Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Return to Feudalism

Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, said you can tell what’s informing a society by its tallest building. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral rises above the village — the cathedral, looming over the cottages where people lived. When you approach an 18th-century town, it is the political palace that’s the tallest. And when you approach a modern city, the tallest structures are financial and business buildings, the centers of economic life.Ayad Akhtar, the pulitizer prise-winning playwright, said that we are beholden as religious creatures to this powerful new religion that was born in the ’80s and has since been reshaping our lives and our society.The new tax bill returns the United States to a contemporary state of feudalism, where the cathedral is now a skyscraper, the priest are the financial institution CEOs, the Lords are the Koch brothers and Mercers, and the rest of us are the serfs.
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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Life, An Update

PART I

As I turn 72, the changing of the seasons takes on more poignancy. It seems like spring here in Arizona, with the lengthening of the days and blooming of the desert flora.  My body feels like fall however, reminding me in not so subtle ways of the years of molecular corrosion and ageing of the flesh. If nothing else, it prompts reflection on years past, and adds just a bit of urgency for actively more than passively making ongoing decisions about life, love, work, learning, and creation.

To this point, I feel some satisfaction, convinced, or possibly deluded, that I have more often than not taken advantage of opportunities that were presented over the years.  Most satisfying has been the daily co-existence for 47 years with my best friend and wife, and the knowledge that the world will be better for the presence of our 3 children.  Educational opportunities were taken and have rewarded me. For 50 years I never woke in the morning dreading or resenting going to work, for it remained interesting and challenging to the last day of my career. I enjoyed the absolute best of both worlds:  the excitement and rewards of my profession while simultaneously having time and income to travel, read, and do many things I never dreamed of when younger.

Of course, the move from sharecropper to physician in 3 generations was entirely made possible by the middle generation, my parents, and is probably more to their credit than mine.  

As a "free-range" youth living in a tiny, remote west Texas town, I explored the low hills, stream beds, and mesas of the desert southwest with little restraint, feeling comfortable with the flora and fauna of the dry land, re-creating in my mind the lives of those who left the flint arrowheads I collected, watching the slow progression through the cloudless day of shadows so well-defined the edges seemed sharp enough to cut. From a rise in the landscape I watched tornadoes given life by a weather front stretching across the plane of the horizon.  Texas is a huge state, and I  explored not only its semi-arid plateaus and deserts, but also the piney woods, the grasslands of its south, the gulf coast, and the urban centers of north Texas.  Friends, enmities, and loves were encountered; some of each persisted as others drifted beyond my presence.

Married and too quickly widowed, I was ultimately gifted with an amazing spouse, fiercely devoted to our family. She was also a determined explorer.  She pushed, cajoled, and lead us to experiences in 49 states, Canada, and most of western Europe and Scandinavia.  I held her hand as she gave birth to our children and shared their many ups and downs while they became adults. 

Through these years I shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the time of the Camp David peace talks, drank Georgian sparkling wine in Leningrad at the height of the cold war while the temperature hovered at 50 below in the Russian winter, was included as family for a 5-day wedding celebration in Provence, watched bald eagles mate in the sky in Kodiak Alaska, ran aground on the Danube River, helped a friend travel to his family reunion in a remote Norwegian village, warmed myself with hot coffee in Colorado and in Canada as the rising sun spread over Rocky Mountain peaks, watched the tidal bore arrive in the Bay of Fundy, was awed by stars at altitude in the dry, dark New Mexico highlands,stared at the blue Cherenkov radiation glowing in the heart of a nuclear reactor, saw dolphins playing in the coastal California surf, read many wonderful books, had a lifetime of professional work, and a thousand other things. 

Surely this has been enough.  If I don't explore Angkor Wat, see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, or stand at the edge of Victoria Falls, there will be no regrets, because there were only a few misused opportunities.   

Along the way I tried to live by Kant's Categorical Imperative, aka the Golden Rule, failing far more often than I like to admit to myself, especially in the early years. I hope this will be enough for a Humanist who tends to follow the Stoics.  Others have seen and done more during their lives, but many have experienced far less. I remain ready hope for more opportunities, but with no anxiety that I haven't experienced enough already.

PART II

I take great solace in the knowledge that my existence is a small but integral component of processes evolving since the big bang, (maybe even before that), and as the universe spins on I play my part to the best I can.  

I become more of an environmentalist every year.  We watched the vixen that for several years raised her pups in the hill below our home in Iowa until, sadly, adjacent street construction destroyed their den. Her care of, and I suspect concern for the pups was in many ways little different from that of human mothers.  I don't know, but I imagine that in the pantheistic, pre-Christian old world (and perhaps in pre-Colombian America) people felt more related to their surrounding world and less superior to its non-human inhabitants. 'No man is an island' is more than an idle comment. Growing up in concrete and steel urban environments as do so many of the current generation, empathy with nature comes less naturally. For myself though, with the polar bears, elephants, whales, tigers, and assorted other creatures, not to mention plants, disappearing, I feel a kinship with the threatened and experience a sense of loss and an impotence to do anything about it. I am not above, but a part of, the natural universe.

When my time is over I will not be aware of events and the disposal of my remains. I would like to think it will be simple, perhaps only with only an unadorned wood box, or a biodegradable shroud, with my elements drifting back into the soil and ultimately into the oceans from which life on earth originated. Barbara and I are both veterans, and will probably be buried in a National Cemetery with its policies. The details may not be up for debate.


PART III

I view my conscious self as the sum product of my physical mind; I am not a dualist.  Any surviving "soul" or "spirit" I would view as simply the totality of changes in friends, family other individuals, and society, that result from my existence. In my mind I keep hearing Steve McDonald's 'All that I know' (link). 

So neither fearful of nor anxious for the end,  I enjoy memories while looking forward to what is left.

"Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.  When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love."  
- Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher