By our attention, we bear witness to our universe.
Good and Smart
Since my childhood I’d equated being informed and knowledgeable with being good and smart. Patterns of being learned at my father’s knee.
As I grew older, I realised this was largely his way of coping with a hostile world. As a child, my grandfather planned for him to stay home on the family farm. My father threatened to kill himself if he wasn’t allowed to pursue further education. The compromise was that he could go to high school so long as he always got perfect grades. He did, and went on to university like his older brother, whom he idolised.
My whole life, my father needed to prove that he knew the most. Newspapers, magazines, news reports, reference books, non-fiction, languages. He spent hours every day reading, and when we talked at lunch or dinner, he would lecture about what he had read to show how much he had learned and fix it in his memory.
His stroke, which took away much of his faculty with languages, was a terrible blow. It also made such a terrible futility of all those facts he had methodically spent his life acquiring. All those breaking news he’d stayed abreast of, all those political fights, ideological conflicts, grand dilemmas of the day or year.
Did spending hours every day to keep up with the latest developments truly give him anything? Was it enjoyable? Was it necessary? Was it useful?
I don’t think it was, but it made him feel good and smart. Always knowing the answer perhaps armed him against the grandfather lurking in his mind.
A year before my father died, we visited a childhood friend of his together, and my father asked, with a catch in his voice, “Did your Dad beat you so much, too?”
“No,” the other old man replied, “You know, we kids from the smaller houses always wondered why the fathers from the big houses liked to beat their children so much.”
I suppose, if knowledge and good grades were a shield against helplessness and beatings, it was a price my father had to live.
I have found my practice of staying knowledgeable and informed of most current events over the last few years to have been profoundly … useless.
But the last two months truly humbled me.
I tried to stay informed of multiple perspectives on different crises. Those close to home, in Europe and East Asia, and some of those farther afield, too, such as the US system’s crisis of legitimacy and their republican party’s turn to Trump’s Milošević style of politics.
Then, when Russia launched a full-scale, total invasion of Ukraine in February, I was caught completely flat-footed.
It made no sense in the context of all the knowledge I had accumulated.
Yes, some sources warned of an invasion. But many also reasonably pointed out how it would not happen. Some … no matter.
There was a surplus of very reasoned and well-argued opinion, but in the end, everything hinged on the roll of the dice of one man, and all the time spent teasing apart those opinions and analysing the arguments was useless.
Almost all the knowledge I had spent so many hours absorbing was useless and irrelevant.
Who was I to imagine that by spending an hour a day (or two? or three?) reading and watching the news, I would be able to foretell the future? That there was some oracle in the glowing screen with answers, meaning, understanding, insight?
Xenophon’s words, 2,400 years ago, were a better guide: “If Croesus goes to war he will destroy a great empire.”
The criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine, launched by the strategic genius [/s] of V. Putin, goes on.
I still follow it with horror mixed with admiration.
The massacres, tortures, rapes, looting, destruction, propaganda, booby traps. With this war, the Russian regime is covering itself and its people in shame and gore. It is incredible.
On the other hand, the Ukrainians defending their democracy and their nation, continue to cover themselves in glory. It is inspiring.
I can’t look away because a part of me feels like I must bear witness to this struggle for freedom against oppression. In a world of shades of greys, Putin’s invasion is such an ashen black that all Ukraine’s actions of resistance are washed out blinding white in contrast.
South Korea did as well as it could, keeping the disease at bay for two years, communicating clearly and simply, and vaccinating nearly everyone. When the disease becomes endemic around the world, however, how much more can you do?
So covid omicron came to our house at last. Fortunately, we were both vaccinated. Still, it was unpleasant. Hopefully, we recover soon.
As with the war, I’ve been wrong about the pandemic, too. Too much information turned everything to grey. Two years of spending too much time trying to see what was happening around the world, what different governments and people were doing.
Yes, early in the pandemic, if the world had reacted differently, if a dilettante had not been in the white house and a global response had been marshalled, it could have been halted and beaten back.
But, here we are.
Over the last couple of years, most countries’ responses were muddled and stupid. The communications, often too. Sliding into finger-wagging morality competitions was certainly not the way to convince people to get vaccinated.
I recently read an article comparing the on-going struggle to vaccinate people to anti-smoking campaigns. As someone who quit smoking, this comparison made a lot of sense to me.
Perhaps that is a way forward.
Certainly, a better model than telling someone they’re a terrible person for doing something. That just gets folks defensive and angry.
This one’s short.
Folks like to exclaim, “Everything’s political!” like it’s some deep insight.
It’s really not.
Sure, everything is political, but that doesn’t mean that everything is equally political or equally important.
For example, an illegal probably-genocidal invasion of a neighbouring country is the important kind of political.
Most other things are not as important, politically. That’s a good thing, because politics is abstract and distracts from the world around us. The world and the moments we live in.
There’s a certain brand of human that believes they can make the world better by telling other people how to think and act and behave and live.
This rarely works out well because that’s not how the human mind works. Try changing your own habit by telling yourself how to think and act and behave and live.
Pretty sure that’s not how I stopped smoking.
Feels pretty silly to think it’s going to work much better if it’s someone else doing the scolding.
*Of course, there are exceptions.
Beer and Nicotine
It’s been so long since I’ve regularly drunk alcohol that I can no longer believe I used to regularly drink alcohol.
Getting covid, after the vaccines, I tracked the days.
Day 1: Itchy throat, bit of a cough.
Day 2: Felt like I’d drunk 3 beers the night before. Maybe smoked 5 cigarettes, too.
Day 3: Like 2 beers and 5 cigarettes.
Day 4: Like a beer and a half and three cigarettes.
Frankly, I suspect a fair number of the “asymptomatic” cases of covid may just be people who drink enough alcohol, smoke enough cigarettes, and do other harmful things to themselves and their own bodies that their baseline level of well-being is so degraded that they don’t notice the illness caused by the virus.
I honestly can’t believe I “enjoyed” this garbage for this many years. Lots to say about the culture I grew up in and the manly virtues I learned at my father’s knee.
Flowers for the Body
Nothing quite like springtime to go outside and remind me that I cannot experience this wonderful world without my body.
The plants budding, then flowering, in sequence. Plum. Forsythia. Magnolia. The white-flowered bushes I can’t name. Apricot. Cherry. The little hedges with the purple and red blossoms. Dandelions. Metasequoia. Maples. Willows.
When I walk my dog, I smell the flowers. Touch bark and rock and moss and leaf.
She stops to sniff, I stop to gaze.
Flex. Raise myself on tip-toe. Perspective changes. Crouch. Look at the iridescent beetle scamper across the path, help him along, make sure he won’t get trod.
Balance. One leg. Last year’s cicada husk, split along its back where the buzzing bug crawled out.
Other leg. Stretch. Feel muscle and sinew and bone. Click a knuckle, crack a knee, watch the clouds fountain above the the trees.
Feel the wind, see the cherry blossoms fly like feather snow.
I am grateful for my body just the way it is.
Thank you body, for letting me witness this beautiful world.
At the time of this writing (2022.04.17), brave Ukrainians continue to defend their country against Russia’s illegal invasion. Consider helping them survive this war by making a donation.
If you cannot afford to donate, bear witness to their struggle. Today, they embody some of the best of humanity. Today, they are sacrificing for freedom and peace everywhere.