Monday, January 23, 2012



Browsing in the Tattered Cover is a situation in which books leap into my arms. It is a strange phenomenon because I'm not aware of how that process works. What happens at the check-out counter is that I am startled at what I am purchasing. “How the hell did I choose that one?” Of course, I never not buy a book that has intruded itself into my life and, the books, all filled with promise, never fail to disappoint.

Example: I went home with a book entitled “1858,” about precursors to the civil war. I had no clue as to why I purchased it; it sat on the floor next to my chair for about 3 months when somewhat bored I started to read it. Wow! It entranced me, I dove into it and learned and learned about the state of the country leading up to the civil war.

Another: “A History of the Reformation,” by Diarmaid McCullough decided to leave the shop with me. A thick thing, ungainly and weighing, it seemed ten pounds, it somehow forced itself upon me. I rationalized that I ought to know something about that major part of history, but the truth is that I wouldn't give a centavo for the topic, but there it was. The book is so convoluted and so requires knowledge of Christianity that I read the damned thing three times, each accompanied by gees, wows and can that be real? I was so impressed by the scholarship and wisdom of the author that I now am going through his History of Christianity. And again, there are gasps of pleasure, excitements, and murmurs of “I never knew that” that accompany the page turnings. Parenthetically, I suspect that I now know more about Christianity than most Christians and many priests, reverends, ministers.

I like war books but when I finish one about the WWII Italian campaign I will start Mark Twain's autobiography. Why? Why do I care about him? It’s the pleasure of knowing him, his life and times.

OK, what do I get from all this reading? Except for the Civil War I have no specific focus; almost anything is grist for my intellectual mill. I even read a history of salt. Obviously, learning outside of socially defined knowledge gives me great pleasure. It thrilled me to learn how Oberlin College students lead a revolt against the fugitive slave law, defying slave catchers who were operating legally with the support of local law enforcement. When I learned about Luther's demands and how the church sold indulgences so dead people could get out of purgatory and into heaven faster than expected I could hardly believe that people killed each other over such disputes. The Reformation lead to sermons and strict rules about sexual behavior and how to manage forgiveness almost split the burgeoning Catholic church. Wow, gee whiz!

I failed, and had to repeat, high school history. None of it, not a bit of it interested me. But, in manhood I became hooked on military history in the army, not because of any army influence but because the Red Cross had a book called “Makers of Modern Strategy,” and I was bored. It taught about the WWI Schliefen plan and Von Moltke's failure to carry it out. I learned how the Japanese naval philosophy lead to Pearl Harbor. I learned why the line of battle in shield war always shifted to the right, and so many other things. It's as if I live in a shadow world in which the reality is obscured by social mythology; but reading lets me know something about the reality which is so different from so called knowledge.

What do I give books? Nothing, but I give the authors my brain not only while the reading goes on but afterwards in thinking about things; ultimately the consequence is a transformation into a different person.

What does a book do for me?
Why it helps me to become quite free
Of the myths and the lies
I have learned to despise
Anything better? Hmph! You tell me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

How Evolution Screwed Us


For those of you isolated from the main stream, Tim Tebow, last week was extraordinary. He took a team of no great distinction and made it win, and with heroic style. The game was exciting and worth the time spent watching it. Swell. It is important to know that he is an extremely devout young man who does marvelous works of charity. Swell.
But, the city went somewhat bonkers about the event. Of course, not all people, but a significant number cheered, carried on and remained in the stadium well after the game ended. And, you can bet the vast bulk of Denverites eagerly looked forward to this morning’s paper to read all the details about the victory. After six futile years, winning a playoff game is a triumph that has already become part of Broncos lore. Decades from now, old men will boast to their grandchildren that they had seen the pass that won the game. (I cribbed this from Shakespeare, but it surely is apt.)
Since writing the above, the Broncos collapsed, with Tebow showing little distinction. I mean, it was a BIG loss with nothing to redeem it. What have the fan(atics) done? Why, they persist in extolling the Broncos and the future success of Tebow. I mean, you really have to be a believer to accuse the coach and Elway of the loss.
All this over a game that is fun, exciting, and violent just this side of brutality? No, not at all, no way, impossible. A truth about us is that we are an extremely territorial animal that bonds with our group all of whom extol our common virtues. Denver is better than Pittsburgh not only in football; winning is only the marker that exemplifies our superiority. Why are we so? Evolution.
In the good old caveman/woman days, well before football, banding together to own a particular hunting ground or a particular piece of land meant personal survival. Of course, there were independent souls who preferred isolation but few of them survived. Alone, they became the prey of other humans and animals. They could not hunt as successfully nor could they farm well; human existence depended on intense bonding with the group to ensure that all would protect one and one would protect all. Outliers did not reproduce because they died. Thus, we became herd animals defending our turf against all comers.
My late wife, at a Broncos game for the fun of provocation began to cheer for the NY Giants. Pretty quickly, Broncos fans began to insult her and there appeared a sense of potential violence; I had to shut her down lest I get beaten up for her idiocy. What crime? She had evoked the ancient rule that the group which, attacked, had to respond in kind because she threatened its survival. Well, not really, but evolution has not caught up with civilized reality.
During the Civil war, when everyone knew the South had not a chance they boasted that one southerner could lick five Yankees. What fun for them, but what blindness it exemplified and they could hardly believe they had lost. So, they established the KKK, a kind of guerrilla army to continue to fight for their values. There are still Southerners who espouse the old slogan: “Save your Confederate money boys, the South will rise again.”
Around the world, territoriality rules the day. Many Muslims recall fondly hundreds of years ago when their armies swept away all opposition and anticipate the day when the whole world will bow to their faith. Until recently, Europe had a series of wars over who owned which parcel of land. Only now, with the European Union is there peace but you can bet that many long for the good old days of total sovereignty. In spite of the union, Great Britain remains somewhat aloof in maintaining its own currency. Consider that when Communist Russia, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, failed, those so called republics reverted to their original status of individual countries, reestablishing their territory. Perhaps Europe faces the same fate.
I'm not sure, but I think the United States is alone in successfully unifying disparate states. When the Articles of Confederation failed, the genius of our forefathers created the Constitution; all the states were part of the whole and the issue was decided when the South wanted to split and started a bloody war. That war bound us all together though reminiscences of the old days still flutter with arguments about states’ rights.
But, no more wars between us, never, and that is the hope for humanity. If we can give up territoriality (except for football fluff), we have a chance.

Whether summer or winter snow
Our hero is now Tim Tebow.
He makes us feel proud
We shout it out loud
But, remember its only for show.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

When to fight.

When to fight.

If it means physical battle, fight only in desperate circumstances. To get a black eye or a bloody nose over differences of opinion or a word seems absurd so, run like hell even when you think you can win. I'll discuss the issue in terms of refusing to accept the indignities of life that are thrust upon us by the variety of functionaries we encounter.
Consider this. I was waiting to be approached by a sales person in a local Sears. I stood examining stoves while perhaps 10 feet away four employees were engaged in some sort of discussion. Perhaps they were deciding foreign policy, or the president's plans for health care, but they surely were indifferent to me, insignificant me. In the good old days, I would hate them, fume in silence and passively stand in service of their greater need to solve the problems of the world, but some years ago, I decided against. I walked up to the group and said in authoritative tones, “Have any of you seen a sales person on the floor?” Of course, they wore Sears’s shirts and wore nametags; my sarcastic question was designed to shock them and it did. They stared at me, then one of them stammered, “How can I, how can I help you, sir?” All went well after that.
Or the time I told a waiter what food I wanted. His attention was immediately distracted by another waiter who wanted to know if he had heard the score of a football game. After a brief discussion, my waiter turned to me and said, “Ready to order, sir?” I asked him if his memory problem interfered with the rest of his life. Of course, I smiled disarmingly to take the sting out and to demonstrate I had no hard feelings but he also suddenly remembered what I wanted.
Why do I act this way? I know that when people receive assertiveness training, some of their friends dislike their new behavior and fade away and that has been called a problem. Is it? I knew a man whose friend was often irritable with him and sometimes never contacted him (or responded to calls) for weeks. The man never challenged his friend except to tepidly mention the behavior. His friend responded about how busy he was and that ended the discussion
The man, at my suggestion, entered an assertiveness training program and finally confronted his friend who became very distressed and wanted to know why they weren't friends anymore. The friendship ended and the man understood that such a relationship was not a friendship at all and he was well rid of it. He felt some loss, but he also felt proud of himself.
Perhaps some of you might think the above examples are harsh but if so I disagree. People's disregard (often rudeness) can exist only because we are willing to put up with it. If never challenged they continue their indifference to you and me. Sometimes, albeit it, rarely, the friends truly apologize and work on changing their behavior. Don’t hold your breath.
Lest you think that I am an unregenerate curmudgeon, let me assure you that I always start out with charm. Long ago, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” taught me to find something to praise about people and it gives me great pleasure to do so . . . and I am quite sincere about it. While I read about it far in the past it was only about ten years ago that I began to challenge rudeness and knew it was best to lead with friendship.
Of course, there are occasions when nothing will work. Government officials are tough. Police doing their job are tough unless you can figure a way to get past their professionalism. My cousin was stopped for speeding. The officer said, “Do you know you were ten miles above the limit?” My cousin smiled and said “Yes. I thought in this deserted part of town it might not get me stopped. Obviously I was wrong.” The officer laughed and said he was the first person whoever admitted speeding and accepted the responsibility, and sent my cousin on his way. I look forward to getting stopped so I can use my cousin's tactic.
I almost forgot about when to fight. When you or loved ones, friends, passers bye are in physical danger. But, run if you can.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Winter Solstice.


In a message to some readers, I stated that the Christmas season made me somewhat gloomy. OK, gloomy is a bit strong, but as a card-carrying cynic, I do not buy the Christmas message. Not a Christian, I can only glean my understanding from carols, messages, a multitude of newspaper articles and most people who babble (yes, I mean that word) without thinking at all about what it is they celebrate. While the message is “peace,” simple observation suggests otherwise.

I don’t remember how old I was when I realized that I was not a member of the club. A little girl reminded me of that when she came home one day and said she wanted to be “regular,” no longer Jewish. You get the picture; it’s the same reaction most kids get when they realize they are not full-fledged, rootin tootin members of the dominant society. No doubt, Christian kids have the same reaction if born into a Hindu society or a Muslim society. But, not being a member of the club meant that Santa would not come down my chimney. (I didn’t have a chimney, but you get the idea.) Of course, I received Chanukah presents, i.e. underwear and socks with a few handkerchiefs thrown in and once, I think, even a piece of Chanukah gelt. That’s gold foil wrapped a piece of chocolate impersonating money. My sister, four years older than me violated the family custom of dull gifts by buying me books.

Once I figured out things, I did not mind my non-eligibility for the club. Well, of course, I was but I would have to give up everything important in my life; my parents would have tossed me out on my head for such a transformation. Besides, what did I have to say to non-Jews? Did they know about gefilte fish or schmaltz herring or bialies or whitefish and I didn’t know they ate cream cheese until I became somewhat older.

But, the above is mere persiflage (fancy word to justify my expensive education) and now forward to more serious stuff. I never thought much about Christmas (or Chanukah, for that matter) until during the season I listened to a religious ceremony, which concluded in “peace on earth and good will to men.” In those days, women’s personhood was a nice figment of a few really radical ladies. And, then I heard another ceremony, which concluded, “peace on earth to men of good will.”
They were different in a significant way even though both emanated from Christian speakers. Whassup? I wondered which way God wanted it.

So, I looked into Christmas and discovered that scholars think that Jesus was born I think sometime in April, not December 25. That date was originally chosen for the Zoroastrian god Mithra; it was asserted that was when he was born, clearly precedent to Jesus. The Druids provided the Yule log and Christmas tree until Christian expansionists co-opted such add-ons to their story. Roman soldiers liked Mithra and celebrated the Saturnalia. The Greeks had their own holiday, Brumialia. Including Chanukah, they all fell on the winter solstice.

Winter is a gloomy time during which days become shorter. That surely distressed our ancients who noticed that at a certain time the days became longer; and that awareness provided a vast sense of relief, relief so great that the occasion had to be marked down. People, growing gloomy in the lengthy dark could look forward to what the Romans called the “unconquered sun.” Don’t give up hope, the light will return. Even now, many people suffer from winter slump, sometimes so distressing they need treatment and surprise, the treatment consists of sitting in front of a bank of very bright lights. Like the ancients, the shortening days get me feeling uncomfortable, but I know December 21 is on the way and I keep myself relaxed with that knowledge. Hell, we are ancient man and woman.

So, we really celebrate the lengthening of days but gussy it up with religious fol-de-rol and cheering ourselves up with gifting. Longing for peace became attached to the celebration and that’s why, like a card-carrying cynic I’m sort of gloomy. Even though some red-hot thinkers, i.e. Pinker, say that violence around the world is dissipating and offers some evidence to make his point, I don’t buy it. We evolved in an environment which required fight or flight, either we do battle or run like hell. We haven’t changed, we are still the same animal and evolution moves too damned slowly to make a difference.

Still, with the love of a good woman I don’t retain the gloom for too long.