Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Munificent Mortality

“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, --
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson

It is a sad time indeed. A gentle and learned man named Father Harry Cook died a couple of days ago. He spent many years preaching as an Episcopalian priest, and a Christian journalist not timid in his beliefs. He was a social justice Giant and a down to earth man who spread the words of God while professing he no longer believed in a deity. He believed in people, and passion. He wrote from his heart, and never lied to make any point. He espoused the teaching in John 8:32 that the truth will definitely set us all free.

A respectable part of my own view on what is just and correct I learned from his readings. I was introduced to him from a friend, another Episcopalian priest with a different demeanor from the norm, about ten or eleven years ago. I am not or at least do not consider myself, a wise man. I seek wisdom in order to make sense of the conflagration that the world is enduring where it come to how we treat out fellow man. The world certainly seems to be on fire and there are too few firemen.

Father Cook was one of the best.

I have not been reading his weekly essays for a while due to a busy writing schedule of my own. I have saved them and will get to put them into my daily prayer routine. Father Cook wondered about the efficacy of prayer but my belief was that his words were as powerful as prayers and my belief in them has yet to fail me. I believe Father Cook would not take umbrage with my belief in prayer, as long as I continued to love my fellow man, and maintain a “give your shirt and your coat” mentality in my heart and mind
I could go down the list of his readings and purport that I understand all, but that would not be honest. I could speak of things I have learned but it is probable that, given the reality of an age related poor memory, I would confuse it all with other learned men I follow. As I said, I myself am not wise. I am a guy that sometimes strings words together in a pleasing manner. Sometimes the collections of words I use are not so pleasant. I write from a need to communicate and to, perhaps someday, gain, and convey wisdom almost as well as Father Cook. I reiterate…almost. I resist the idea that I could ever fit into this giant’s shoes. The best I can do is extend you the last words he left us;

+ Love the English language and use it with respect and care. None of us is Shakespeare redivivus. Winston Churchill, H.L. Mencken and Graham Greene still stand alone with their Firsts in English composition. They should be our standard. 

+ A question -- and, indeed, its formulation -- is likely to be more rewarding than straining to produce a quick answer. Inquiry, research and hypotheses tend to invite more thorough thoughtfulness -- a supreme value in human relationships at any level. If you have never read the work of the late philosopher Richard Rorty and his take on what he termed "contingency," now would be as good a time as any to do so. 

+ Beware the politician who runs for office with an index finger pointed at those of an identifiable nationality or ethnic group whilst blaming the woes of the nation on them. Jews were long victims of such an evil, African Americans and Native Americans, as well. Mexicans and Muslims in recent times became targets of such calumny. Who needs a reprise of Nazism? 

+ Resist the claims of absolute truth made by those who march under various religious banners. No one can possibly know what any possible deity wants or wills. Likewise, no one can encompass the whole truth about anything. 

+ Conserve Earth, her atmosphere, her waterways and seas, her land, her creatures as good stewards would estates entrusted to their care and protection. One can lick away on an ice cream cone only so long before it disappears. 

+ Help society understand that punitive incarceration in and of itself is cruel and unusual punishment. Justice is not served by putting people behind bars in violent environments. In the same spirit, help society understand that capital punishment is legalized murder, collective vengeance under the guise of doing justice. 

Give all you can to encourage compassion for women who struggle to retain control of their own bodies where unwanted or dangerous pregnancies are concerned. Tell the anti-abortion zealots that, if they oppose the practice, they should take care not to submit to it. 

At least once a year, listen to all six of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerti (BWV 1046-1051) and overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492) as well as his Symphony No. 41, (K. 551), the Jupiter. Each one of them is guaranteed to bestow upon the listener both joy and profundity, mercifully tuning out the mindless cacophony that presses in on every side.

+ Above all, follow the wisdom offered by Hillel the Great more than two millennia ago: "What you hate, do not do to another." The great sage must have known that such behavior as a habit runs contrary to nature. Also he must have believed that humankind could outdo nature. William Faulkner in his speech accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize in literature appeared to have shared Hillel's optimism: I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. As a dear bishop friend was wont to say, "May it be so."

Harry T. Cook – Rest in Peace

Here is a link to his obituary:

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Singular Sanctimony

 “Tim, I miss your philosophy, blogs, and intelligent words of wisdom. Please…remotivate/rejuvenate. Love you brother!”
Craig Smith, the REAL Mr. Science

The quote above was sent to me as a comment on something I posted on a well-known Social Media site. The author of the quote is a friend of mine, and proof of the ideal of shared experience is a definitive avenue toward friendship. We are “friends” on this site and became so as a result of working as school teachers at the same school. I was a neophyte in the wonderful calling that is school teaching, and he was a longtime veteran of the war that has mutated into what has been called the American Educational System. We are polar opposites in much of our lives, politically, socially (outside social media), pastimes, and life experience.

What we have in common, however, is the drive, love, and unerring dedication to what most teachers call “Our Kids.” We also share the sadness of not being allowed to teach. At least not so we could; “impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something” as the Oxford Dictionary states. Instead we were exiled into the nether region that is teaching to the test. This is a paradigm, also according to the Oxford dictionary, where we “teach students using methods intended primarily to improve their performance on an examination rather than to enhance their understanding of a subject.”

This, as my friend knows well, is the current accepted system with which to assess students. What this accomplishes is a society that believes competition is more important than knowledge. Where sports heroes, and hip hop artists are heroes and astronauts are not. Where working the cash register at a convenience store or a fast food restaurant requires the computerized register to tell them how to give change for a dollar. How asking a simple question of any sort elicits a universal “I don’t know” response. Even for queries as to what they wish to eat for dinner, or where the rest room is.

I jump on this soap box as a result of an experience I recently endured. I met a young man at a coffee shop who was sitting with what one could assume was his girlfriend. They had books and laptops open and appeared to be studying. The girl suddenly, in a frustrated tone, asks how he could not know whatever they were studying. (Reference the “I don’t know” reply) The young lady stares intently at her companion and, shaking her head, demands her payment as their time was at an end. She was counting the money she received while admonishing the kid to refrain from calling until he “gave a shit.”

I chuckled at the situation and went back to my large pumpkin spiced latte. My coffee companion also smirked and, with a devilish look in his eyes, told the kid that I was a retired teacher and could probably help.

My current area of endeavor is, as you might guess, as a writer and my thoughts and feelings, personally and professionally, lean towards the creative. I frowned at the kid and decided to be generous with my talents (or lack thereof) and asked the young man what his problem was. He informed me that he had to take this remedial math course before he could take the real class that would give him the credit he needed to continue on at the junior college he was attending. I had been a Special Education teacher so this did not appear challenging. At least I hope it did not. I was as and am somewhat of a liberal arts aficionado.

He showed me his equation which appeared simple; X+3=5x4, solve for X. simple even on the simian level I dwell. I asked him what the problem might be. He replied that the x or the y always screwed him up. Letters weren’t numbers and don’t they really belong in words?

I launched into a short diatribe of the use of letters, called variables, in equations to make it easier to make and solve more complex equations. I was on shaky ground past that (I got c’s in most college math courses) but pressed on. I showed him several problems and how to solve them and why the answer came to be. I stopped short of quadratic equations which are and will always be perplexing and confounding. My coffee companion smirked and frowned at me letting me know that what I shared with the kid made a lot of sense. The kid sat there with a pair of eyes one might see in a morgue. Frustrated I turned sardonic by asking my soon not to be student what 1+1=.

He asked me if he could use his calculator and what were the multiple choices available to him.

I had no feeling in my extremities. I stared at him only to realize that he had been earnest in his request. He held what looked to be quite an expensive scientific calculator which, I was sure, he might not know where the on/off button might be. My companion told me that we needed to leave. I stammered for the kid to study the work we had done and good luck. As we were leaving my coffee buddy held up a napkin on which I had been doodling that showed the words “DON’T BE SARDONIC!” and asked me what sardonic meant.

This experience has stayed with me for about a month. I think the comment from my friend and mentor Mr. Science inspired and drove this discourse and for that I thank him. I remember he would, take his kids outside when the weather permitted and do science experiments. Every kid looked and acted engaged. I followed his lead and would take my kids outside and read them short stories of adventure, action, honor, and equality. Other folks at the school would ask me what I was doing and I would just smile and look over at my friend shooting potato guns and blowing things up with laundry detergent and glass beakers. I don’t know how much sitting outside helped my students, but if it was good enough for a 20+ year Teacher of the Year it might just be good enough for me.

Thank you Mr. Smith!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Meddlesome Malaise

I have discovered that amongst all my other ailments I suffer from yet another newly realized, and most wearisome malady. Styx Syndrome, AKA “Too Much Time on My Hands.” Being a gentleman of enforced leisure (medical retirement) who is ofttimes confined to my Sanctum Sanctorum due to my infirmities, my mind works in excess of necessity. There are so many things that occur to me, especially as a writer, which might fill the void I find it irksome not being able to ascertain what to next do. Having finished a story that took its own sweet time coming to me and my fingers I plunged into a period of reflective entropy. The query “what’s next” enveloped my being, as it always does between writing adventures, and I searched for the answer to that most bothersome query.  
Then the light bulb over my head popped on in all its 1000 watt brilliance…READ!
Being what I believe to be the preeminent state in which to exist in, a thinking man, I indulged my first love and delved into tomes with the loftiest paradigms. What is the meaning of life? In my six plus decades of verve this has always proven to be the most difficult of pursuits. The question has been taken up and discarded an equal amount of times along the way to this writing. There were times when I failed to answer it. There were times when the solution was crystal clear. Neither way held much solace for me. Interruptions in this quest have interfered from time to time. Wearisome items such as earning a living, paying the electricity bill, finding a new job, reading rejection letters of my self-acclaimed works of everlasting wisdom, the discovery of a new love, the grief of associated with the loss of a cherished loved one, and all the other mundane realities that probably answer way more eloquently than I what exactly is the meaning of life.
I began by reading a trio of books explaining our culture which described the ideal that the first time a human woke up and wished for more than was needed was the beginning of the extermination of all mankind. Certainly this offered a rather dismal generalization of our species and accurate but for the one thing that might help us to survive, which was also reported in these important works. We have the ability to change our circumstances.
Next, for no fathomable reason, I viewed a film entitled “The Man Who Knew Infinity” about a mathematician who was born during the “British Raj” period prior to Indian independence. Srinivasa Ramanujan was born into a poor Brahman family, and was a mostly self-taught prodigy who eventually became a Fellow of the Royal Society, as well as a Fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge University. His works are on display in the library there as well as the “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” by Sir Isaac Newton, the inventor of calculus and many of the foundations of modern physics. All this while suffering discrimination, poverty, and poor health.
I am currently delving into “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking. Another choice with no recognizable foundation towards the question I probably do not truly wish the answer to. Admittedly, my personal research has been prejudiced by events in my life of both a positive and negative nature. The academic part of my persona is certainly piqued with the lofty writings of famous mathematicians and physicists. The cognitive side of me has recently taken up the task of maintaining my intellect due to an ever growing difficulty with memory retention. Then there is the ever troubling portion of me that looks into the night sky finding itself time and again mystified.
The Spiritual
Not wishing to drift off into yet another perplexing area, that being in the ideal of whether or not there is a God; I will make things, for today simple. I believe in God, and I believe in Science and mathematics. The rest of the claptrap about God’s existence is best left for another day, or a Nighttime Talk Show.
As I read and contemplated the significance of asking for the meaning of something that obviously already exists, I came up with the ideal of discovering what is of true import. That is the crux of searching for the meaning of life. Knowing it or not knowing it is not imperative in the face of having life and making it relevant. Great thinkers miss this, I believe. The real question is: What would you want life to be. Is it a meaning or an action? (Reference our ability to change our circumstances)
Somewhere along the way, the meaning of life got itself associated with the conundrum of an unanswerable question being whether science is the answer, or is God the answer? How did we get here? What came first, the chicken or the egg? What was there before the big bang? How did all this happen?
Science has theories to guide it. This means that some really smart people sit around (much like me) and think about things in order to answer the chicken thing, or the meaning of the Big Bang Theory.
Science has determined that the egg came first in a most baffling manner imaginable. The explanation requires an understanding of several disciplines; biology, zoology, genetics, and Marvel Comic books and movies. Neil deGrasse Tyson made it much simpler: "Which came first: the chicken or the egg? The egg – laid by a bird that was not a chicken." And we thus discover the issue with asking too many questions.
The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model for the universe. In a user friendly definition thanks to Wikipedia, “The universe began very hot, small, and dense, with no stars, atoms, form, or structure (called a "singularity"). Then about 13.8 billion years ago, space expanded very quickly (thus the name "Big Bang"). This started the formation of atoms, which eventually led to the formation of stars and galaxies.” Scientists have thought and thought, and wrote and rewrote about this effect exhaustively, they have modeled and remodeled ad infinitum. The results of all this thinking, writing, and modeling/remodeling has culminated in the #1 comedic Sitcom in the world. All of the actors except one (Mayim Bialik, PhD in Neuroscience) have no expertise in science and admit to just reading lines from a script.  
The seeming antithesis of all this thinking, writing, modeling/remodeling would be God. Given that this is an undefinable issue from a fact based physically provable it might be time better spent in discussing the differences between science and God. Here are some facts/paradigms/space fillers to consider:
  1. Many learned people have rejected the existence of a God. Where did God come from? For an answer to that I will fall on my own spiritual beliefs which is Christian based;
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
  1. 6,120,000,000,000 people in the world believe in some form of deity. Would that not be enough of a mathematical prevalence to prove the existence of God?
  2. Actually, a great mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel derived a series of equations that prove the existence of God. These equations have been discovered valid by modern computer scientists.
  3. Some believe the Big Bang implies a creator, and some see its mention in their holy books, while others argue that Big Bang cosmology makes the notion of a creator superfluous. Herr Gödel illuminated further. '"An equation for me has no meaning," he once said, "unless it expresses a thought of God."
  The writing of this fellow intrigued me and I went off on a tangent for about a half a day into the proofs of the existence of God. I discovered many and read them all and came away from the exercise had begun to make me doubt my own belief in a God. I wondered how this course of inquiry could make me turn God, a present personality in my life, into “a God” as if it were something that could be disproved. Certainly cause for befuddlement for a believer since birth.
I then took a break and came back and reread all the proofs I researched and realized something. They were all confusing and meaningless to anyone wishing to live a simple life. Just check out Herr Gödel’s treatise:
Definition 1: x is God-like if and only if x has as essential properties those and only those properties which are positive
Definition 2: A is an essence of x if and only if for every property B, x has B necessarily if and only if A entails B
Definition 3: x necessarily exists if and only if every essence of x is necessarily exemplified
Axiom 1: If a property is positive, then its negation is not positive
Axiom 2: Any property entailed by—i.e., strictly implied by—a positive property is positive
Axiom 3: The property of being God-like is positive
Axiom 4: If a property is positive, then it is necessarily positive
Axiom 5: Necessary existence is positive
Axiom 6: For any property P, if P is positive, then being necessarily P is positive
Theorem 1: If a property is positive, then it is consistent, i.e., possibly exemplified
Corollary 1: The property of being God-like is consistent
Theorem 2: If something is God-like, then the property of being God-like is an essence of that thing
Theorem 3: Necessarily, the property of being God-like is exemplified
 What I came to is that there really no way to answer the God/Science question. Science has tried both ways to look at it and cannot seem to report on it that does not prove anything in simple terms. Even a well thought mathematical proof by a respected mathematician cannot explain in layman’s terms to this writer who got a “D” in statistics and had to repeat the course in order to graduate college. Is science the answer? Ask a scientist to give you one sentence answer if you ask them what was there before the universe was created by the Big Bang. Similarly, for the God folks, ask your pastor (in one short sentence) where did God come from?
 It might be easier if we all just went in search of the Philosophers Stone. You know that element the alchemist used to say was the substance that could turn a cheap base metal into gold. A great idea and possible panacea for those financially disabled. Of course all that meandering about in quest for pecuniary prosperity that might just complicate things even more given that Alchemists were proven charlatans and sometimes hunted as witches. The witch hunting reality in olden times could bring a tremendously disagreeable demise. Most of them changed into chemists that today are deemed legitimate. Although, they still can’t make gold out of lead. Just like we cannot truly know the answers to great questions like the “What is the meaning of life”
 I did find an answer to that bigger question, though. Well, perhaps not an answer as much as an end to the confusion. I had researched until my head hurt and my eyelids grew weary. (Especially after the half read “A Brief History of Time”) I turned on the Great Knower. The much maligned by Springsteen instrument of enlightenment sitting in all its High Definition glory in my living room. I found it on television. Even there it was hidden until I dove in to the depths that are called “Streaming. What I found was the great and wise philosopher, teacher, and possible Holy Man who did not so much answer the question than taught me what life is truly about. Not what to question but how to act. Not thinking someone else is wrong but accepting that the bastard might just be right. Not wondering what has happened but doing what was right. Not doubting but believing. Not reading or asking but doing what I am told:

“You do good things, and good things happen to you.
You do bad things, and bad things happen to you.”
Earl Hickey