Trying to Avoid Despair

A Letter to My Grandson, December 3, 2015

Yesterday your mother called me, and we talked about how terrible this mass shooting in San Bernardino made her feel—almost hopeless and despairing, much because of her love for you. Then she said she remembered her father talking about how people have persisted through the terrible history of tragedies wrought on humans by other humans.

I was born in June, 1943. That month, three major race riots occurred, two were white against black and one was white against hispanic. The Allies made major advances in Europe and the Pacific arena, while Nazis continued to wipe out whole populations by sending them to death camps. That war ended in 1945.

When I was 7, the Korean War began in 1950, and “ended” when I was 10, with more than 4 million dead and missing on both sides (give or take a few thousand here and there).

In elementary school, we practiced hiding under our desks to protect ourselves if a nuclear bomb struck during the Cold War. In high school, we learned that would be useless and we should just pray. In college, I watched John Kennedy on TV bring us to the brink of nuclear destruction with his ultimatum over the “Cuban Crisis.”

Pop and I have lived through the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, as well as race riots and police dropping an actual bomb on a house in Philadelphia.

When I became pregnant with your mother, the Viet Nam war was still going on, ending in 1975 with 3 million people dead from 7 million tons of bombs and 2 billion bucks spent for everything. I know many people whose lives were impacted terribly by that war, including my brother Joe’s.

So while we have not been physically injured by violence, we have seen it again and again and were scared. Scared we would be hurt, or our kids, or you. Scared by all the angry people who believe there is only one way to live or one kind of people who should be allowed to live. Scared by people who believe that even more guns are the solution to violence. And especially scared for people who want to give up, who think life is worthless because they think the violence will never stop.

As a species, we have prevailed despite this violence against ourselves. We took a long time to evolve into a species that can think beyond the simple imperative of “fight or flight” to survive, a species that can imagine a future beyond terror. John Steinbeck in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, wrote:

“Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, and emerges ahead of his accomplishments.”

So believe, Odin, in yourself, and in the power of compassion.

 

All my love to you.

Story Telling

Last year I was astonished to see how many blogs I frequent gave synopses and/or critiques of Game of Thrones. Then I noticed how many referred to the story lines of Breaking Bad and Walking Dead, with further comments about how the show’s writers were going with the story line. As if they were movie reviews. Or, god help us, book reviews. Surveys of viewer reactions. Social commentary.

 

Then I saw how some of my “friends” on Facebook said they were binging on certain series with streaming subscriptions. How my husband, once we got Apple TV and Netflix and HBO and shut down cable TV, watched every episode of Sopranos. I’m not innocent either—I binge-watched Carnivale because I could never it figure out when we sporadically rented episodes on DVD.

 

I binge-listen to audiobooks. I love the performance values, the writing, the stories. I have listened to every recorded episode of the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters; Gabriel Allon by Daniel Silva; Cork O’Conner by William Kent Krueger; The Camel Club, Will Robie, and King and Maxwell series by David Baldacci; Amelia Peabody by Elizabeth Peters; Lewis Trilogy, Enzo, and Chinese Thrillers by Peter May; Shardlake by C.J. Sansom; Tony Hill by Val McDermid; The Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell; and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve also subscribed to the streaming series of Outlander on STARZ.

 

So rather than waiting for the weekly episodes of I Love Lucy or Maude, among so many hundreds of others, we can now watch as stories develop in one continuous framework or listen to multiple book releases. Again and again.

 

Why is story telling important to us? I think it is very simple: story telling connects us to other human beings. We might, in the end, be described as no more than a few minerals floating in a bag of fluids, but that “bag” is a singular intellect, always seeking how to proceed in the world, how to put life in context to make sense of the past and to hope in the future. A story  not only entertains us, but gives us information and an emotional  connection outside our skin, beyond touch or voice. It’s who we are and who we want to be. We experience through another’s experience, which consolidates learning far more effectively than mere rote memorization of facts. It’s why story tellers have been revered or despised throughout human history from its beginnings. Why we spend so many hours around the “fires” of our screens every day and night, listening.

 

Fishing for Ideas

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Wendy the One-Eyed Wonder

I will be boarding my dogs, Mimi and Wendy, tomorrow for a week, while I have surgery and recover from it. Depending on how things go, I might be able to bring them home sooner. They are a large part of my life, and I don’t think they will be happy about it. Mimi follows me everywhere, though Wendy is more independent.

I keep seeing news articles about how various animals display “human” emotions. We all know now that elephants relate emotionally to every animal in the group, but we also see bonds formed among surprising pairs: a lion and a dog, a blind goat and a horse (or maybe the other way around), dogs who help to foster kittens, raccoons who play with birds. And yesterday a BBC article about humpback whales protecting seals and dolphins from orcas, and posing the question of whether this is altruism.

Once people wondered whether animals experienced any emotions at all, made any “plans” for actions, or dreamed. Anyone who has seen a puppy or kitten suckle while sleeping know they dream—my dogs wake me sometimes barking in their sleep. It isn’t all “instinct” programmed into them. They react emotionally to each other and to us.

Humans are so arrogant when it comes to putting ourselves at the pinnacle of all life on this planet. We share the preponderance of our genetic history with all life forms. Today’s New York Times has an article titled “From Fins into Hands” about the molecular genetic links that limbs and fins share in common. I have no doubt that whatever constitutes the molecular basis for emotions and consciousness is shared by far more than one species, just as the number of Homo species grows as more fossils are discovered.

The discovery of genes and the ability to compare them across time and species is one of the finest achievements of science ever—greater than our space exploration. This occurred in my lifetime, but I think young people, like my grandson, will probably find it difficult to imagine that this knowledge is relatively new. (Or that, when I was a kid, we never had a TV until I was about 10.) Perhaps as we discover more about our biological underpinnings, we can understand more about the common needs of all living things. And learn to befriend them.

Maudlin yes, but so what? I truly cannot imagine how, in 2016, anyone with a minimal education can deny the existence of evolution. The religionists who want it banished from school curricula are not just stupid, they are criminally stupid.