Unexpected optimism

I remember sitting in an upper level undergraduate philosophy class back in 1982, when we were discussing nihilism. This was a time when the Cold War was frighteningly real to my twenty year old self. In this class discussion, I pointed out that there was a very good chance of a nuclear war wiping out human civilization within a decade. The point I was trying to make, in my inarticulate way, was that nihilism and realism were hard to tell apart at that moment in history.

I suspect quite a few people in my age cohort had similar feelings. Science fiction Charles Stross, who’s four years younger than I, appears to be one of those people. In a recent comment on his own blog, he writes:

“[In the 1980s,] I didn’t expect to live to see 1990, much less 2000.

“[Today] we’re nearly a year into an angry totalitarian Russian invasion of a western(ish) nation and the invasion stalled out badly before it got more than 200km in, and they still haven’t gone nuclear.

“Yes, that is an improvement. I mean, I’ll take dangerously accelerating climate change, rule by mad billionaire oligarchs, and neo-Nazis trying to make a come-back everywhere, over dying in a 50,000-warhead superpower nuke-fest — or worse, being one of the scorched and irradiated and starving survivors — any day of the week.”

I agree with Stross. I’m still somewhat amazed that it’s 2023, and I’m not yet reduced to radioactive ash. We’re still here.

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) was a German philosopher who lived through the First World War, the Nazi regime, the Cold War, and the beginning of the “war on terror.” Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, someone asked him if he had optimism. Yes, he said — holding his finger and thumb a tiny distance apart — about this much hope.

So like Stross and Gadamer, I find myself optimistic. Yes, we face incredible problems. But we’re still here, which is pretty amazing. We’re still here, there’s still hope.

“Somebody who’s asleep will not say no”

ANDRE: “OK. Yes. We’re bored now. We’re all bored. But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process which creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating unconscious form of brain-washing created by a world totalitarian government based on money? And that all of this is much more dangerous, really, than one thinks? And that it’s not just q question of individual survival, Wally, but that somebody who’d bored is asleep? And somebody who’s asleep will not say no?” — My Dinner with Andre: A screenplay for the film by Louis Malle, by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (New York: Grove Press, 1981), pp. 91-92

If we were bored back in 1981 when this screenplay was written, we are even more bored now. We try to keep our boredom at bay with social media — reading Facebook posts from people we don’t really care about instead of talking to neighbors, looking at Instagram photos instead of at our children — and as a result, we’re not just bored, we’re lonely.

And too many of us are not saying no. We’re not saying no to demagogues and Christian nationalists and sadistic employers.

Maybe we need to wake up.

Grumpiness and ukuleles

Three of us were in the office in the early afternoon. Each of us was feeling a little bit grumpy. Each of us was glad to be done with 2022, and hoping that 2023 will be a little bit better.

I told them my theory. Here we are, three years into a pandemic. Historically, pandemics have ended after a year and a half. But this pandemic is still going strong. I told them about this article I read that blamed the Ukraine war on the pandemic — Putin took advantage of societal chaos to launch his war.

I think I might even blame the pandemic for what happened in the U.S. House of Representatives today. The Republicans could not elect a Speaker of the House. Sure, we can blame it on right-wing extremists and ideologues. But I suspect part of the reason that people are voting right wing extremists and ideologues into office is that people are afraid and angry and doing stupid things like voting for people who can’t and won’t govern effectively.

It’s time to start playing ukulele again. I’ll never be a good ukulele player, but who cares. Pick up a ukulele, and you can’t help smiling. To quote George Harrison: “[The uke] is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh.”

Even if I can’t play it very well, a uke makes me feel better. Especially if it’s Carol’s uke, the one with blue flowers painted on it.

Me holding a ukulele with blue flowers painted on it.
Carol’s uke

Dreams and imagination

I feel like I’ve been dreaming a lot recently. Mind you, I’m not sure. Many years ago I would get up in the middle of the night if I had a really interesting dream, and I would write it down. Then one day I re-read one of my descriptions of one of these dreams. The plot of the dream was not all that interesting, and my description of the plot was not well written. Then once I had been reminded of that dream, I couldn’t get it out of my head (in fact, as I write this, some forty years later, memories of that dream come back to haunt me). I decided I no longer wanted to clutter up my memory with sad boring dreams. Ever since then, I have deliberately not remembered my dreams.

But it may not be dreams at all. It may simply be that I’ve had a great many ideas bubble up in the past few months. I feel like I’ve finally shed most of the stress induced by lockdown and the pandemic. I feel like my mind and my imagination are finally returning to normal, after two and a half years of high stress forced me to think and feel and imagine differently. And half a dozen years of busy-ness before that kept my mind running in predictable grooves.

How fragile imagination and thought are. Imagination and thought happen best when you have time and space and a lack of stress. How rare it is for us to lead lives that are not cramped for time and space, that are not filled with stress.

Cohasset Central Cemetery

I first noticed the doll leaning up against a child’s grave back in August. The doll was a bit faded and weather-beaten even then, so it has been standing at the grave for some time now. The child died in 1862, so the doll could not have been left by someone who knew her. I like the fact that whoever cuts the grass has left the doll in place.

Asters

For the past month and a half, I’ve been looking for flowers in the aster tribe (Tribe Astereae). I’ve always liked asters. I don’t know why. There’s something about the off-white and pale lavender colors that gets to me.

Flowers in tribe Astereae, probably genus Symphiotrichum

I guess it’s a kind of spiritual experience when I see asters in bloom. Whatever “spiritual” means.

Flowers in tribe Astereae

I’m not able to tell which species of aster I’m looking at. In the genus Symphiotrichum alone, there are 27 species native to New England. Go Botany has a dichotomous key for Symphiotrichum. However, for some species the key requires 14x magnification of the bracts and disk flowers, but all I have is a 10x hand lens.

Flowers in tribe Astereae, probably genus Symphiotrichum

Nevertheless, I should sit down with one of these plants and try to work through the key. Not that it matters what species I’m looking at. Not that it will make the flowers any more (or less) beautiful. But why not observe them more closely?

Living out of your car

We left our rental in San Mateo, California, on June 20. From then until September 1, we didn’t have a permanent address. We were living out of our car from June 20 to July 17. Then we had a short-term and very inexpensive rental ($500 a month, plus work barter) on the south coast of Massachusetts. As of September 1, we finally have a permanent address on Boston’s South Shore. Even now, most of our belongings are still in storage, and we’ve been living with whatever we managed to pack into the car.

We’ve had a pretty comfortable summer, all things considered. But our experience has made me think about what I’ve heard from some of the homeless people I’ve known. Now most of the homeless people I’ve known have not been street people. There are quite a few different kinds of homelessness. There’s couch-surfing, where you do short-term stays with friends and family, often rotating amongst several people so no one gets sick of you. There’s living in an RV or converted van, which can entail parking at night with friends or family, or parking at night in state or county campgrounds, or parking on the streets; the latter option is where you’re the most vulnerable. There’s car dwelling, which less comfortable than RV or van dwelling, since you have to sleep in a seat not a bed. There’s living in long-term homeless shelters, where you’re guaranteed a bed in one place for at least a month at a time. There’s living night-to-night in homeless shelters, where you have to line up every day to get a spot in the shelter. Then there’s living on the street, where you’re sleeping outdoors pretty much all the time.

In the popular imagination, “homelessness” means the last option: living on the street. But really homelessness is a state of being where you don’t have a permanent address. It’s a state of being where you have a lot less control over your life, and a lot less predictability. Considered this way, homelessness is similar to being a refugee.

As I said, we’ve had a pretty comfortable existence. We have adequate income, and we knew we’d find a permanent place to live sooner or later. We have enough stability, and enough money, that we could be somewhat picky about our rental options.

As comfortable as we are, not having a permanent address caused a certain amount of stress. It can be difficult buying things online, and these days you almost have to buy some things online, but with no permanent address where are you going to have them shipped? (We solved that problem by renting a mailbox at a UPS Store, which is not inexpensive.) There’s stress associated with the ambiguity of not really having a permanent legal address. There’s stress because your clothes always look a little rumpled; even I, a slovenly dresser, have found this to be annoying. There’s psychic stress: sometimes you don’t quite know where you’re going to be next week, and that’s uncomfortable. There’s more psychic stress: you feel a definite lack of control.

Again, we’ve been quite comfortable in the last two and a half months, but all these little stressors have added up. I’m more tired than usual, and less efficient. Even though I have a solid job, and we have solid financial resources, living out of a car is tiring.

This tallies with what I’ve heard from the homeless people I’ve known. They’ve talked about how the uncertainty can wear you down, can make you less efficient. Then if you’re looking for work on top of that, or working a low-wage job (and low wage jobs are far more stressful than knowledge-worker jobs), it’s all going to add up. You’re going to be tired and stressed out.

This is something to think about when we’re thinking about how to help people who are unhoused. If you tell unhoused people to get a job first, or to kick their addiction first, I’m not sure that’s actually a pragmatic, practical approach. Based on my brief experience living out of a car, I tend to believe that it makes more sense to put people in housing first, then when they have some stability in their lives they’ll be able to address the other problems.

Night sky

If I walk out the front door of the house we’re staying in, sometime after it’s fully dark, and look up, I can see the Milky Way. For the past thirteen years I’ve been living in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has so much light pollution that you’re lucky if you can see a few stars at night. In that whole thirteen years I probably saw the Milky Way fewer than ten times. So even though we’ve been living in Westport for a month and a half, I’m still amazed when I look up and see all those stars.

When I was a child, I remember seeing the Milky Way all the time. But gradually, light pollution grew worse and worse there. By 2003 when my father sold that house that we’d grown up in, you could see far fewer stars. And for most of my adult life, I’ve lived in cities or congested suburbs where I couldn’t see the stars.

It feels good to look up and see the Milky Way. I guess it helps orient me to where we are in the universe. By next week, we’ll be living in Cohasset. We’ll be in the midst of the massive light pollution of Greater Boston. I’m glad that I’ll no longer be spending three and a half hours a day driving to and from work. But I’m going to miss the beauty of the night sky.

The Ted memorial rest area

For the past month, we’ve been living in Westport, Mass., and I’ve been commuting to my new job in Cohasset, Mass. It’s at least an hour and a half drive, more if there’s traffic. By the time I come home, I’m often tired of driving. Fortunately, there’s a rest area almost exactly halfway between the church in Cohasset and our temporary place in Westport. I often find myself pulling into that rest area to stretch my legs and clear my head.

It’s not much of a rest area. The parking lot is too small for the amount of truck traffic, with big rigs everywhere. By contrast, the lot for cars is usually mostly empty. Inside the building, there’s a Burger King and a Dunkin Donuts. But they seem to sell most of their food at their drive-through windows, because there’s hardly ever anyone sitting in the dining area. In spite of all the tractor trailer rigs, the whole place feels oddly deserted.

I stopped there on my way home today. It was lunch time, and the dining area was as deserted as usual. A memory forced its way to the surface of my consciousness. Back in 2008, I was working in New Bedford, and once a month I’d drive up to Newton for Sacred Harp singing. Ted, whom I sang with in another choir in New Bedford, started getting into Sacred Harp singing, too. So we’d drive up together to sing Sacred Harp. But I’d often have missed dinner in order to sing, so on the way home we’d stop at this exact same rest area to grab a sandwich. We’d spend the long drives talking, and we’d sit in that deserted rest area — even back then, it was always deserted — and talk some more while we ate. Mostly we talked about music. I still remember how he said he used to sing with five different ensembles when he lived in San Francisco, one for each night of the week.

When I moved to California, I lost touch with Ted. I’m not a good correspondent, and neither was he. A few years ago, I learned from one of his siblings that he had died.

Ted and I both sang bass. He was a pleasure to sing next to, not just because he was a good musician and a good singer. Some choral singers are on an ego trip, wanting to show off how good they are. That kind of singer is not fun to sit next to. Ted was the other kind of singer, the singer who’s there for the music, who subsumes their ego in the music. Marge Piercy talked about something similar in her poem “To Be of Use”: “I want to be with people who submerge / in the task … / who are not parlor generals and field deserters / but move in a common rhythm / when the food must come in or the fire be put out.” Piercy was talking about work, not music, but you see the same kind of thing in music. As it happens, I did actually do physical work with Ted on several occasions, and he worked the way he sang: submerged in the task, rather than a parlor general. That’s the kind of person I like to spend time with.

When I was in the rest area today, I got to thinking about Ted. I guess for me, that’s now the Ted memorial rest area. Not a bad thing to think about while I’m stretching my legs and getting a sandwich.

Thinking back

My uncle Bob died late last month. I’ve been thinking about him a lot. I talked to my younger sister about him, even wound up talking to some cousins I haven’t talked to in a long time. Thinking back about parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents and great-grandparents. All the things I don’t know, the people in old photographs we’ll never be able to identify because there’s no one we can ask, “Who was that? and who’s that next to them?…”

A short film on Vimeo by twenty-something filmmaker Devon Blackwell captures some of these feelings. As she looks at old family photographs, Blackwell says: “It’s frustrating, longing to talk to people I’ve never met….”

That’s the feeling I get when I look the old photo sitting on the desk next to my laptop, a picture of my great-grandparents Bessie and Lew Harper. I know almost nothing about them; the only way I know they are the people in the photo is because my grandmother wrote their names on the back. The last time my sister and I talked with our Uncle Lee, he told us how Bessie, his grandmother, had lived with our grandparents before she died. “I was probably her best friend in those years,” Uncle Lee said. I never knew that before. It was after Uncle Lee died that I found the photo of Bessie and Lew Harper, so I couldn’t ask him about it.

Inscription on reverse reads, “Bessie and Lew Harper, Early 1890s”

I had a videoconference call with Uncle Bob the week before he died. He looked good and sounded great. In my head, I was making plans to visit him this summer, assuming COVID would allow. I had some questions I wanted to ask him….