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Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, United States

Sunday, December 18, 2016

1000s of years of guilt...

Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a catholic movie. It's a character-study of Lee (Casey Affleck), who ekes out a living in building maintenance around Quincy Massachusetts, having fled his hometown after drunkenly causing a housefire that killed his three children some ten years earlier. Lee returns to Manchester MA on learning of his older brother's death, to deal with that fact and with his nephew, 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). His ex Randi (Michelle Williams) still lives there too, now re-married and with another child. Lonergan's theme is the ways in which we are confined by our beliefs. The pivotal scene, in the center of the film, takes place in the police station after the fire. Lee describes his leaving the fireplace without a screen to go out for beer, walking to the convenience store because he's too drunk to drive, and returning to find his home in flames, his wife rescued but his children burned alive. When he's finished the officers explain that it's not a crime to have made such a mistake. "You mean I can just go?" Lee says. But he can't go. He can and does flee, even if only to Boston. But now he has to punish himself, living meagerly, permanently closed and inarticulate, treasuring photos of his dead children, starting bar fights in order to get beaten up by strangers. A Jesus-figure. I mean, damaged as he is, Lee absorbs the grief and rage and blame that's all around him, that constitutes the lives of his family and former friends and suspicious neighbors. Michelle Williams delivers a wrenching performance in a tearful scene, apologizing to Lee for her blame and rejection after the accident. Lee can't hear it. Lucas Hedges' Patrick amazes Lee: the kid is popular, athletic, and enviably attractive. But Patrick is destined to lead a life as just like those of the adults around him: confined to the round of work, ritual celebration, regular reproduction, gossip, resentment, and blame. Everybody feels guilty most of the time. The only times that feel like fun are when you're all drunk...

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Once, when a vicious group of reactionary politicians were elected to govern, a young man watched as they took one of their first official actions: arresting and executing his teacher. The time was 399BCE. The government was that of Athens. The teacher's name was Socrates. The young man's name was Plato. Plato went on to immortalize his teacher, as well as to describe the chief danger of the democracy Athenians had created: that the people could be led by some opportunist to direct their anger at an imaginary enemy, rather than questioning those who claimed to know who to blame. Over the ensuing 2000 years there have been many such encounters with the exploitation of popular resentment: Cicero's execution after his defense of the Roman Senate; Dante's exile in 1302 after the pope's intervention in Florentine politics; Machiavelli's torture during the Medici's destruction of the Republic; Galileo's imprisonment on the order of the Catholic hierarchy; official attacks upon Darwin; the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and the murder of Emmett Till; Republican appeasement in the 1950s of McCarthy's slanders. And now Trump. Plato stayed in Athens, founded a school, and satirized the pretensions of those who claim to be wise. I'm neither as great a writer as Plato, nor as brave. But I'm staying, too, to do my part in righting this wrong...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Not enough cake...

I made the appointment to get a local surgeon's opinion about the state of my now 10-year-old spinal surgery. So when I went to the office just over a month ago, the alert PA, testing me for baseline abilities, noticed a slight left bicep weakness and some imbalance walking. She guessed "cervical stenosis." "Stenosis" means narrowing of the space in your spinal column in which the cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) cushions the central nerve-bundle. The surgeon reviewed my x-rays and pronounced my lumbar fusion stable. Then he had the PA order an MRI, which I had a couple of weeks ago.

Last week I read her assessment. I've been worried since. This morning conversation with the surgeon confirmed cervical stenosis revealed by the MRI: long-standing arthritis has reached the point that I have no CSF from C-3 to C-5. [We have seven "cervical"--neck--vertebrae and 12 "thoracic" or main spinal vertebrae.] Worse, the C-5 vertebral-bone has shifted slightly. The prognosis is progressive impairment--balance, neuropathy, etc.--over perhaps a year.

The imminent threat, though, is that movement of less than a millimeter at that arthritis-damaged C-5--say a fall or other injury--could inflict paraplegia or even quadriplegia: partial to complete paralysis. Surgery is risky, of course, but paralysis is worse.

So I'm scheduled for ACDF--anterior cervical discectomy and fusion--in 12 weeks, followed by 12 weeks off the road bike. The procedure involves opening the spinal sheath from the right front of my throat, inserting three disc-replacement "cages" to restore the alignment of the vertebrae, and screwing a pair of flanges to retain the repair as it heals.

I find myself feeling much more vulnerable now. And sad. I won't be riding weekly with club and group members I've been cycling among since moving to Tucson. These have been some of the best years of my cycling life. I'm grateful for the friendships I've made. Not to mention the racing.

And joking. For example: A guy goes to his urologist. "You've got to stop masturbating," the doctor says. "Why," the guy asks. "Because I'm trying to examine you."

Well, I still think it's funny. 

I'll still be cycling, but alone. Supposing I can remain healthy and uninjured--and the surgery is successful--the immediate risk of paralysis will be over and I'll be back on the road next year. Maybe I'll see you out there...

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What's "conservative?"

A friend asked for my thoughts about a pair of recent opinion pieces by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The first was "Confession of Liberal Intolerance" (08 May 16) and the latest "The Liberal Blind Spot" (29 May 16). In both Kristof proposes and defends his claim that liberals discriminate against conservatives, both in hiring and in professional judgments. Kristof only mentions university professors and departments to be discriminatory in this way, asserting that faculty refuse to hire "conservatives" and consider being "evangelical" grounds for refusing to consider a candidate. Kristof makes a number of mistakes in his charges and, worse, makes several false assumptions. One example of the latter is the implicit notion that "evangelical" equals "conservative." There have been a lot of the former who have been "radicals." Think of Luther and Kierkegaard. Or Jesus. Kristof also makes the contrary--and equally false--assumption that conservatives are all christians. Think of Hitler and Mussolini.

But, for a moment, consider the question--which Kristof ignores--"what do conservatives want to conserve?" By definition "conserving" has to be about the past. In a moment of unusual candor, William Buckley said, "Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change," and added that he himself aimed to live "obedient to god and subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors." As to the first aim, How do you know you're obeying god? The answer is clearly that you have to choose what to believe. And how do people make this choice? Typically by conforming to what their community or culture holds to be true. So both aims depend upon believing in the "wisdom of ancestors," which comes down to continuing traditional practices.

Now the framers of the U.S. constitution clearly held many traditional values, but their wisdom consisted in ensuring change. The constitution, as you know, imposed or enshrined things like slavery and white male political power. The constitution still functions, however, because it provides rules for changing values. It even provides for adding rules, like the great 14th amendment assuring all citizens "due process of law." So I'm all for conserving that sort of wisdom: the knowledge that the way I've lived is has been governed by a great number limiting or distorting features of which I've been unaware. If you're lucky, some such things may be revealed in one's lifetime, so that I can welcome the disillusionment--which is the same as enlightenment--afforded by, say, Gloria Steinem's campaign in the 1960s to eliminate "Mrs." Steinem's magazine Ms. for decades listed the number of years it took for a publication to substitute "Ms." for "Mrs." in news stories. The New York Times was one of the last! Another example of change exposing error is the late black comedian Godfrey Cambridge's joking that "I believed everything I saw on TV, until I tried to buy a flesh-colored Band-Aid."

So Buckley was wrong. Not merely the best, but the wisest way to be conservative is to embrace change. And Kristof is wrong, too. College faculties are not "liberal" because they have worked to exclude "conservatives." Academics, like others, can be wrong but, like the founders, they devote themselves to studying not only what has been thought and written, but also how the past has given way to change. Unless you can love that process, whether your subject is philosophy or physics, you can't be an intellectual...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Art and War

Ever heard of Jacques Jaujard? Neither had I, until I saw Alexander Sokurov's Francofonia yesterday here in New York. Jaujard (1895-1967) was appointed Director of French National Museums in 1926. His offices were in the Louvre in Paris. Certain of impending war with Germany, he authorized and supervised the transfer of all the museum's most significant works to chateaux and other sites scattered over the French countryside. During the Nazi occupation (1940-1944) Graf Metternich, the SS head of the Kunstschutz ("Art Protectorate"), cooperated by refusing to have the works returned to Paris (and certainly looted by the likes of Goebbels and Goering). Sokurov tells these stories within a larger meditation on the relationship of art and war. Did you know that the "museum"--as we know it--was invented by Napoleon? He requisitioned and refit the Louvre in the 1790s to house the works and artifacts of all the countries of the Mediterranean conquered and occupied in his campaigns: from Egypt to Central Europe. (England followed his example in the 19th century: see the British Museum.) So, in a certain sense, Sokurov shows that war is the salvation of art. But, he also shows, the violence and destruction of combat and conquest are soon over. Cities and towns are built from the rubble. History is forgotten.  Only the art lasts. Think about it when you watch the news...

Friday, April 15, 2016

Here's a shot from the top of South Mountain in Phoenix. I'm with Dick Reynolds, the only other 80+ racing against me in AZ now! We'd just finished a training ride up the 5.5m climb, getting ready for the AZ Timetrial championships next month. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

An essay on history...

The following is the first section of an "essay on history" I'm working on...


There is no natural form of human life. Unlike the “instinctive” existence other animals lead, the lifetimes of our offspring are not identical to our own. Except for incremental evolutionary changes over long periods, the young of each species live the same lives as their parents. Not so for people. We plan or forge our own lives, within the boundaries of the place and time we’re born.

Of course lives are circumscribed and shaped by the customs and practices and limitations of the world and time and people amongst whom we find ourselves. But not entirely. We must also choose.

With our parents and teachers, friends and peers, we create and maintain a structure and network of relations and rules we both call society and experience as permanent. Even though we know it is not. 

But how do we know this?

Each and every human society devotes enormous effort to teaching the opposite. The young in every culture are told the traditions are ancient and unchangeable; that the rules of conduct are fixed; that each has a role to play.

We teach these things because we understand that if our offspring do not carry on the forms of life we ourselves have lived by, those forms will disappear. We teach them, as well, because we’ve devoted our own lives to conforming to rules and traditions. The implicit sense is that, if the next generation does not maintain these forms, my own life is revealed to be just as transient.

That’s why the constant lament of the old is about “how things are changing.” But if things like traditions and rules can change, they are clearly not the necessary and permanent things we’ve been teaching the children. So we lie to the children—and to ourselves—and we know it.

But, once again, how do we know this?

We know it because of consciousness and its companion, language.

The emergence of consciousness in some of our primate ancestors is the most remarkable of all evolutionary developments. Consciousness occasions the transformation of our kind of life from animal to human. That is, from each new generation repeating the patterns of the parent-life to the possibility of innovation: of leading a life of one’s own.

Inventiveness and variety have ever since characterized human existence. When early pre-humans discovered sharp fragments of stone might be deliberately made, the resulting knives enabled them to provide themselves more protein, which in turn accelerated the formation of brains, releasing yet more innovation. “Discovery,” after all, means looking at our surroundings for novel possibilities: we “uncover” these by seeing in one thing another use.

For the unique quality of consciousness is its reflexivity. I am able, simultaneously, to do something and to be aware of doing it. This reflex duality makes possible both my practicing to improve what I’m doing and to see that it might be done in other ways. Our language characterizes this reflex-quality as “self-consciousness.”

Self-consciousness, used positively, designates awareness of myself; used negatively, it suggests hesitation or clumsiness. They are both accurate. It is entirely owing to the dual-character of consciousness that I am able to think and to speak of myself. Yet thinking about how I’m doing something can conflict with my actually doing it smoothly and effectively. Or, more often, thinking about what I want to happen interferes with my doing what it takes to make it happen.

The great American tennis champion Serena Williams, asked what she tells herself before a match, unselfconsciously replied: “I say to myself, keep your head down, watch the ball.” This is the instruction given to every new player on the first day of tennis instruction. How could it still matter for one of the greatest tennis players in history?

Because it neatly pictures something introduced into the world by human consciousness: the sense of time.

Language creates horizons of time: the remembered past and the imagined future. The horizons of past and future reveal our lives to be temporal: each life begins with birth and ends with death.

So it is by means of language that we become conscious of time, distinguishing now from then. And ever since we became conscious of time—became able to speak of “past” and “future”—we have had to create ways of living with the knowledge of birth and death. 

This is what is called “knowledge of good and bad” in the second chapter of Genesis. At that point in the story the man and the woman are said to be living in a garden. The creator warns them that they are free, but forbidden from eating the fruit of the “tree of knowledge of good and bad.”

You can see the trouble. If the man and woman can understand this prohibition, they can already question it. And they do. The man and the woman discuss the prohibition. They talk about what “knowledge of good and bad” could mean. Perhaps eating the fruit is fatal. Or it could mean eating it will reveal something now unknown.  The chief gift of language is the ability to frame questions like this. The “serpent” represents this ability.

The man and woman then test the question by eating the forbidden fruit. What do they learn? 

They notice they are naked. In other words, what the man and the woman learn is  that knowledge arises from asking questions and making distinctions. Later, when the man emerges from the bushes to say he “hid because he was naked,” his reply reveals he has already acquired knowledge of “good and bad.” The humans have learned to make distinctions. That is, they have discovered the power of language.

So they are cursed with being turned out into the “world.” And what characterizes this world? Differences. Between pain and pleasure, between work and rest, between birth and death. In other words, the everyday world in which we live.

Fittingly, in this context, an old Jewish joke has it that “life is such trouble it would be better not to be born. But who is so lucky? Not one person in a thousand.”