Paddling Point Nemo

There it is. The middle ground. Enjoy.

I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.

I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot.

I’m not afraid of the middle ground. I spend a lot of my time there: I’m not religious, but I keep the Bible and the Koran on my desk, and I’ve read ’em both cover to cover; I don’t have kids, but I generally like the little monsters, and I have great respect for the people who dedicate themselves to raising them; I’m a pacifist who studies military history, and whose parents were both Air Force veterans; the music I love best is that of composers like Martinu and Poulenc but I enthusiastically join in with our neighborhood music group every weekend noodling around on songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Eagles.

I live with cats, but hey – I like dogs, too.

The thing about the middle ground, though, is that it’s defined by the two extremes. When you’re meeting someone halfway between West Palm Beach and Miami, you’ll be lunching somewhere around Fort Lauderdale. The Floridian Diner may not have been the first choice for either of you, but it’ll do, and you’ll each have traveled about the same distance, made the same sacrifice in time and gas and convenience. You might both have preferred something closer to home, more familiar, but the compromise distributes the disruption evenly between you, and you’ll be equally comfortable and equally uncomfortable. No winners, no losers, but everybody gets lunch.

If you’re meeting someone halfway between West Palm Beach and Shanghai, on the other hand, you’re going to end up treading water mid-Pacific. You’ll get wet, and the sharks will be the only ones dining.

Suppose we’re having a discussion about healthcare reform. I advocate for a single-payer system, equal care for all citizens, regardless of income. You prefer a market-driven approach. I’m concerned that your system will favor the interests of stockholders and investors over those of patients, ultimately excluding all but the affluent; you’re worried that my system will end up stifling innovation and crushing patients under a burden of bureaucratic inefficiency.

Point Nemo, at coordinates 48°52.6′ south, 123°23.6′ west, in the Pacific Ocean, is the furthest point from any land on the planet: in a very real sense, it’s the “halfway point” between everywhere and everywhere else. The name “Nemo”, used by Jules Verne for the mysterious submarine captain in his 1870 novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, is from the Latin: it means “nobody”. It is very likely that that is exactly who has ever actually visited Point Nemo: nobody.

We can’t both be right, obviously, but are we both wrong?

We can each present rational cases, based on real-world data, to support our respective views. At the same time, because our objections are specific and reasoned, they are also addressable: I can look for ways to introduce market forces into my universal system, counterbalancing the inertia and inefficiency of government bureaucracy; you can accept some regulatory oversight in your free-market approach, guaranteeing equitable treatment regardless of income. Neither of us gets everything the way we want it, but we each leave the table with something. We meet halfway. We lunch on Las Olas Boulevard, and we both get a decent meal.

Let’s try another one.

I’m Emmett Louis Till, and I’m down from Chicago visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. I’m fourteen years old, and I’m black. You’re Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, and you really, really hate black people. Not for any particular reason, but just because you are who you are, and they aren’t.

I’m from the big city, and I’ve never been away from home before. I like wearing a tie and a grownup hat and going out and strutting my bad self down Main Street and buying little doodads to take back to my mom in Chi-town. You were born and raised in the Mississippi delta, and have never been anywhere else, or wanted to go. You think all black people should be forced to live as slaves, or livestock, or not be permitted to live at all.

The middle ground? Perhaps Milam and Bryant could have crushed only one of Emmett’s testicles and only halfway gouged out his eye before halfway strangling him with a length of barbed wire, halfway shooting him, and throwing his body halfway into the Tallahatchie river. That would be about halfway between leaving him alone and doing what they ultimately did do, right? Emmett may or may not have whistled at Bryant’s lovely twenty-one-year-old wife in a store (Carolyn Bryant, now 82, has recently admitted that Emmett did nothing to her to trigger the retribution), but the attack was apparently motivated mostly by the desire to inflict as much suffering as possible on a young boy, simply because he was black and all-too-visible; the victim was small, vulnerable, an out-of-towner, a target of opportunity. Emmett wanted to enjoy the summer vacation and then go home to his mom; Bryant and Milam wanted to torture and kill. So, again, how should Emmett have met Bryant and Milam halfway?

Any time you have more than one person in a room, you’re going to have differences. I’m tall, you’re not. I pronounce the word for the sister of one of my parents “ahnt”, while you make it sound exactly like the name of a tiny insect. I have a beard because I think it makes me look scholarly; you think beards are nothing but crumb-catcher bibs for messy eaters of a certain age. Despite these differences, we still get along, because we have made some rational decisions about what really matters and what can be overlooked in the interest of consensus and coexistence.

Looking for the middle ground in a disagreement makes sense if both of us are working from a rational, logically defensible point of view — but if one of us is clinging to a position that is irrational, that defies all reasonable evidence, or that denies the very humanity of the other, even perhaps that person’s right to exist at all, compromise ceases to be a possibility. After all, if what you really want, when all is said and done, is to obliterate me and everyone like me, I can’t become halfway dead in order to meet you in that middle ground.

* * *

I don’t like conflict. I let people overcharge me in stores, I allow other drivers to cut me off in traffic, I accept condescension and phony “tolerance” from people who see me as something only marginally different from a criminal or a lunatic, all because I prefer to avoid confrontation wherever I can.

At the same time, while I deeply appreciate the good intentions of those who say: “Must we fight? Can’t we meet halfway?” I know that the halfway point between violent, irrational hatred and ordinary human dignity is still nothing but deep water and sharks, and it’s not a place I ever want to be.

Really and truly.

Uh, oh. This can’t be good.

Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.

On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.)

At that time there were two grocery stores of any size and scope in the town, a Piggly Wiggly and an A&P. Since our family had patronized the Piggly Wiggly since time immemorial, that’s where I went to gather the materials for the feast I was planning. Spinach. Chicken breasts. Feta. Nutmeg (and something to grate it with). Butter. Balsamic vinegar.

My scheme was, of course, doomed from the beginning. The month was December. Spinach was available only as little green bricks packed in torn cardboard, crusted with ice that smelled faintly of cat urine; the chicken breasts were gray and exhausted, having been frozen and thawed more often than Great Bear Lake; the only cheese available – apart from Kraft “cheese food products” – was a rubbery orange material that claimed to have been manufactured with, but not of, real milk; and there was no butter, only margarine. Nutmeg was there, yes, but pre-ground in a tiny red-capped plastic jar, with a sell-by date some three years previous to that of my visit. Vinegar was limited to cider and distilled white, in half-gallon jugs.

I made do, but I also made a fuss. After all, my true purpose – had I been willing to admit it – was to display my superior savoir-faire before the benighted locals, and this could be served just as easily by a spectacular failure that spotlighted the shortcomings of the local supermarket as by a successful dining experience.

Predictably, dinner was a flop, nobody enjoyed themselves – and I found myself even more frustrated and unhappy than I had been at the beginning of the process.

In retrospect, the problem is easy to see. I was desperately anxious to prove that I was so ill-adapted to the pond that had spawned me not because there was something wrong with me, but because I was in fact not a fish or a frog at all: I was a rabbit or a raccoon, not damaged or inadequate, just a critter meant for a completely different environment.

I refused to look honestly at what I was doing and why, and as a result went to a lot of trouble and expense only to make myself and everyone around me miserable.

* * *

Back in 1546, English poet and playwright John Heywood noted that “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Heywood understood the difference between ignorance derived from a lack of information, and stupidity, in which the individual has the facts in front of him but chooses to deny them out of weakness, or laziness, or to protect prejudices or comfortable misconceptions.

Philosophers and theologians have struggled since the dawn of time with the question of objective truth: Is anything true in a universal, abstract sense, or is all information contingent, dependent on our perceptions and our ability to process the data? In 1637 René Descartes decided that nothing could be trusted but the fact that we were asking the question in the first place; while his “cogito ergo sum” makes a great bumper sticker, it unfortunately doesn’t give us much to work with. Gravity happens: if I step off the edge of the roof, I’m going to slam into the ground a split-second later. I can refuse to accept the existence of gravity as an objective truth, but I’m still going to bust my head every time I perform the experiment. We have to lay down some basic ground rules and agree that some things are “real”, regardless of ideology, or we don’t survive.

In the science of decision theory, there is a principle called “minimax/maximin”. Here, absolutes are irrelevant. The goal is to minimize the possible bad outcomes of a decision, while maximizing the possible good outcomes. In his “Pensees”, Blaise Pascal (1623-62) stated his argument for believing in God: “If I bet that God DOES exist, and he does, I win everything, and if I lose, I lose nothing. If I bet that God DOES NOT exist, and I win, I win nothing, but if I lose? I lose everything.” Truth becomes a question of calculation.

We all want certain things to be true, and others to be false. We can, to some degree, even behave according to those desires: believing that Santa Claus lives in a vast factory complex at the north pole, churning out billions of brand-name consumer items that he will then distribute – at no cost to anyone, anywhere – during a single twenty-four hour period each December … Well, it’s a lovely idea, and I think we’d all like to be able to embrace it, but if we plan our holiday budgeting around that premise there’s going to be trouble.

* * *

Pretending that six hundred thousand people is a vastly larger crowd than one-point-eight million people is not “alternative facts”, it’s just foolishness; especially when the issue in question is not even of any real importance. “Spinning” information – presenting data in such a way as to support a particular objective —  is a tried and true component of our politics, our marketing, our advertising, and always will be, but even when we’re selling toothpaste or movie tickets or smartphones – or inaugural crowds, or border fences, or oil pipelines – we have to be able to discern the objective reality for ourselves. We can lie to everyone else, but the essence of a useful lie is that the liar knows that it’s a lie, and can act on the basis of the truth, regardless of what sort of fiction he or she is promoting to the crowd. I may convince you that gravity is a hoax, and that it’s perfectly safe for you to walk off the roof of a four-story building, but that scheme only works as long as I know that I’m lying to you: if I believe my own “alternative facts”, and I walk off the roof myself, then the game is over.

My relationship to my origins is still pretty complicated, but I have, over time, come to realize that the best thing for everybody involved is to simply face the facts: it’s useless to try to manage that relationship on the basis of what I think should be true, or what I wish were true, or what I have believed in the past to be true. I need to try to assess the facts, dispassionately and objectively, to the best of my ability. If I want to make things work, I have to be honest about what I’m trying to do, and about what the circumstances are – honest with others, yes, but most importantly, honest with myself.

Voltaire pointed out in 1733 that “The interest I have in believing a thing is not a proof of the existence of that thing.” We may not all agree as to what the facts are, but we can agree that the facts matter, that there is such a thing as objective reality, and that we should refer to it when we make the important decisions for ourselves and for those who depend on us. As soon as we start telling ourselves that the truth is nothing but an ideological construct, to be invented or destroyed or ignored at will, we’re only one step away from that long dive off the roof.

Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.

card_catalog_2I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.

“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.”

As a matter of fact, you are absolutely correct, ma’am. I am being grossly unfair. Although the tropes that I’ve mentioned are common enough to have birthed the stereotype of the cowboy-hatted men and big-haired women that make up such a large part of the country music image, they are by no means the whole story. Isn’t it possible to loathe Porter Wagoner but love Willie Nelson? What do Jerry Jeff Walker and the Dixie Chicks really have in common except their Texas origins? Is Patsy Cline “country”? Is Kenny Rogers? Celine Dion has that breast-beating, sobbing delivery down to a science, but would anybody really put her on the same shelf as Tammy Wynette? Why is “Blue Bayou” a rock-n-roll ballad for Roy Orbison, a pop song when Linda Ronstadt sings it, but country when Martina McBride takes it on?

Elaine de Kooning once recalled a party where she and another painter, Joan Mitchell, were asked, “What do you WOMEN artists think … ?” Mitchell interrupted, “Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.” Mitchell, de Kooning, and other female artists of their generation suffered mightily under that characterization by gender, which made it so easy for the male-dominated world of critics and collectors to dismiss them en masse, classifying them as nothing but muses or bedmates of the “real” artists: which is to say, of course, the men. Labels. Categories. Fences made of words.

In a previous life, I lived in Dallas, Texas, where there was, for some years, a Tower Records, where I could drop in and pick up a handful of CDs a couple of times a month. The store was carefully organized by genre: Country, World Music, Jazz, Pop/Rock, Classical (in the basement), Soundtracks, Children’s Music, and so on.

Even a casual perusal of the arrangement, however, betrayed serious shortcomings.

Take, for instance, the classic 1964 album Getz/Gilberto, with Philly native Stan Getz, Brazilian bossanova greats Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and vocals in both Portuguese and English by Gilberto’s German/Brazilian wife Astrud. Where did this music belong? Was this “Jazz”? Getz was, after all, a well-known tenor sax player in the New York jazz scene, and the album was recorded on Verve, a jazz-oriented label, in that city. Or was it “World Music”, as Gilberto and Jobim were already becoming legends in Brazil? Or maybe it was “Latin”, a category that embraced everything from mariachi to Andean flutes to Italian pop songs recorded in Madrid? All of the above? None?

According to music licensing service ASCAP, the most-recorded song in the history of copyrighted music is the aria “Summertime”, which appears a couple of times in Gershwin’s opera. ASCAP lists more than 25,000 different recordings of “Summertime”, by artists ranging from Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke to Janis Joplin and The Fun Boy Three. Operatic aria? Jazz standard? Pop classic? What difference, really, does it make?

Here’s another one for you: The first opera ever written by and about Americans was Porgy and Bess, with music by Jewish New Yorker George Gershwin and text by his brother Ira and poet DuBose Heyward. The work deals with love and death in Catfish Row, a dockside tenement in South Carolina; the characters are the children and grandchildren of slaves, and the style of the music is drawn from black worksongs, gospel, and other mostly African-American music forms. Critics for decades have wrestled with finding a convenient niche for this work: do we lump it in with The Barber of Seville and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or do we call it jazz and stick it on the shelf between Ella Fitzgerald and Herbie Hancock? Is the music black, white, New York, South Carolina, jazz, pop, classical, lowbrow, highbrow … where the hell does it go?

Categories are the darlings of marketers, but the bane of creators. Nobel laureate Doris Lessing‘s five-volume Canopus in Argos: Archives is a vast and detailed analysis of a series of different social structures on several different planets, viewed over a span of millennia – nothing at all like her intimate, semi-autobiographical novels about life in mid-twentieth-century South Africa. Neither fish nor fowl, Lessing is impossible to place in any one category, but equally impossible to ignore. Charles Dodgson, better known to us as Lewis Carroll, the author of the immortal Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, was also the author of an comic poetry epic, a textbook on an abstruse branch of mathematical logic, and of a satire of Victorian English society disguised as a story about fairies. Is he a children’s book author, a poet, a mathematician, or a social commentator? Where do we put him, for crying out loud?

* * *

Let’s go back to the statement I began this essay with: “I don’t like country music.”

What I’m really saying is that because I don’t like certain music or musicians that happen to be classified within a certain (completely arbitrary) category, I can justify throwing out everybody else who might happen to end up in that same category without bothering to listen to them first. Since I don’t care for Travis Tritt, I can walk past that entire section of the record store without so much as glancing at what else is being offered. It’s like staying away from New York City because you once had a bad meal at a Greek restaurant in the East Village.

We like organizing things, sorting everything – and everybody – into structures that allow us to rely on generalizations to determine our attitudes and our behavior, without requiring us to examine the component parts on their own individual merits. “Country”, “Jazz”, “Classical”, “Grunge”, “Rap” … With a single word we can accept or dismiss vast swathes of creative effort. No muss, no fuss; no need to invest a lot of time listening to anything unfamiliar.

Why not take this a step further, and add a few more labels to our shelves: “Abstract”, “Impressionist”, “Minimalist”, “Pop”? Or how about “Mystery”, “Poetry”, “Sci-fi”, “Thriller”? Or maybe still a few more: “Liberal”, “Trumpster”, “Intellectual”, “Evangelical”? Neat little drawers, each with its own label. So convenient.

The attractions of this approach are undeniable. Everything is so simple when you can reduce the entire messy, random circus of human existence to just a few convenient tags, and walk right by the awkward bits without even turning your head.

 

Calculating the value of pie.

piOf all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.

Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy.

I own a car that is now entering into its sixteenth year of life. I don’t drive it much, and I take care of it to the best of my (admittedly limited) ability, but nobody’s ever going to mistake it for a new vehicle. The headliner is pulling loose, the paint is dinged, the driver’s-side window no longer goes up and down: entropy. Even if I had shrink-wrapped the car sixteen years ago and stored it in a climate-controlled bunker in the desert, it would still not be the same car it was when it first rolled off the VW assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. Plastics deteriorate, fabrics sag and pull, the same chemical and mechanical processes that created the materials and parts continue long after the papers are signed and the keys handed over, turning gaskets into ash, warping delicate fixtures, and disabling sensitive electronics.

One of the most important features of entropy is its adherence to what is known as “the arrow of time”. This is to say that entropy, unlike any other measurable quantity in our universe, only works one way: things break down with the passing of time, going from more structured, more organized, to less. A muffin, a Maserati, or a man will, given enough time, be reduced to component atoms, and the carbon in an oatmeal muffin is absolutely identical to, and interchangeable with, the carbon in my red blood cells. That carbon will not spontaneously reorganize itself into a bird or a pot roast, not without the expenditure of enormous energy and even more time — during which everything else is still sliding into oblivion.

At absolute zero, -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit (-273.15 degrees Celsius, zero Kelvin and Rankine), everything stops. All activity in the sub-atomic world of electrons and protons ceases, and matter becomes inert and unchanging. This is, however – like the perfect marriage or consumer-friendly air travel – an imaginary state: in the real universe, nothing achieves absolute zero for long. Even in deepest space, beyond the light of any star, the background radiation left over from the Big Bang keeps everything percolating away at about four degrees Kelvin. Things slow down Out There, but they don’t stop. Here, in the world of light and air and heat that sustains us, entropy churns along at a pretty frantic pace. We can irradiate our tomatoes until they glow in the dark, persecute termites and mildew and dry rot with all the passion and inventiveness at our disposal, but in the end, the leftover pasta sauce goes furry and green, the shower curtain has to be replaced every August, and the tires on that bicycle you haven’t taken out of the garage since the Reagan administration crumble away to nothing.

 *  *  *

Make a pie on Sunday, and then eat a slice of it every day thereafter. At some point you will discover that the dish is empty, and there’s no more pie. This is irritating, but it’s not the fault of immigrants, or healthcare reform, or political correctness: it’s just that all pie is finite, you ate all your pie, and sooner or later you have to either make a new pie or find something else to snack on. You have to change. You have to do something different. No rhetoric, no rallies, no ranting on cable news is going to make that pie last forever. The universe moves on; things are consumed, becoming something else; life happens.

I wish I still had the hair and teeth and knees I had at twenty. I wish there were still places on Earth that were represented on the maps by big glamorous empty areas marked “Terra Incognita” and “Here there be dragons”. I wish a new Chrysler Imperial cost $1,500, and doctors made house calls. I wish I could read “The Haunting of Hill House” for the first time, again and again and again.

I wish a lot of things, but the universe really doesn’t give a damn what I wish – the universe has much more important things to do.

So, what are my options? Obviously, pretending that entropy just isn’t happening is not very helpful. Nor is simply throwing up my hands and locking myself into the basement to wait for everything to grind to its messy and inevitable end. Punish the Jews, or the Muslims, or the gays, or the poor, or the people in the big fancy house down the street for the fact that my pie didn’t last as long as I had hoped it would? None of these things is going to make the tiniest bit of difference in the end; I’ll just be making life more difficult for people who are probably no more to blame for my bad knees and thinning hair than the Queen of Sheba. Things are going to change. Tomorrow will never be exactly like yesterday. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way the universe works. I can learn to deal with it, change with it, or I can shoot myself in the head before entropy has a chance to wind things up for me. My choice.

For the moment, however, here we are. I’m still going on and on about all sorts of things, and you’ve actually managed to stay with me all the way to here. So sit with me for a bit longer. We’ll share some of my pie.

 

A mess of gooey, gluey, goodness.

pogo11I was standing behind a woman at the grocery store checkout a couple of days ago, patiently awaiting my turn, browsing the tabloid headlines and marveling at the variety of lip balms that are available to today’s consumers, when I happened to glance down at the products that were at that moment being zipped across the scanner and into the bags.

Mountain Dew. Cheetos. Ground beef (a ten-pound package). Wonder bread. Hot Pockets (six boxes). Hot dogs (four eight-packs). Microwaveable breakfast sandwiches. Little Debbie snack assortments. Potato chips. Frosted Flakes. Frozen pizza. An explosion of colors, textures and flavors that have never occurred in nature.

All told, a hundred and seventy dollars worth of groceries, with collectively less nutrition than a pound of pine bark. Continue reading

What rough beast?

revolutionNothing ruins a good revolution like winning.

Wiry, wily Irish bomb-throwers get their place at the dinner table, stuffing themselves on the political pie that has been denied them for so long, and find themselves growing fat and slow and toothless. Hezbollah finally hacks and burns its way into mainstream Lebanese politics, and next thing you know they’re no longer the wild-eyed incarnate Wrath of God, but a gaggle of middle-aged politicians in pricey Italian shoes struggling to defend their prerogatives against a new generation of anarchists and Islamic fundamentalists. George Washington’s cold winter at Valley Forge, battling the old aristocracy, led to a long, warm afterlife as the first of a new and even more deeply entrenched ruling class. Continue reading