Mastering Ravens

One of the most difficult things in modern life is to keep up with all the new jobs available.  That’s not to suggest that unemployment isn’t a real problem—it is—but that the game has changed since the days I went to the guidance counselors’ office and thumbed through the box of microfiche to learn about potential colleges.  (And what strange people the guidance counselors were!)  Since 1981, when I graduated from Oil City High School, the Internet has been invented and has changed employment forever.  I understand that making YouTube videos can now be a full-time job, with benefits.  Who knew?  So when I was kindly presented with a copy of Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is such a job.

Delightfully written, The Ravenmaster goes into the ins and outs of life in what is a ceremonial job.  That the Brits are fond of tradition is no secret, and this little book is so full of them that it becomes a delightful gallimaufry that includes, I kid you not, dog biscuits marinated in blood.  Although Skaife takes you on a few detours through his own life, the book is mainly about ravens.  We’re so used to materialists telling us that everything is simply cause and effect of neurons firing that I wonder how they might react to the obvious intelligence and personalities of ravens.  Reading about their antics as well as their wisdom it’s difficult not to surmise that consciousness isn’t a purely human preserve.  With the ravens and the wolves we are a piece.

Intelligence is more common in the animal world than in the White House these days, and this book may help to show why.  Ravens can plot, plan, and be cruel.  They can also be kind, compassionate, and friends.  I’ve long had a fascination with corvids, and I tried to befriend some before moving out of New Jersey.  It was a bit tricky with the strictures of my own Tower of London—the commute, the bus, the job—and so my friendship with the local crows in the back yard of our apartment remained strictly casual.  We lose so much by not paying attention to the natural world of which we are, increasingly, so unnatural a part.  When humanity disappoints and the ridiculousness of human behavior haunts, I recommend reaching for The Ravenmaster.  It’s comforting to know that real minds exist out there in the wild.

By Their Love

One of my high school teachers—I don’t have to say who; if you attended my high school you’ll already know and if you didn’t you won’t know him anyway—wrote in my yearbook, “I hope you get what you deserve.” I wasn’t very good in this teacher’s class, but he explained to me, “I sign everyone’s yearbook the same way. If you do well, I hope you get rewarded. If you don’t do well, I still hope you’ll get what you deserve.” This teacher had a reputation for being somewhat of a philosopher, and his words have struck me as particularly appropriate for this moment. We, in the cosmic scheme of things, get what we deserve. As a nation I guess we deserve a First Lady, in an example to young women everywhere, has appeared naked on the internet. Her husband married her after two previous women and has made his views on gender perfectly clear. My conservative friends went to the polls knowing that. I hope they get what they deserve.

The problem is the rest of us are stuck with him too. I’ve lived through bitter, spiteful campaigns before. The genteel art of campaigning is thoroughly deceased. 2016, however, is the first year that I saw pure hatred as a political platform. And it wasn’t on both sides. Trump made of virtue of hating one’s neighbor and claimed the election was rigged until he won—then it was, of course, impossible that it would’ve been rigged. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who kept her dignity throughout, never stooped to inciting hatred of fellow Americans. It likely cost her the election. To the people now saying this is just politics and stop complaining I say we have all been victimized and we all ought to feel very ashamed. This election wasn’t about money. Or financial positions. Or foreign policy. It was about hate.

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Hate can only be counteracted by love. I have seen many women responding to a man who considers them mere sexual object by reaching out in kindness to strangers. Women organizing to try to make this country a more positive place. Meanwhile, I hear men I know saying at last we have a strong leader who will bring them prosperity. If money is what you care for, you have my pity. This country is about freedom, equality, and fairness. All of that was jettisoned last Tuesday. Even those saying “get over it” are doing so with a smugness that is a thin veil over intolerance. I’ve never carried on with frustration so long after an election before. That’s because never before has an election—no matter which party triumphed—been won by a platform of evil intent. My grandmother, a Teutonic matron of occasional Valkyrie disposition, used to sum it up well when we boys were getting out of hand. “Schäme dich!” she used to scold. I know a country that could use her words right now.

Small Town Heroes

When World War Three starts I hope someone will let me know. You see, I barely have time to satisfy the needs of employers and tax collectors to get everything done in a day, let alone read newspapers. Or Facebook. I check my page, very briefly, twice a day and get on with the business that I’m assigned in life. But yesterday I had a notice from a high school friend that one of my teachers had died. Since I don’t name people I know here without their permission, suffice it to say I took a current events course with this teacher in either my junior or senior year. Then, as now, I didn’t read newspapers. Given the small town rags available in rustic regions, there was often not much mentioned beyond deer season and local tragedy anyway. Originally enrolled in the regular curriculum, several friends told me, “You’ve got to take Current Events! The teacher is great!” Those who’ve influenced my life for the good were great teachers, and despite my reservations, I took the class. When it came time to sign up for projects, I was a bit flummoxed. What did I know of current events?

Our teacher kindly allowed me to offer evolution as a topic. It was occasionally in the news then. Six of us decided to debate the issue, three for, three against. My religion having held me in a headlock, I was the lead debater against evolution. The day for the debate came and we ran over the bell. Our teacher, with his usual calm wisdom, suggested we continue the next day. And the next. Three days of sometimes acrimonious debate and it looked, from my point of view, as if creationism had demolished evolution. How terribly naive I was. Ironically, I had just posted a piece on evolution yesterday when I saw the notice about my teacher’s demise. The position in my post was a sharp 180 from high school. It was a tribute to the love of education.

Source: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

I was an outsider in high school. I literally lived outside of town and after school activities were not really feasible. We were poor and couldn’t afford extra-curriculars anyway. I wore a large cross on my chest and although I was shy, I felt that it said all I had to say. My teachers, to their eternal credit, let me explore. In college I learned about Fundamentalism. I had never heard the term although I grew up in it. Gently my teachers nudged me to think more deeply about things. Through three degrees delving more profoundly into the origins of religion, as well as humankind, I came to see the errors of my ways. Had I been forced in high school I would’ve fought back. Instead, a persistent, patient wisdom guided many of my teachers. I don’t know how they recognized that I might be worth salvaging, but they apparently did. They let me speak, they let me trip. Just as I was about to fall they caught me. And I hope, in my own small way, to repay this favor in kind.