Ed died this morning, peacefully in his sleep. Here’s a picture of him when he was 32, sitting next to his four year old daughter:

Man sitting at a picnic table looking at a young girl next to him.

His daughter doesn’t like this photo. She said: no one should be allowed to give little girls hair cuts like that. But since she never looks at this blog, I can get away with posting this. I think it’s a nice father-daughter photo.

Different way of thinking

Recently, I got introduced to two new ways of thinking.

First, I’ve been taking ukulele lessons. My teacher gave me a transcription of part of the Largo movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As I play through that, it feels like my brain is being rewired. (“Rewired” is actually not the correct way to describe whatever is going on, but that metaphor — thinking as electronics — is common these days, so I’ll stick with it.) Or, more precisely, it’s not just my brain that’s being rewired: it’s my brain, my fingers, my ears and eyes — all of which are part of thinking — these are all being rewired.

Second, Carol’s father mentioned ones’ complement arithmetic. That sounded interesting, so I looked it up. On the CodeKraft blog, I found a good explanation of why ones’ complement arithmetic is useful. Then the Wikipedia article on ones’ complement provides a few good examples of how it works. This form of arithmetic is rewiring my brain in several interesting ways. The concept of signed zero is pretty interesting, though it doesn’t rewire my brain quite as much as, for example, when I learned about transfinite numbers.

I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I actually need to learn new and different ways of thinking. It keeps me fresh. Perhaps this is why I like improving my intercultural competence: this is another way to learn how to think in different ways.


This coming Sunday is the day when we switch to Daylight Savings Time — and lose an hour of sleep. So I decided to do a service all about sleep. I found several poems about sleep that I’m going to use. But I’m also going to work in a passage from the Nevi’im, the minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible — the famous passage in Joel 2:28, which is translated in the King James Version as “…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions…” As someone who can now be called an “old man” (I’m certainly no longer middle aged), I tend to prefer the International Standard Version (ISV) translation, except I use the word “elders” in place of the ISV’s “elderly people” as a term of greater respect:

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy.
Your elders will dream dreams,
and your young people will see visions.

As a Transcendentalist, I’ve had my share of both dreams and visions. I no longer see much of a difference between them. Martin Luther King, Jr., said he had a dream: a realizable, albeit distant, hope for a more just future. But isn’t that a vision, too? Both dreams and visions can be overpowering. Both can arise while we’re asleep, so that when we wake we know what we must do.

(P.S.: While it has nothing to do with this blog post, I can’t resist mentioning one of my favorite pieces of music about sleep [which won’t be part of Sunday’s service]: Thomas Morley, “O Sleep”.)

To all my progressive friends and compatriots

Conservative lawyer David French is now writing a column for the New York Times. Yoicks. A conservative writing for the bastion of liberalism in the U.S.?

Well, according to this opinion piece, French had the temerity to stand up for his “commitment to the classical liberal ideal of government as neutral guarantor of free expression and association that the new conservative intellectuals have abandoned.” Beyond that, he got hated on by conservatives in social media when he, a white man, adopted a Black child. It sounds like he kind of got kicked out of the conservative club.

In his first column in the Times, French wrote:

“Any time my tribe or my allies are under fire, before I yield to the temptation of a reflexive defense, I should apply my principles and carefully consider the most uncomfortable of thoughts: My opponents might be right, my allies might be wrong and justice may require that I change my mind. And it may, in all likelihood, require that I do this again and again.”

Presumably French is actually talking about himself. But he might as well be talking about us liberals and progressives and leftists.

You know what, sometimes we’re wrong. I won’t talk about liberals and progressives, but I can talk about my people, the leftists. Before my day, leftists in the 1930s were wrong about Stalin and the Soviet Union; we had to change our minds, which forced us to rethink what we meant by socialism and communism: we had to be reminded by conservatives that totalitarianism is always wrong, even when it masquerades as socialism or communism. In my day, leftists in the 1970s and 1980s veered from freedom of expression into hyperindividualism, and we mocked the conservatives who held on to values of community. We were wrong, and we began to realize individual expression had to be balanced against community. (By the way, this became even more clear when some leftists veered into libertarianism, went to Silicon Valley, and started creating a new kind of totalitarianism.)

And today? Hmm…some leftists are veering away from a commitment to the ideal of government as neutral guarantor of free expression and free association…in other words, some leftists are also veering towards totalitarianism.

We all need to listen to one another, without yielding to the temptation of reflexive defensiveness — liberals and conservatives, progressives and right-wing libertarians, leftists and today’s hyperindividualistic right wingers. We don’t have to agree — but if we listen, we might find we have to clarify our ideas or even change our minds.

Sometimes I need to shut my brain off. One way I can do that is by writing. But writing can also act as a stimulant, making my thoughts go round even faster.

People tell me meditation will shut my brain off. I meditated seriously for years, until I realized that I really disliked meditating, and that it made me detached and mean. I’m one of those people who gets “meditation-related adverse effects.”

Nope, prayer doesn’t work either. I want fewer words going around in my head, not more of them.

Walking is a sure-fire way for me to quiet my brain. Talking with my spouse will do it. Singing. Doing chores (sometimes).

But right now, I’m going to read a murder mystery. It’s too late to go for a walk or sing, my spouse is in Wisconsin, I’m sick of doing chores. A murder mystery, that’s just the ticket. It will engage my brain just enough, but it won’t require much concentration.

You do your spiritual practices, I’ll do mine. Erle Stanley Gardner, here I come.

90 seconds to midnight

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained the “Doomsday Clock.” That mythical clock shows how close humanity is to total destruction. Originally, the Clock only looked at the danger from nuclear armageddon, but in recent years has included threats from ecological catastrophe, bio-security, and other controllable threats to humanity.

The Clock was advanced from its previous setting of 100 seconds before midnight (i.e., to destruction), up to 90 seconds before midnight. According to Rachel Bronson, PhD, president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “90 seconds to midnight is the closest the Clock has ever been set to midnight.” The Bulletin’s press release attributes most of the increase in threat to humanity to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing threats that Russia will use nuclear weapons.

Ten years ago, the Clock was set to 5 minutes (300 seconds) to midnight. When I first got active in the movement calling for reduction in nuclear stockpiles, back in the late 1970s, the Clock was set at 9 minutes to midnight, and we thought that was terrifying.

I still remember attending a Sun Ra concert in Philadelphia sometimes around 1983, when Sun Ra led his band in a snake dance through the audience while chanting, “It’s a motherfucker / Don’t you know / If they press that button / Your ass gonna go.” That chant was one of the things that helped me make sense of something you can’t really make sense out of. Nuclear war. It’s a motherfucker — and Sun Ra never used strong language, except in this piece, but that strong language is the only possible language for this topic — but there it is. Don’t get frantic about nuclear disaster, but don’t ignore it either. Confront it head on, in all its seriousness, with all the possibility of oblivion, while making music about it.

(For the record, the live version I remember hearing differs from the 1982 recorded version. Musically, the version I heard in Philadelphia is probably more like the live version recorded in Germany in 1984; though the words of the German recording differ from what I remember. There’s also the version recorded in Paris in 1983, which is quite different musically. No matter. If you’re looking to make sense out of nuclear armageddon, the effect of any of the recorded versions is the same: helping us make sense of the senseless.)

A screen grab from the 1984 film showing Sun Ra and his band, dressed in elaborate costumes, performing "Nuclear War." A subtitle in French reads, "S'ils appuient sur le bouton," i.e., "If they press the button...."
Screen grab from a 1984 film of Sun Ra performing “Nuclear War” in Paris.

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.