Reading Memory

I recently wrote about writing too much (as if such a thing were possible).  After posting that I thought of how much the same can be said of reading.  I like to believe that whatever I’ve read is stored in my brain somewhere, rather like my writing on all those external drives.  I get some hopeful hints of this when a fragment of something read long ago suddenly reappears.  It’s good to know it’s there somewhere.  What brought this to mind is that a book I’m currently reading used a significant term.  Overly confident as I only am when reading, I figured I’d remember where it occurred.  A few days later I’d forgotten.  “No problem,” I thought, “the index.”  Indexes are never perfect and I’m always amazed by what strikes me as being so important failed to make the author’s cut.  So it happened.

This particular book was compactly written, but even so, it was more than sixty pages ago.  It took a few days of skimming, and finally going through line-by-line to find the word again.  It was a capitalized word and I thought mere skimming would be able to pick it out.  No such luck.  Part of the problem, I suppose, is that since I’ve left academia I’ve pretty much stopped writing in books.  I always did it in pencil, but still—there’s something about that pristine page so carefully typeset and laid out.  Well, if I had all the time in the world I could re-read those first sixty pages again, but I don’t have time to read all the books I need to, so I grabbed my old Pentel and began marking the spots I wanted to remember.

When we age it’s recall that suffers.  I tend to think the memories themselves are still there, sometimes distorted, sometimes altered, but present.  Books, after all, can be reread.  If I read something while commuting to Manhattan, there is a good likelihood that some of it was occluded by the worries of work lying ahead, coupled with the anxiety of catching the bus back home at the end of the day.  Not to mention anything that might’ve been happening in real life—that place outside of work that you really care about.  I’m glad for the commute reading; I regularly read over 100 books a year.  You couldn’t take notes while on a New Jersey Transit bus, though.  It’s not possible to read too much, but reading memory, it seems, is a sometimes a scarce resource.

Mental Health

Dark Shadows was a formative part of my childhood.  I don’t recall specifics, or even how I found out about it, but I do recall watching it after school and being completely taken by it.  When I do the math I realize I had to have been watching it primarily before I was ten, and then after that I started reading the books when I found them in the used bin at the local Goodwill where they usually cost a quarter or less.  Now they’re collector’s items.  That fact doesn’t change the reality that they are journeyman writing through and through.  William Edward Daniel Ross, under the pen name Marilyn Ross, wrote thirty-three novels in the series as part of his oeuvre of over 300 books.  The stories are formulaic and feature odd word choices, but they are gothic.  Sometimes gothic is just what you need.

Barnabas, Quentin and the Scorpio Curse is a fun romp through a period when Barnabas has—with no explanation in the novel—overcome the vampire curse.  It introduces some Collins cousins who come to an asylum conveniently located next door to Collinwood where murder breaks out and mayhem ensues.  I have to keep reminding myself to put my critical faculties aside when I read these guilty pleasures.  There are gaps and incredulities that are simply glossed over, and that’s part of the world in which they take place.  Astrology plays a part in this episode, as the title indicates.  It features a psychologist who, it would seem, doesn’t know how to do background checks.

The truly scary part of this Scooby-Doo tale is that the protagonists, Diana and Barnabas Collins, aren’t believed because they’re voluntarily admitted to the asylum.  Mental illness is a serious matter, of course, and it can be difficult to diagnose.  The difficulty here is that it’s used simply to dismiss what Diana observes.  Time and again, as the Scorpio murders continue she’s dismissed as “a mental patient.”  It’s all part of a plot, of course.  It does raise serious issues, though.  In the late sixties and early seventies there was a real stigma attached to mental illness.  There still is, in fact.  Ironically, the more we learn about mental disorders the more common they become.  Just about everyone has some neurosis or worse.  In our efforts to define the “normal” we dismiss those with actually diagnosed conditions.  We’ve come a long way since then, but we still need to work at dispelling the stigma.  One way to do it is, I suppose, to put conflicted vampires into the mix.

Perspective on Distance

Thirty miles can be pretty close or pretty far, depending.  This time it was pretty far.  I know the Post Office has been having trouble, but when the tracking number on the package said it was “being held by customer request” (wrong) at a Post Office thirty-plus miles away, I had to wonder.  I still remember when zip codes were made mandatory for mail.  They would give the Post Office a more precise set of coordinates to get to your house or apartment.  The funny thing is they’ve been vastly outdone by other delivery services.  Amazon makes mistakes too (they recently delivered something I’d ordered for myself to my mother—thankfully it wasn’t too embarrassing), but less often.  It would seem that if you pay someone to bring you something, they should be able to manage a bit closer than thirty miles.

I went to the website where delivery instructions was an editable field.  In it the PO had helpfully written “DI not available for this delivery.”  If you want it, you have to drive over sixty miles round trip to get it.  Only during office hours.  Don’t get me wrong—I’ve always been a supporter of the Post Office.  They generally get things to you—it’s pretty remarkable.  (Junk mail inevitably arrives, of course.)  I even used to collect stamps.  I’m still reluctant to not save one or two that catch my fancy.  But thirty miles?  You’d lose at both hand-grenades and horseshoes with that kind of accuracy.  When I called they offered to put it back in the system, but that would add several days to the delivery schedule.  Who’s to say that it might not end up even more than thirty miles afield?

If it were an atomic bomb, or a volcano, thirty miles would hardly seem far enough.  It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose.  So it is with most things in life.  Nine hours isn’t long if you’re engaged in a task you really enjoy.  In fact, the forty-eight hours of the weekend go by so fast that you’re left wondering where they went.  If you take nine hours and put them toward a dull and tedious task, however, they stretch to monstrous proportions.  Science tells us that the amount of lapsed time—or space—is the same.  It’s just our perception that changes.  In the larger scheme of things thirty miles in the middle of the day can take only a couple hours, with traffic.  From that perspective it’s better than a nine-hour drive to the original shipping location.  It’s all in how you look at it.

It depends on your perspective

Thinking Plants

Consider your sources.  As an erstwhile professor I grew accustomed to repeating that, and this was before the internet started up, making claims of all kinds.  Certain news sources—think New York Times, or the BBC—earn their reputations slowly, over many, many years.  That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, but it does mean they’re often on the mark.  So an article on plant consciousness on the BBC is worth considering.  Consciousness is still something we don’t understand.  We have it, but we can’t always say what it is.  Many, if not most, people tend to limit it to humans, but it’s become very clear than animals share in it too.  Why not plants also?  A few years back I read a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel.  He made the argument that human consciousness must come from somewhere, and as we look down toward animals, and plants, what we see are smaller pieces of the same thing.

I’m not stating this as eloquently as Nagel did, but the idea has stayed with me.  The BBC article  notes how plants seem to react to human interaction.  And they seem to communicate back.  We lack the natural range to hear their responses, but some experiments indicate that plants at least communicate among themselves.  Being the BBC, the story reports but doesn’t necessarily advocate this point of view.  Still, it makes sense.  For too long we’ve supposed human beings to be the only intelligent creatures on this planet, taking the arrogant view that animals are automatons with no thinking ability.  To give them that would be to make them too human-like.

That particular viewpoint still exists, of course, but more and more scientists are starting to consider whether consciousness isn’t emergent from, as Nagel put it, smaller building blocks.  I tend to be on the more imaginative end of the spectrum—consider your source here—but it seems to me that plants could well have a consciousness too.  Trees move.  They do it too slowly for our species to notice it, fixated as we are on our own brief time in the world and our human affairs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t move.  It simply means that if we want to see it we need to shift our perspective.  Communication, it would seem, pervades nature.  If it does, isn’t consciousness somehow implicated?  Plants may respond when we pay attention to them.  To me that makes the world an even more wonderful place.

A Life of Writing

One problem with being a graphomaniac is forgetting what you’ve written.  I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this.  Once we had the eminent historian Owen Chadwick to our house for dinner.  We of course had invited some students as well.  At one point one of the students asked him about something in one of his books.  The famed historian shook his head, not recalling it.  “One writes so much,” he replied.  Now, I’m not comparing myself with a knighted academic of international fame, but his remark in our living room has stayed with me all these years.  There are over 4,400 published posts on this blog, over a million and a half words, by my calculation.  Not even I remember everything I wrote.  “One writes so much…”

Just the other day I was looking for something I wrote.  You see, when I get an idea for a book (which happens frequently) I start writing it.  Inevitably, since I have very little time for writing on a daily basis, given my job, it joins many other partially written books.  Unless something like a book contract happens, my interests shift from one project to another, slowly building each up to near book length.  Once a project reaches that point I try to finish it off.  This involves writing and countless edits.  Holy Horror, for example, went through fifteen rewrites, some of them extensive.  Before it was sent to the publisher other books had already been started.  A conversation the other day reminded me of a book I’d started and I couldn’t find it.

My backup discs are a jumble of projects that take up too much memory on my laptop.  I try to organize them, but when a computer warning comes on while in the middle of a project one tends to cram things aside until one has room to finish up what one’s currently working on.  All of this authorial drama takes place before the sun rises, and when enough time passes I don’t always remember which file I put that old project into.  What did I even call it?  Writing, you see, requires constant practice.  Working nine-to-five creates a sense that you owe a great deal of time to your employer.  (Ironically, in my case, helping other people get published.)  The people I talked to the other day thought that that unfound idea sounded like a viable book.  Perhaps it is, if only I could remember where I put it.  Meanwhile I remember Sir Chadwick’s words from a quarter-a-century ago.

Thoughts on Job

The book of Job has been on my mind lately.  Leave aside the remarks of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, it is one of the most honest books ever written.  Many people think Job is trying to answer the question of why the good suffer.  If so, it does a poor job.  No, Job is an exploration of suffering, and Job really isn’t looking for an answer why.  Instead, he simply wants his pain to be heard.  No fixers, no advice.  Simply to be heard and to know he’s been heard.  You see, in the world of the Bible words were significant.  Many prophetic utterances were simply that—utterances because it needed to be said.  Job ups the ante quite a bit, however, when he begins to wish that God would answer him.  God, after all, is responsible for his pain.

William Blake’s Job

The world is full of sadness.  Some people feel the sadness of others deeply.  We all strive for some kind of equilibrium, some balance.  There are, however, a lot of people out there that truly do suffer and for no particular reason.  Job is a polarizing book.  Many people dislike it intensely.  I suspect that some of them don’t like to think of the world in this way.  Those who do good should be rewarded.  (The book makes plain that Job is perfect.)  Those who do evil should be punished.  Job makes clear that that’s not the way the world actually works.  For reasons we can’t know (who’s privy to the divine council and its deliberations about our fates?) we may end up losing our hopes, dreams, health, and wealth.  Job is kind of a horror story.

There are those who read Job and argue from the point of view of his friends.  In the book itself God condemns the outlook of the friends, noting that Job—no matter how challenging his words were—spoke honestly.  Life is seldom fair.  We as human beings must strive for fairness as best we’re able since we sense that it’s morally good.  Indeed, much of the Bible upholds fairness.  The book of Job questions it.  Not it’s goodness or morality, but rather why the world doesn’t reflect it.  When someone is suffering one of the most helpful and difficult things we can do is listen to them.  We need not open our mouths to fix, suggest, or advise, like Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu.  We simply must let the words be said.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The haunting season is nearly upon us.  Apart from the usual fun of ghost stories, those of us with appreciation of science wonder about whether there’s any hope of confirming some of these tales.  Benjamin Radford’s Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits is a handy guidebook for those who don’t wish to be gullible.  Radford demonstrates just why much of popular ghost hunting reality television really isn’t scientific at all.  Knowing how science works, Radford is unusual in that he’s open to the possibility of ghosts.  He points out, however, that from the point of view of science there’s a conundrum—there is no consensus on what a ghost actually is.  Different readers and experimenters and experiencers have different ideas about them—everything from the spirits of the dead to “recordings” made by the environment to demons to time-travelers.  Radford’s quite right that to test an hypothesis you need to agree on what you’re testing for.

Ghost hunting groups, as he points out, are actually gathering evidence hoping to prove the existence of ghosts (whatever they are).  Evidence gathering isn’t the same as science, however.  If you’ve ever watched any of these shows you’ll likely enjoy Radford’s take-down of their flawed methodology.  Wandering an unfamiliar location at night with the lights off and gadgets in hand, they go here and there, possibly contaminating each others’ “evidence.”  Their theories behind why ghosts do this or that—make cold spots, turn lights on and off, make white noise into EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena—don’t match the science of basic ideas of ambient temperature, wiring, and audio pareidolia.  These things are well understood, but you have to read about them to apply them. 

The larger question, however, remains.  If ghosts exist, and if they choose (if they have will) not to cooperate, how can we learn about them?  Radford makes the valid point that coming in for one night with lots of equipment and little knowledge of what we might term “the deep history of a location” stands very little chance of achieving results.  It may be fun, and entertaining, and it may catch a legitimate anomaly or two, but it doesn’t, can’t scientifically prove the existence of ghosts.  We still seem to be stuck with the materialism that only measures the physical.  This fact may indeed fuel skeptics to suggest it’s “only this and nothing more.”  But science isn’t the only way we know the world.  It’s a pleasure to read a book from an investigator of this topic who has his head on straight.

Claim This Panel

Validation.  We’re surrounded by it.  Now that we have the internet, everyone seems to want us to verify who we are.  And we were told as kids that there are no such things as trolls!  Personally, I have no idea why a hacker would want to be me.  I mean for destabilizing the government by messing with elections, well, of course, but I mean for academic purposes.  How do you really know who I am?  I googled myself the other day—I’m curious how my most recent book is doing because I’ve heard nothing from the publisher since it appeared—and noticed that in the “knowledge panel” on Google they had the picture of the wrong person.  I guess I’d better verify myself!

The erstwhile academic (aka “independent scholar”) gets invitations via email from Google Scholar to claim their papers.  I suppose in an effort to provide competition to, the researcher finds her or his papers available on Google Scholar’s website.  So far, so good.  But the invitation comes with instructions to verify your “work email.”  Said email must end in a .edu extension in order to be valid.  In other words, “independent scholar” is an invalid category.  This train of logic demonstrates one of the serious problems with high education shrinkage and the industry becoming tighter and tighter with its positions.  How do you verify yourself if your email address is the same as any Jane or Joe?  You can’t.  “Scholar” is limited to those lucky enough to have picked up a very rare position, especially in some fields, such as religion.

My recent experience with the DMV was an exercise in validation.  I presented the woman my vital paperwork (which was less than I had to show to get the New Jersey license that I had to cash in to get a license in Pennsylvania) while wearing a mask.  Irony can be quite stunning at times.  How did they know I wasn’t some masked bandit stealing someone’s paperwork on the way to the DMV?  I guess they could ask me to verify by my work email.  Then they’d discover that I’m merely an independent scholar.  If they googled me they’d find the wrong person’s photo on my knowledge panel.  Won’t someone validate me, please?  It would be nice to be able to claim my own papers on Google Scholar.  But until “independent scholar” becomes a real thing, I guess you can ask that guy (who’s not me) on the “knowledge panel” that bears my name.

Who Are You, Really?

It’s just an ordinary thing—renewing your driver’s license.  I remember waltzing in (actually, one never waltzes into the DMV, “trudging” is more accurate) to the DMV to get my new license.  Apart from the federally mandated several-hours wait, it wasn’t too bad.  You finally get to the counter, they snap your photo, laminate it, you pay, and you leave.  You’ve wasted a good part of the day, but you can legally continue to drive.  Then September 11 happened.  Fake IDs were deemed a national security threat.  You had to prove who you are before you could get that renewed license.  Never mind that for the rest of the days during those past four years nobody gave a fig who you were, for this day of your life you have to prove it.

Now we’re taking it a step further with REAL ID.  Forget your past, fake news ID.  Now you really have to prove it.  Mostly by bringing in documents that are all electronic now.  Your gas or electric bill?  Uh, don’t look while I type in my password.  My phone counts every step I take and knows exactly where they were taken.  It wants my fingerprints to even open.  Doesn’t this prove I’m me?  Can’t I just show you I can open my phone?  Besides, I know no one else who wants to be me, but now I’ve got to bring a stack of paperwork in (and some of it could easily be faked online by people who know far more about computers than me), stand in that endless line, to have my nation rest secure at night that I actually am who my driver’s license says I am.  Of course, we self-reflective types often wonder who we really are anyway.  Don’t they read my blog?  Given the strictures I have to sign into my own work laptop, I can only conclude that the internet has made us extremely insecure.

My issue is more philosophical.  Who am I?  An editor?  A writer?  An ex-professor?  A husband, father, son, brother, uncle, and cousin?  A pacifist?  A vegan?  A critical thinker? I suppose it depends on who you talk to (and that’s presuming anyone wants to talk to someone else about me).  When I walk out with my shiny new driver’s license I guess that will all be resolved.  Of course, you need to take the word of the bored-looking woman behind the counter who will cursorily examine my paperwork, knowing that there are approximately 5,280 other people she’ll see today, cataloging and certifying each one.  Does she really know who I am?  Does that magic box in front of her face have the answer to my question?  They hand me a plastic card.  Who am I?  A potential driver with proven ID.

Fear of the Other

Two things: I’ve been reading about and materials by American Indians lately, and I learned about Stephen Graham Jones through a video of him reading one of his stories.  I was immediately hooked.  It seems to me that those of us who’ve gone through trauma—either personally or ethnically—are disproportionately represented among those who like horror.  I’m not suggesting a simple equation, but simply noticing a trend.  Jones has been winning awards as a horror writer and I was anxious to get started.  Night of the Mannequins didn’t disappoint.  Jones is a member of the Blackfeet nation and, according to the author bio, a real slasher fan.  This story isn’t really a slasher but it is an exploration of what happens when an idea takes over someone’s life.

More about growing up in Texas than being First Nations, it follows a group of teens who find an abandoned mannequin and a practical joke that goes terribly wrong.  It’s a story will a real feel for what it means to grow up beneath the middle class.  The realities for those who do are somehow quite different than from those who can take some measure of financial security for granted.  It also makes a good setting for horror stories as the protagonist tries to figure out what’s going on without the aid of authorities and adults.  It makes for a compelling read.  Jones’ no-nonsense style draws you in and it doesn’t let you go.

The book is fairly recent and I don’t want to give too much away.  I do often think about how a writer’s personal experience leads to the books s/he writes.  The horror genre is wide-ranging and can be deep and intelligent.  Despite its brief extent, there’s a lot of depth here.  The straightforward writing style gives the book verisimilitude.  You could see this actually happening.  Monsters, after all, are frequently in our minds.  That doesn’t make them any less real.  Mannequins tend to inhabit the uncanny valley—they’re human and yet, at the same time they’re not.  There are aspects of growing up in “white” culture that must suggest the same to those who’ve been and who continue to be, oppressed by that culture.  There is a real fear to being controlled by others whose intentions, it must be clear by now, are to make themselves rich.  The world is a richer place, however, for having books by Stephen Graham Jones in it.  I’ll be coming back for more.

Paid Reading?

It’s like when you slowly pull a cotton ball apart.  Interrupted reading, that is.  Some people never cotton onto reading—we’re all different—but some of us find it such a beguiling exercise that we neglect other aspects of life so that we can engage it.  Almost an altered state of consciousness.  That moment when you have to close a good book, though.  There’s nothing else like it.  It’s difficult to pinpoint whether images or words make up the continuity a reader experiences.  For me it’s like a continuous conversation.  Since my life may be too regulated (“nine-to-five” jobs are like that), every day at work begins with interrupted reading.  If you’re awake early, you’ll find there’s no other uninterrupted time like it.  No librarian has to shush anyone at three a.m.

My job is largely reading.  It’s also a good deal of customer service.  As an author myself I guess I get that.  Content is what the world wants, and if you find a writer who does what your press likes, well, you try to keep her happy.  Why doesn’t enforced reading feel like reading by choice, though?  It’s that reading before work that feels like the pulling apart of fibers that’ve organically grown together.  By nighttime, which is still light in summer, it’s not so much pulling apart cotton balls.  Bedtime reading is more like stumbling through a forest.  When you come to that part of the path you know you’ve been on before—perhaps multiple times—it’s time to put the book down and hopefully reboot.

There may be jobs which consist entirely of reading for pleasure.  If there are I never learned about them in high school or college.  I have a friend who’s a musician.  Many years ago I asked him what he like to play for fun.  He looked at me and said “Music, for me, is work.”  I have to believe that somewhere deep inside he still found it enjoyable, but I instinctively grasped what he meant.  Once you take your passion and convert it into a source of income the magic goes out of it.  Once I get out of work the thing I want to do immediately is read, but what I want to read. And although studies show that the reasonable way to get your best work out of your employees is to give them more time off, employers tend to disagree with the data.  The more hours you put in the more “dedicated” you are.  But then, some of us are in publishing because we love to read.  But even now, as work time approaches, the cotton ball begins to shred.

Building Trust

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the Trump presidency was the four years of eroding trust.  People, it seems to me, no longer trust each other.  I’ve noticed it most since the reign of a pathological liar.  It’s kind of like a nation of children of alcoholic parents—trust is a real struggle.  I regularly deal with academics.  Now, critical thinking tends to make a person skeptical, at least to a degree, but it seems to me people would trust a very old, highly regarded institution.  Lately I’ve noticed that trust eroding in various ways, and that puzzles me.  If we can’t trust those who’ve done the heavy lifting of keeping a solid reputation for centuries, well, who can you trust?  It’s a real dilemma.  Maybe it’s because we had four years of equating “my opinion at the moment” with “facts.”  The damage will take many years to repair.

The basic way that civilization works is with trust.  We tend not to pay our money for something unless we believe it’s worth what we’re spending.  Skepticism, in appropriate measure, is a good thing.  So is trust.  One way that I often see this is in the hiring of contract managers.  Yes, there is such a thing!  Many younger academics now hire companies to make sure the publishing contracts they sign aren’t cheating them.  When I was in academia you simply went by the reputation of a publisher.  Everyone knew who had a good reputation because of, well, their reputation.  What a publisher represented was well known and respected for what it was.  Perhaps I’m mistaking the desire for personal advantage for lack of trust.

Companies sometimes engage in trust-building exercises.  Getting beyond someone’s politics to the person beneath seems to be a dying art.  Deep divisions are difficult to achieve when people trust one another.  Consider the anti-vaxxers who are now feeding the delta-variation of Covid-19.  They’ve been taught not to trust the scientists and officials who offer a way to ending this pandemic.  For free.  They even don’t believe the post-presidential interview with Trump where he encouraged (far too late) his followers to get vaccinated.  Trust has to be built slowly.  Over centuries sometimes.  One man’s selfishness tore down the modicum of trust that had been slowly growing since the 1860s.  Now uninformed skeptics think critical race theory is some kind of plot.  Trust isn’t a bad thing.  It is the only way to move forward.  Trust me on this.

Thy Sting

“It’s hard to imagine a more alarming sign of a society’s well-being than an inability to keep its citizens alive.”  This quote is from the New York Times’ The Morning team yesterday.  Life expectancy in the US has been dropping.  Not coincidentally, the article notes, so has the wealth disparity in the country been rising.  And guess whose lives are shorter.  Isn’t it often the same people who vote for those whose wealth keeps them (the candidate) alive longer, and in luxury?  This story struck me as poignant.  Have we lost our national will to live?  We see politicians who give no mind to what the people want getting themselves elected to further their own means.  People know they’re not being cared for.  That they’re being lied to.  Perhaps it’s working its way into our national mortality rates.

I think quite a bit about mortality.  Death is a natural part of life and we seem to have bought into the capitalistic idea that more is always better.  The debates in ethics classes were always about such issues of quantity versus quality.  Is a good life better, even if it’s shorter?  Improving the lot of others increases, we hope, the number of good lives.  Not everyone wants to be rich.  Part of the problem with our current system is that we’re narrowing it down to one way of existing—the way of earning more money.  Those occupations suffused with meaning are disappearing because they’re not profitable.  Does the will to keep on living grow when money is substituted for meaning?

Books on “the good life” sell well.  Whether it’s stoicism, Buddhism, or feel-good Christianity, people want to read the answers.  In a capitalistic system only so many can be rich.  They accumulate power to themselves and many have nothing beyond this for which to strive.  How many classes are available for finding meaning in life?  As universities continue their march towards the status of business schools, the philosophy and religion departments struggle.  They don’t bring in money, but they do, I suspect, discuss the systems that give meaning to people.  That could instill the will to press on.  The article makes the point that although Covid-19 has led to a good part of the decline, it isn’t the only factor involved.  We’re all so busy that we don’t have time to think about it and yet, finding a reason to continue to improve might give us what we need.  Maybe slowing down a little and pondering things would help.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

Yellow Jacket Redux

Back before what year it was really mattered, I stepped on a yellow jacket nest.  (I know I wrote about this last summer, but there’s a point being made here.)  So traumatic was the ensuing horror scene that I literally did not wear shorts (other than those obligatory for gym class) for at least a decade.  I’m still reluctant to do so.  The south side of our house is the best real estate in town.  For bugs.  After last year’s unfortunate yellow jacket massacre, I went out and patched every hole I could find and reach.  I missed one.  (Actually, it is where previous owners didn’t bother to reattach a porch light after installing a new porch.  The gap was too big to use filler and I was trying to figure out how to do the repair when it got cold out last fall.)  So the jackets are back.  Ironically, not two feet from where they settled last year.

I really don’t want to kill the little buggers.  I have respect for all of life, and if they didn’t regularly get into the house I’d leave them be.  They’re only doing what they evolved to do.  At times it seems like all of life is an experiment presided over by some alien race, curious about what would happen if a few select species were given an intellectual boost.  You see, these yellow jackets are smart.  They’re problem solvers.  When I realized what they were doing—it was already too late—I started going outside at 3 a.m. (I’m awake anyway) and duct-taping the gaps shut.  I did this three days in a row before I realized what would happen if the police drove by.  A guy in a hoodie in the dark, standing next to a window on someone’s back porch with a roll of duct tape in his hand?  How do you explain your way out of that one?

Nature couldn’t have given these yellow jackets a real analog for duct tape wrapping the entry to their home, but each day they came back and buzzed around it contemplatively.  I figured the stickiness of the tape (I could barely get it off my fingers) would dissuade them.  They began digging under it.  Not only that, they began building an exterior entrance tunnel.  Soon they had an even better fortified nest with an easily guarded means of ingress.  Their brains may be small, but working together they can accomplish truly remarkable things.  More so, in many ways, than this human who watches them with fear and reverence.

Peak Complexity

I remember being a kid.  Things probably weren’t as simple as some adults seem to remember—society, even as a child, is complex.  You soon learned the important lessons: who the bullies were and how to avoid them.  Cars are dangerous, particularly if they’re moving.  God is always watching you.  Then you start school and you begin to learn things you simply didn’t understand before.  You study math and although addition and subtraction seem pretty easy, division and multiplication require some concentration.  By the time you get to high school the math has become so complex that hours of homework are required to figure it out.  I don’t know about you, but nobody explained to me what jobs you needed this for.  I just hoped it wouldn’t be mine.

I’ve managed to get through so far with only the obligatory mathematical complexity of trying to explain certain problems to my daughter when she was in a similar situation.  Fortunately she understood how things worked better than I ever did.  The complexities, however, also come in other species.  I learned that being an adult meant constantly negotiating complexities.  That’s tricky for a guy like me because I tend to understand things by tracing them to their origins.  (There’s a reason history appeals to me.)  Social complexities often don’t allow such tracing—you need to figure out relationships and their implications and how you fit into the picture.  The same is true of jobs.  I’m sure many of you’ve had a job where the requirements change as circumstances alter.  You may have been hired to do one thing, but now you do another.

Then big life events come in with all their own complexity.  The other day I was wondering if there’s such a thing as peak complexity.  If there is, what happens when we reach it?  Do things in life simply become so intricate that society (I’m thinking here simply in human terms) implodes?  Or do we start to make things simpler again? Is there any going back?  I used to tell my students that my own grandmother was born before heavier-than-air flight.  By the time she died we’d been to the moon more than once.  Yes, rural life had its complexities, but since the industrial revolution the pace has been—what’s more than breakneck?  I know computer engineers and they tell me code is so complex that it’s actually a job to sort it out.  Just because you can fly a helicopter doesn’t mean you can put one together.  If we ever do reach peak complexity I have a suspicion that we won’t be able to tell, until in retrospect.  Childhood’s beginning.