Hot Summer in Areopolis ~ Joy, Spiders, and Bemused Tourists

Years ago I had a friend who owned a small house in Areopolis, Greece. I once spent a month there by myself. I spent a lot of time sitting in a taverna called Estiatopion writing in my journal.

Areopolis was hot. As I sat in a taverna on the piatsa I knew just how hot. The taverna was called the Estiatopion. It was owned and run by a family and a young girl served me as often as not. I would discover that her name was Joy in English. She found my name interesting and was utterly curious about me. She asked in broken English, what I was doing and, as best I could, I explained I was writing down in a journal what I was seeing and experiencing and that she was now  in my journal as well. When she finally understood, she was thrilled and beautifully self-conscious.

AreopolisI sat drinking retsina taken from a large wooden barrel in the kitchen and served in an orange aluminium half pint pitcher, old, chipped, and dented. Before me, on the railing of the taverna, was a spider weaving its evening web. I could not see the web itself nor where it was attached to the railing. It seemed the spider hung in mid-air, oblivious to the demands of gravity. It was, nonetheless, busy, creating invisible and dangerous threads.

From my table I looked out upon the open piatsa. To my left was one of the twenty churches in Areopolis, small, attractive, well taken care of, and open. I wondered what purpose it served here on the public plaza. Perhaps just the purpose of being taken care of. Perhaps witness.

As I poured more retsina into a small glass, the spider finished its construction and sat quietly and patiently in the middle of its web. Joy came from inside the taverna with my bread, tzatziki and salad. As a gift she brought me watermelon. She seemed to like me, and that was welcomed. The spider made its first catch, a small gnat, the very kind that liked to swim along the surface of my retsina. A little girl passing in front of the church crossed herself three times. In the piatsa boys played football, young men strutted their stuff, and young girls tossed their hair. At a table to my right a grandfather ate with his grandson, demonstrating such tenderness toward the boy that it almost brought tears to my eyes.

AreopolisThe next day Areopolis was hotter still and I returned to the Estiatopion. Joy brought me a frappe without my asking. The Estiatopion was one of five tavernas in a row facing the piatsa. To the right was Nicola's Corner. Interestingly, Nicola's was the second in the row, not on the corner at all. Obviously, Nicola (and I chose to assume there actually was a Nicola) did not want us to read the word "corner" literally. In fact, Nicola demanded that we put aside our Enlightenment and scientific positivistic seductions and deceptions and read corner poetically. If we did not, could not, we missed the whole point, and poor Nicola would turn out looking like a bloody fool. But if we did, well, the word "corner" would evoke all kinds of images, feelings and desires, some of which Nicola's Corner would satisfy. But I mention Nicola's Corner because it was also where the buses stopped. Local buses, Athens buses, tourist buses.

Opposite Nicola's Corner, across the street, on the actual corner of the piatsa was a small kiosk. Inside the kiosk sat an old woman in black. She sat there all day and late into the night. She sold ice cream, smokes, snacks of all kinds, plastic offensive toy weapons and time on the telephone. You really had to want the time, however. It was expensive.

About half the piatsa was covered with tables and chairs owned by the five tavernas and identified by territory and colour. Whites, yellows, reds, striped large coverings on metal frames, huge white umbrellas all busy until midnight. Also on the piatsa was a statue of the local hero who started  a revolution that swept across old Greece.

Petros MierrokasAreopolis is a town on the Mani Peninsula and the name means the “city of Ares,” the ancient Greek god of war. On March 17, 1821 the Greek War of Independence was started in Areopolis by Petros Mierrokas, the very man now standing frozen in time in the piatsa. Now the children play at the base of Mierrokas’s statue. The weeds grow and the tourists take pictures, though I'm sure they have no idea who the man with the large sword actually was.

As I sat drinking my frappe, a tourist bus arrived in front of Nicola's Corner. From it exited, it seemed to me rather reluctantly, white, limp, camera laden tourists. Some came straight to Nicola's Corner and took a seat. One family ventured up the three steps of Estiatopion. Some walked across the street to the piatsa and took pictures of the local statue. And a few ventured into town.  

The centre of Areopolis was to the right of the piatsa perhaps 100 meters down a narrow street. As these few adventurers walked down that street, they passed a post office, a chemist, a couple of old markets selling fruits and vegetables, and a few rather cheap shops selling goods to tourists. At the point where the road narrowed still more, they turned and came back to the bus. There they hovered aimlessly waiting for the bus engine to come to life and the door to open.

Sadly, if they had continued walking, they would have entered the old plaza at the end of the narrow street. They would have walked upon cobbles aching with age and history, the actual place where the local hero began the revolution. They would have seen the old church and the old bakery. If they had had real courage, they would have bent low to pass through the small door of the bakery, tripped over hard bread covering every inch of surface space, and seen an old woman sweeping soot out of an older stone oven with a carbon black cloth on the end of a long wooden pole. Outside the bakery, they would have seen old houses and the famous Mani towers. But instead they returned to their bus.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Aug292018

What Did Sandy and Heihei See in the Dark ~ I Don’t Really Want to Know

I have been fortunate to welcome in my home two nonhuman guests. I know the “nonhuman” is insulting. It’s like saying “nonwhites” or that women are human beings without penises. Nonetheless, both were female mammals, the first a small dog by the name of Sandy and the second a kitten called Heihei. I have to say both Alexa and Hey Google were somewhat vague on the meaning of the name Heihei and so I had to email Heihei’s owners who are Chinese. Heihei is a Cantonese name, the Chinese character being . The name means “joyjoy.” Fortunately, Alexa and Hey Google were more forthcoming with the name Sandy: originally a diminutive of Alexander and as a feminine name a diminutive of Alexandra or Sandra. Of course, it also refers to a color and in the case of my guest it was very appropriate. Sandy means “protector of humankind.” I have no difficulty seeing Sandy as a protector, in this case of me for a week, and Heihei as joyous. She sure liked to play, or sleep. It was playing or sleeping and not much else. However, I digress.  

I must say, Sandy and Heihei were excellent guest, though I found Heihei more challenging—I did worry sometimes her very sharp claws would meet my favorite brown chair in the snug, which I will get to momentarily. They both were pleasant and enjoyable to have for the week each stayed. They both enjoyed playing and neither did any damage. They both liked to sleep in my lap. They both quickly became loving companions. For the record, they were much better guests than some humans I’ve had, though it’s best not to elaborate. It was sad to say goodbye to Sandy and Heihei when their respective weeks ended. However, there is a “however” coming.

SandyIf you sit on my sofa in the living room, across the room the dining area is directly in front of you and the kitchen to the left of the dining area. At a 45 degree angle to your left in a direct line of sight is a small room my wife and I call “the snug” (we lived in Britain for 30 years). The snug is where Roberta practices her cello and I read, though not at the same time, obviously. It’s a very pleasant room with three bookshelves descending in height from tall to medium to short along one wall. There is a big leather chair and foot rest in the corner next to small and large windows. In the summer I open the large window and luxuriate in a gentle breeze while reading. There are large and small cabinets, a floor lamp next to the chair, and a small table lamp on the small cabinet in the corner opposite the chair and windows. Above the medium bookshelf are two original paintings from Venice and above the small bookshelf an original piece from Shanghai. To the right of the large window, as you look at the window, is a 300 year old map of Scotland (I’m still fascinated that I own a map older than the United States of America). Above the large cabinet is an abstract metal sculpture holding several small candles. And above the small cabinet is a painting by my wife’s father. All in all, it may be the most pleasant room in the house.

On more than a few occasions, as the evening was slipping into night, and night into late, while Sandy and, then months later, Heihei were sitting with me on the couch, they both, independently and in their unique way, suddenly struck a pose of what I can only describe as extreme alertness. Their back feet on the couch seat and their front feet on the arm of the couch, they held their bodies perfectly still and rigidly tense. Their faces were frozen concentration. Though it sounds contradictory, they both looked ready to attack or flee at a moment’s notice. When I turned to them and asked what they saw, neither moved. Neither turned her head towards me. Neither acknowledged my existence. Their eyes remained staring lasers-like into the dark snug.

I’m not a superstitious person, though I must confess I am afraid of the dark, just a little. I assume my fear is simply a species specific genetic inheritance. Such is life. However, I must also confess, seeing first Sandy and then Heihei so suddenly and utterly zoned in on the dark snug did make me to feel more than a little uneasy. As I said, when I questioned them, neither acknowledged my presence when just a moment ago we were pleasantly watching TV together.

HeiheiOf course I assumed they were seeing or sensing something in the snug that I could not see or sense. The fact that two different mammalian species independently and at different times from one another had almost identical reactions to the sung served to confirm that supposition. I also assumed that the “something” either seen or sensed, or both of course, was more ethereal than corporeal. And I chose to believe that whatever Sandy and Heihei were seeing/sensing was benign, if not friendly. I chose to believe this because the snug is such a welcoming and peaceful space.

Do I believe anything I just said? Probably not. Do I believe in ghosts? Probably not. Do I believe animals can see/sense things I can’t? Probably yes. I have come to think that being agnostic about many aspects of reality is probably the more intelligent and reasonable way to be. Am I agnostic about everything? Absolutely not? Am I agnostic about what’s going in on my snug late at not? Probably yes? Do I read in the snug late at night, even without my mammalian friends? Definitely yes. Do I wish I could somehow “speak” with Sandy and Heihei in order to identify what they were experiencing? Probably not. Eventually they both turned their heads to look at me, then back at the snug, and then did an about face and returned to my lap. Neither seemed concerned. In fact, both fell asleep.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Aug082018

David Bean ~ Remembering an Author

From June 1985 to June 1986 I lived in Castle Carrock, a small village in Cumbria, Great Britain. I rented a small cottage in the village and across the narrow street was a pub called the Duke of Cumberland. The pub was run by Lynn and John, a married couple from Edinburgh. Lynn had been a journalist and John an architect, both giving up the fast life to run a small country pub, at least for a while.

It was in this pub that I met David Bean. I don’t remember how it got started, but I gathered with a small group of men each Tuesday early evening for our “Tuesday Seminar.” The group consisted of a doctor, an architect (John, also pulling pints behind the bar), an ophthalmologist, a minister (me, at the time), and an author (of course, David Bean). We talked about life, the universe, and everything as we drank pints of beer, and the occasional whiskey (it was the doctor, Hugh, who introduced me to Macallan).

I was in the village on a year’s leave from the San Francisco Bay Area supposedly writing my Ph.D. dissertation. For reasons not important now—in fact they hardly matter anymore it was so long ago—I never did get my proposal accepted and instead turned to writing a somewhat mediocre novel (if only I had known at the time).

David BeanI’m pretty sure, unless your British, you will have never heard of David Bean. Nonetheless, he was a human being worth knowing and an author worth reading. He’s certainly worth remembering. David and I became passing friends during that year. He smoked a pipe and I remember the first time I got in his small somewhat beat up red car the floor, on both the driver and passenger sides, was completely carpeted with Swann matches—his match of choice for lighting his pipe. When I knew him he had brown hair and beard, and a face that was both intelligent and kind. We talked books and plays. He gave me a copy of his books Sounding Brass and The Hard Case. I would recommend both, though The Hard Case is the better. I believe his first published novel was The Day of the Bugles. I haven’t read it yet, but did find a hardback copy on AbeBooks.com.

David died at the age of 80 in hospital. I found part of an obituary in The Journal (Newcastle, England) but unfortunately there was not a date included. Nonetheless, David worked for various newspapers when he went north from London to live. In 1960 he went freelance and wrote for The Guardian and the BBC. He wrote plays for Radio Four and films for the BBC. His novels include: The Day of the Bugles; Sounding Brass; The Hard Case; The Big Meeting; Waster’s Sabbath; The Restoration; The Chronicles of Boggerthwaite: An Everyday Story of Lakeland Folk; and more. (That’s all I got from the obituary because I could only read a portion. To read the rest would have meant joining Questia for an outrageous cost.)

When I remember that year in Castle Carrock the two people I think of the most are John (the Duke of Cumberland) and David. Towards the end of my year, during a beautiful summer, David asked me to listen to a play he had written being performed on Radio Four. I said I would, but I didn’t. I don’t remember why, but I do remember the look of disappointment on his face when I told him I had missed it. No BBC on demand back then, so the play was gone. Here was a man who made his living by writing, and he had respected me enough to ask me to listen to his play so we could then discuss it. What makes it even worse is I had asked him to read my novel, and he did!

The novel was entitled The Night is Nearly Over. David’s first comment when we were sitting outside at The Duke on a sunny day under an umbrella was that he wasn’t overly impressed by the title. He had written ten comments about my book, three of which he said were major and seven minor (the comment about the title actually made eleven). We sat drinking our pints and he graciously, kindly, intelligently, respectively talked about my book. When he was done he said something like this: “Those are my thoughts. I could be wrong. It might sell a million.” It didn’t.

David Bean at the Duke of CumberlandThe Night is Nearly Over never got published, though I still have a copy which is sitting on the desk to the left of my computer staring me in the face as I write this. It’s a story of locked in syndrome, lucid dreaming, religious fundamentalism, political intrigue, and love (of course). It begins: “Arthur Mohandas Desai found himself on the corner of High and George IV in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was the twilight hour. The streets were empty.” Perhaps now you have an idea why it was never publish. And was the reference to Scotland really necessary?

I kept a journal that year and only made one reference to David Bean:

I have read The Hard Case and it was very good. David agreed to read The Night is Nearly Over. I have, of course, mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I am very pleased. It is my hope that he likes it and also gives me tips. On the other hand, he may hate the book and give me reason for depression. I have a hope to learn the art of writing. I need some reason to continue.

Poor me! I must have been scared to death. “Need some reason to continue,” indeed. There was no reason to be nervous. David Bean was a kind soul and a good writer. He was not famous, but he did good work, and a lot of it. As The Journal wrote: "Since 1959, Mr Bean is said to have written more than 500 documentaries for television and a comparable number for Radio Four." He wasn’t wealthy, but he made his living and made a difference to people. To ask for more in life might be a bit boorish.

I will always remember his smile, his pipe, the Swan matches, sitting in The Duke of Cumberland drinking more than one pint of bitter, certainly his books, but most of all sitting at the outside table of The Duke talking about my first novel. Too bad about the play.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Aug012018

Climate Change ~ I Chose Option 2 and So Should You

I’ve become involved in an energy program in my wife’s church that will increase the energy efficiency of the building, to include changes to lighting, heating, insulation, and the installation of solar panels. Two people came to the church to conduct a survey of the building. They walked through the building asking questions and taking notes. They climbed up on the roof. They turned on their laptop to give us the lowdown on the benefits of solar panels. It was all very interesting and encouraging.

Towards the end of our time together I had a conversation with the person responsible for upgrades to the building. She told me that as a climate change scientist she had made several visits to the arctic and that at one point a number of years passed before returning. When she finally did return she was shocked by the changes in the environment due to climate changes. As a result of the shock, she decided to form a company to help people counter climate change by improving their energy usage.

She said something that moved me to respond, “Yeah, when I see a small child I think to myself that that child might see the end of human civilization.” She responded without missing a beat, “Oh, it’s not might.”

She was dead serious and I confessed that I said “might” because I didn’t want to sound alarmist and crazy, but that in fact I believed human civilization was coming to an end due to climate change and that I was only slightly agnostic about the extinction of our species, along with the millions of other species we will be taking with us. She agreed, again without hesitation and with frightening seriousness. I almost asked her that if she believed things were going to collapse and our very survival was a risk, why she does what she does. I stopped myself, because I thought I knew what she would say.

 If you believe it is too late and the collapse is coming, and especially if you believe the extinction is inevitable, you can do one of two things:

Option 1: You can say there’s nothing you can do to prevent the tragedy, so you’re going to live your life as if the end weren’t coming. You’ll fly here and there. You’ll heat your home with fossil fuels and as warm as you want. You’ll drive a gas consuming polluting car and maybe a big one at that. You’ll invest your money where you can make the most profit, even if it’s in fossil fuels. You’ll eat steak. You’ll use plastic bags to carry your groceries and use your plastic straw only once before throwing it away. You’ll continue to vote Republican (in the US). You’ll do whatever you damn well please because it doesn’t matter anyway. And you certainly won’t waste good money on special light bulbs and solar panels.

Option 2: You can conclude that even if there is nothing you can do to prevent the inevitable collapse, your helplessness and the inevitability does not relieve you of the moral and ethical obligation to live as if your choices and behavior can change the future for the better. Of course it goes without saying, if you chose Option 2, you have to avoid as best you can all those things in Option 1, including voting for Republican Party candidates.

I’ve opted for Option 2, which does not in any way make me a hero. It’s just the choice I’ve made, even though I believe there is little to no hope. And to that end, my wife and I have bought an all-electric car, we rarely use the central heating in our house (each room can be warmed separately), we’ve been replacing the lightbulbs, we’ve made sure the house is properly insulated, we mostly eat vegetarian (though I do eat fish and poultry and the very occasional hamburger in the summer), we’re looking into installing solar panels (when we can afford it), etc.

Unfortunately, not believing climate change is real—like a rock is real, like the round earth is real, like gravity is real—doesn’t make it go away. Disbelieve all you want. Your foot will still hurt if you drop a rock on it. You still have to fly around the earth to get to the other side, not under it. You’re still stuck to the planet. While we can disagree if the sunset is beautiful or not, whether or not the Beatles was the best band ever (obviously it was!), we certainly should not be disagreeing on whether or not the earth is round (here’s a heads-up, NASA checked, it is), and whether the earth is hotting up.

Be clear about one thing. You do not install solar panels to save the planet. The planet will do just fine without us, probably better. Earth can host life for another 1.75 billion years. After we’re gone, and, again, having taken millions of innocent species with us, the earth will recover and numerous forms of life will emerge and thrive. No, the solar panels are an attempt to save ourselves.

If you think I actually am a crazy alarmist always bitching about my glass being empty, I would suggest you’re not keeping up. The human species is facing its greatest existential crisis, ever. Just three very real, real like the rock and the round earth, hints to get you started:

Watch the Methane (CH4)

You think CO2 is bad. CO2 is nothing compared to CH4 now bubbling out of the Arctic oceans and spewing from the permafrost. CH4 traps up to 100 times more heat than CO2 in a five year period and 72 times more heat in a 20 year period. The good news is that CH4 decays into CO2 within a decade or two. However, while it’s in the atmosphere it warms the planet on steroids for that decade or two. Of course, CH4 begets CH4 in a positive feedback loop. As this particular climate steroid heats the planet scientist talk of a Methane Tomb Bomb and a 50-gigaton (that’s 50 billion ton) “burb” of methane from the thawing Arctic permafrost as highly possible at any time. And remember, CH4 is constantly being released into the atmosphere. So don’t take too much comfort in that decade thing, if you know what I mean.

Watch the WBT

WBT stands for “wet bulb” temperature, a measurement of the deadly combination of heat and humidity. Once WBT reaches 35C the air is so hot and humid the human body cannot cool itself by sweating. Even healthy people die within six hours. Your body won’t really care if you believe in climate change or not. It will still die. By the way, we are already nearing a WBT of 35C in many parts of the world. Since air conditioning feeds climate warming, don’t put your hopes there. It’s another one of those nasty climate change positive feedback loops.

Watch the Coastlines

The maps included with this blog give an indication of what the earth will look like after climate change. The earth’s coastlines will change dramatically as the sea level rises due to the melting ice sheets and glaciers. As I write, Iceland and Greenland are melting. Bad news for New York, London, Shanghai, to name but three huge coastal cities. It's estimated that over 634 million people live in coastal areas that are at risk of rising sea levels. This number represents one-tenth of the global population—at present! As the sea levels rise and coastal cities fail to cope, a lot of people are going to migrate inland. Raise your hand if you think that will happen peacefully.

I could go on, but those three very real and well-argued expected changes should get you started. My advice: chose Option 2. After all, maybe I’m wrong about the future. If I am, you might help save civilization and the species (and I’m sure the millions of species on the planet will be very grateful). If I’m right, well, perhaps you can postpone the inevitable for a little while, but if not, you can still feel really good about yourself. However, if you have children and grandchildren, you have no excuse. Option 2 is really your only choice if you want to be both honest with yourself and sleep at night.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Friday
Jun292018

You Got a Revolution, Just Not the One You Expected

For those of you who, like Susan Sarandon (a most articulate spokesperson for the cause), thought it best to have Trump instead of Clinton as your president because reaction to a Trump presidency would usher in an immediate Sanders-like revolution, well you got a revolution, just not the one you expected. Thanks.

Make no mistake, we are living in a political revolution. The president of the United States attacks, and thus far fairly successful if the polls are to be trusted, every foundational principle of our democracy:

The president of the United States seems to favor authoritarian rulers even as he criticizes and attracts our allies. He supports and praises rightwing nationalists groups in Europe that want nothing less than the break-up of the European Union. Some of the rulers Trump has voiced support for or admiration of: Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), Kim Jung-un (North Korea), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Prayut Chan-o-cha (Thailand), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Marine Le Pen (France), Nigel Farage (Great Britain).

The president of the United States is undermining the agreed consensus of the West (political, economic, and military) that has been in place since the fall of Hitler and fascism, which can only delight Putin and Xi Jinping, and maybe his new friend Kim Jong-um. He declared that NATO is a “bad thing.” Europe is actually having to ask itself it the United States is now an unreliable if not hostile state. Trump tried to persuade France to leave the European Union

The president of the United States said that there were good people among Nazi marchers. He’s a favorite among the KKK, American Nazis, and the alt-right. He has brought known white supremacist into the White House.

The president of the United States has, not only encourage violence, but has called for it (against protestors and suggested the police should treat suspected offenders with more aggressiveness).

The president of the United States is in large part defined by his mendacity, so impressive that it is difficult to believe anything coming out of his mouth. The Washington Post has documented his lying: 3001 lies in the first 466 days of this presidency, or 6.5 lies a day. The lying, while a reflection of the man’s character, is much more than a personal failure. Trump’s lying undermine our shared understanding of what is factual and thus our very democracy. As James Pfiffner writing for Brookings reminds us, the frequency and character of his lying contradict our commonly held understanding of the Enlightenment principle that there are actually things we identify as objective facts identified through rationality, investigation, empirical evidence, and the scientific method. Given that “political discourse involves making logical arguments and adducing evidence in support of those arguments,” the very nature of our democratic process is undermined by a president who apparently can’t stop lying.  Pfiffner writes:   

Even though his narcissistic lies are detrimental to the democratic process, Trump’s continued adherence to demonstrably false statements about politics and policy strikes at the very heart of democracy and the whole project of enlightenment epistemology. If there are no agreed upon facts, then it becomes impossible for people to make judgments about their government or hold it accountable.

You were right. Trump did usher in a revolution (and I haven’t even begun to address his supporting cast: his kleptocratic gang in the White House and cabinet, and, of course, the radical rouge party known as the Republican Party). We are now beginning to reap the benefits of the revolution, which include, to name only a few:

  • A budget that supports the oligarchy and vastly increases the national debt;
  • A radical dismantling of provision for ordinary people in favor of the oligarchy;
  • A possible trade war that is already costing the jobs of some those forgotten and left behind workers;
  • The legalization of gerrymandering;
  • The attack on Medicare and Medicare;
  • The sabotage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare);
  • ICE and the separation of families;
  • The suggestion to cancel due process and the rule of law on our national borders; and
  • A travel ban based on people’s religious faith.
But let me mention one consequence which is having a profound impact one our society and will continue to do so for decades into the future: The Supreme Court.

This really is American politics 101. The president nominates a candidate to become a Supreme Court justice. The Senate confirms by a simple majority. Through a political coup Trump has so far nominated one justice. Given that Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump will nominate, and the Senate will confirm, a second right-wing judge to the Court. And given Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s age, it is not totally unreasonable to worry that Trump will nominate a third. The implications of a rightwing Court are frightening to think about. Of course, Clinton would have nominated moderate to liberal judges, but you wanted a Sanders-like revolution.


Well, suck it up. Fasten your seatbelt. Things are going to get much worse. And there’s nothing you can do about the next Supreme Court appointment. As it stands, given that it takes a simple majority to confirm a candidate, there is nothing the Democrats can do to stop an confirmation before the November elections. Not fair I hear you cry, since the GOP help denied Obama a nomination with almost a year until the next election. Hypocrisy you scream. Do you think the GOP gives a damn about fairness and hypocrisy? Get real. It’s a done deal. So resist all you want, but remember this resistance will last for decades. You can’t vote out a Supreme Court justice. They leave when they retire or die.

Yea, Clinton wasn’t perfect. She didn’t embrace all your values. It didn’t occur to you that the election wasn’t just about you. It was about the commonwealth and the common good.

Well, welcome to the revolution.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Jun132018

How to Live in Trumpland ~ Being in Such a State as to Be Ready to Do or Suffer Something

A good friend posed the following question: How do we fit ourselves into these obviously bad times? He repeated the question a couple of time always using the word “fit.” The question came from a conversation we were having about the now burden of conviction that to be a good person and citizen we needed to be informed and that the act of being  informed, in “these obviously bad times,” was depressing, really depressing. My friend said he simply could not digest the news in the morning because he had to prepare for work (he teaches at a major university) and needs to be in the right state of mind. I said I read the news first thing in the morning, but for the first time in my life I was thinking about creating a news free zone around myself—no reading, listening to, or watching news, ever.

I’ve written about this before from the angle of happiness: Pursuing Both Knowledge and Happiness ~ The Impossible Possibility, April 14, 2014. 2014 was way before America became Trumpland. I had no idea at the time how bad things could get and what I wrote in 2014 may be inadequate for living in Trumpland in 2018, though perhaps not. My friend and I agreed it did no one any good, most of all ourselves, if we were depressed all the time, that we had to find a way to fit, because being uninformed was not acceptable.

The word “fit” is interesting in this context. I had reworded the question in my mind: How do we situate ourselves in these obviously bad times? Or: How do we live day to day in these obviously bad times? Nonetheless, I looked up the word “fit” on line. I found the obvious expected definitions, but down the list was this:

Being in such a state as to be or seem ready to do or suffer something.

This made sense to me. To live in Trumpland, in these obviously bad times, I have to be in such a state (of mind, heart) to be ready to do something and, perhaps more importantly, to suffer something—as you see, I dropped the “or seem ready” because for me to simply give the appearance of being in a state of mind to be ready to do or suffer seems disingenuous. This is no time to fake it. So, in order to “fit” in these obviously bad times, I need to be in such a state that I am ready to do something and very possibly suffer something. I suspect the something to do and maybe to suffer won’t be hard to find.

In our conversation I identified three areas that make it difficult to fit, of which I share here very briefly, comments being mere hints of what is happening. I’ll start with the least dramatic of the three, which is saying something about how bad these obviously bad times. 

 

Living in an Immoral Society Governed by a Kleptocracy  

I find it difficult and distasteful living in the kind of society that Trump, his kleptocratic gang, and the Republican Party, a party that by any historical standards has gone rogue,  are creating, though live in it I must. Just three examples:

  • Trump campaigned to make American great again for the working class that had been left behind. In fact, he and GOP invertebrates are doing what should have been expected of millionaires and billionaires. They are protecting and nurturing the American oligarchy. Have a look at the budget.[1]
  • America is now the country that separates children from their parents, not as an effort to protect the children, but to punish the parents and to discourage immigration. We traumatize children to punish their parents. Immigration is complicated and impactful, but a stated policy to separate children from their parents is deplorable. As our Attorney General Jeff Session said: “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
  • The rise of white supremacy, racism, Nazi rallies. The worse of our society have been emboldened to climb out from under their rocks in no small part because of Trump’s own racism, encouragement of violence, and white supremacy.

 

Absorbing the Constant Attacks by Trump on the Foundations of American Democracy

Trump continually undermines the very foundations of democracy:

  • Electoral System: As a candidate he declared he would not accept the outcome of the election if he lost. As the president he claims there is widescale voter fraud when there is no evidence to support his claim.
  • Judiciary: Trump’s attack on the judiciary is both personal and political, claiming the judiciary puts the country at risk and attacking individual judges.
  • The Media and Free Speech: Trump has called the media the enemy of the people and has now convinced the majority of Americans that the mainline press is nothing but fake news. One poll reported that 77% of Americans believe traditional television and press news is fake some or all of the time. His attacks have focused on undermining the legitimacy of the free press and arguing for changes to the libel laws to make it easier for people to sue the press. He has called the press the enemy of the people, that it puts the country in danger, that it is a source of fake news, that it is out of control and disonest, that it is failing, and that it is not my or your priorities.
  • Rule of Law: Trump has consistently attacked the Department of Justice and the FBI. Trump has questions the very heart of our constitutional democracy: the checks and balances between the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive. In an interview with Fox News he said: “You look at the rules of the Senate, even the rules of the House — but the rules of the Senate and some of the things you have to go through — it's really a bad thing for the country, in my opinion. They're archaic rules. And maybe at some point we're going to have to take those rules on, because, for the good of the nation, things are going to have to be different.” And: “You can't go through a process like this. It's not fair. It forces you to make bad decisions. I mean, you're really forced into doing things that you would normally not do except for these archaic rules.”

 

Living in a Country where the President and the Ruling Party Deny Science and Climate Change

I confess I have lost hope on the issue of climate change. I see a young kid in the grocery store and think he or she will probably see the decline and fall of human civilization. To me, that is a given. What I’m still agnostic about is whether or not the human species, along with millions of other species, will become extinct.

What we are losing with Trump, and all the medieval Republicans, is time. We are out of time.

 

My friend and I did not articulate how we might fit. It’s an ongoing struggle, to be discussed sometime in the future.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger


[1] While Trump said he would eliminate the national debt in eight years, the Trump budget leads elsewhere:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a nonpartisan government agency, projects that annual deficits will breach the $1 trillion mark again by 2020 and continue indefinitely under the current tax and spending regime. On this steep trajectory, the publicly held U.S. debt will nearly double to $29 trillion over the next decade. This would bring the number close to 100 percent of GDP, a level not reached since 1946.

Someday there will be a reckoning. Someone will have to pay. Hint: if the aftermath of the 2008 crash is anything to go by, the oligarchy will not suffer greatly. We must not forget the Princeton Report that came as close as one could of identifying the United States as an oligarchy and not a democracy. (See also US Democracy Versus Voter Suppression and the Rise of the Oligarchy.)

Tuesday
May152018

Apple Tea with Musti

Istanbul, Turkey, May 1992

My hotel room has two windows. From one I can just see the Blue Mosque. From the other I look down on the poverty of Istanbul. A shanty town, or the gecekondus,  of wood and brick and stone and metal with a tram running through the centre of it all. From my view above the houses I can see people on balconies that look as if they are falling down. I can see into yards and windows and doors. I can see clothes hanging on lines and over railings. I can see children playing. The hotel is, obviously, for tourists and one can only wonder what they see through our windows.

At breakfast in the hotel on my first morning there were two British couples dressed in summer colours. One man had a pullover shirt with the words "Globetrotter" written in big letters across his chest. He obviously had no aptitude for embarrassment. Actually none of them did or they would never have let him step into the streets of Istanbul looking like such an ass.

I saw these same two couples later in the day between the Blue Mosque and the St. Sophia Mosque. There was a woman with her young son selling vests and slippers and the two couples were haggling over the price, which is what you do when you are on holiday. The item they bought cost them less than a pound sterling. I figure each of them spent around £500 to get from London to Istanbul in the first place. I learned later that the woman worked for a man who gave her stock and the place between the two mosques. For each item she sold she kept 10% of the sale. It was at that moment, with the memory of two British couples haggling with a poor woman for holiday fun, that I decided when buying something from a person on the street I would never barter. Instead I would simply give them what they asked for. Since then I've had a lot of people selling in the streets look at me like I'm some kind of fool. A lot of my colleagues criticise me for my lack of cultural awareness. People expect to barter. Well, there are places where that is absolutely true, like in the Grand Bazaar. But haggling with poor women selling crafts and trinkets in the streets, giving 90% back to some man who is no doubt not so poor, well, that's just crap. I'll keep being a fool.

I found a small café at one of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar (the Kapali Carsi was first built in 1461 as a covered market and now consists of four thousand shops, cafés and restaurants  in a huge covered rabbit warren of a place). Directly in front me is the entrance to the Bazaar. To my right is the "Exchange," a crossroads where mostly young men on large cordless telephones buy and sell stocks. Just behind me and around the corner  is the local mosque where the call to prayer is loud and fascinating. Five times a day the mosques of Istanbul speak to each other, back and forth, calling the men to prayer. It is both beautiful and eerie to western sensibilities. Sitting at an outside table, my back against the stone wall of the café, I hear the call to prayer and watch shops close and men walk around the corner.

The Bazaar area is fascinating. Old narrow streets and alleyways creating a web of activity and life. The buildings are of ancient worn stone, some jutting out over the street. Many are homes with people sitting in their windows looking down on the people leaving and entering the Grand Bazaar, walking along the street, selling stocks on big phones and sitting in cafés. There are plants growing out of mortar and hanging down from the roof tops. People are sitting at small tables with typewriters ready to write you a letter or fill in your form, for a price of course. Men and boys carrying shoe shining paraphernalia. Women selling crafts. Children, everywhere selling postcards.

I return to this café each day. I am, I think, an odd sight for three reasons. First, I return to the same café and table day after day. Second, I have no camera. And third, I write in a journal. I'm often asked what I've done with my camera and more often what I am writing in the book. And inevitably, eventually, someone will come up and start talking. Here, in this place just outside this entrance to the Grand Bazaar, it was Musti. At our first meeting this is what he told me about himself. He had lived in Germany for 20 years. When six months old he fell into a fire pit and severly damaged his right leg. He now walks with a limp. He is a Muslim, married with one daughter. That is all. He was not interested in talking more about himself. He wanted to know why I sat there each day writing in a small book. He also wanted to know where I had left my camera.

Musti works for an up-market shop called Eren  - the sellers of carpet, teppich, tapis and kilim - near the corner of Caģaloģlu and Nuruosmaniye Streets. His job is to greet people on the street, walk along with them, begin a friendly conversation and eventually lead them to the shop. If they buy a carpet, Musti gets a commission. If they do not, he gets nothing. He does not make a lot of money.

He mostly targets tourists, of course. I did explain to him that western tourist are suspicious and perhaps even a little frightened by this sales technique. As I watched this social drama unfold over my time in Istanbul, it became easy to identify tourist responses to the approach. Some were clearly scared and thus responded angry. Others, a few brave souls, actually engaged in conversation and even walked off with Musti to the shop. While others just tried to ignore him, in a clear act of self-defence, continuing walking along without acknowledging him. They had that same damn silly smile on their face, a smile that says two things at once: I'm making a fool of myself and I'm having a brave adventure. Bless them and why not. We're all walking along looking either stupid or tough.

Musti told me that tourists sometimes complain to the police "about him doing his job," which inevitably gets him into trouble for. This angers him. As he said: "This is Turkey! It's the way we do it here!" Ah, Musti, but it's not the way we do it at home and we've got the money. 

For the rest of my stay in Istanbul he sat with me and drank coffee. On the fourth day, however, he said that apple tea was better and he was going to take me to another café inside the Grand Bazaar that was not frequented by tourists, where we could get good apple tea and talk more freely. I went with him. He led me through the old bazaar on a route I was not confident I could retrace. We walked through archways and narrow alleyways until we came to a café as old as Istanbul itself. There were no tourists or white faces to be seen. Men, old and young, sat drinking apple tea, talking and smoking their hookahs. The walls were yellow from the smoke, as were the pictures painted on the walls. The walls themselves curved upward to a rounded ceiling. A couple of the men looked at me with, what? Suspicion? Curiosity? Not sure and it didn't bother me because I was with Musti. The rest just ignored me.

So there we sat and talked. One from Turkey and one from the United States. One with dark skin and one with light skin. One liking tea and one liking coffee (though I did drink apple tea that day). One a Muslim and one a Christian. We were both married, but he could not understand why I had no children. Nothing new there I told him; in my culture people spend more time deciding which refrigerator to buy then having children. He just laughed.

Musti dreamt of a better life. He dreamt of having a nice car and a comfortable home. He wanted his little girl to be safe, healthy and educated. He wanted to earn enough money so that his wife did not have to work and struggle to clothe their daughter and to put food on the table. He became angry about the "self-righteousness and hypocrisy of many Muslims," the "don't do this and don't do that brigade," as he put it. He wanted what I wanted. He wanted a just and good life and to worship his God without hassle. That's all, he said, though we both know that was actually asking quiet a lot in this world. I told him it all sounded very familiar, that there were Christians who wanted me to be like them, just like them, and when I did not comply, confrontation was followed by rejection, and sometimes hatred. I told him I could not remember the number of times I had been called the anti-christ by my brothers and sisters in faith. And that he found funny!

In apparent contradiction Musti bemoaned the fact that Istanbul was becoming more "secularised" and "liberated." It is a sad irony, he thought,  that so often religion does not bring liberation but restriction, while liberation brings the loss of religious commitment and passion. When we had finished our apple tea he said: "I just want to worship and make money and be left alone. I just want my little girl to be OK." I never saw him again.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger