Crashing Thunder

 N.B. This story is based on the life of a real Native American figure, who lived during the early part of the twentieth century, and his biographer, who lived from 1883 to 1959, although the content presented here is a fictional interpretation I have imagined consistent with the actual historical events.

I want to express my appreciation to all of you for coming out here tonight to attend this very special meeting of the American Anthropological Society.  As most of you know, I am Paul Radin, and when my mentor Franz Boas, the founder of the field of modern Anthropology, first encouraged me to do the field work for my doctoral dissertation among the Winnebago Indians in Northern Wisconsin, I relocated to their territory in 1908.

In my experience, many people have a tendency to romanticize the lives of these Indians that the original Spanish explorers found here when they first colonized the continent.   Today, the Indian is often viewed as a symbol for the youth and freedom of expression, and for liberation from the shackles of civilized constraint.    In my field research, I endeavored to develop a methodology that would offer a more realistic assessment of the Indian culture than these quaint, sentimental notions.  A significant stumbling block to the achievement of this objective was the cultural norm of quiet humility among the members of the Winnebago tribe, which left me with few eyewitnesses willing to testify about their firsthand thoughts and experiences.   I was able to find one family, however, a Mr. Blow Snake, and his youngest son Crashing Thunder, a man of prodigious memory and extraordinary analytical capability, who agreed to an extensive series of interviews.  And after translating them from the Winnebago language and transcribing them in a monograph entitled Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of an American Indian, the work was published by the University Press   in 1926.

We are pleased to have Crashing Thunder with us this evening in person to share some of his reminiscences on the important influences that shaped this remarkable man’s life, as well as his reflections on some of these matters.   And now, without any further ado, the American Anthropological Society is pleased to present Mr. Crashing Thunder.

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Thank you Paul for that kind introduction.  Ladies and gentlemen and honored guests:  I am pleased to be here tonight to   discuss a variety of issues that my experiences as a Winnebago have taught me.  Many are discussed in the Autobiography, which Paul was instrumental in preparing, while others I have developed in the years since then.

I suppose the underlying theme of my efforts to strive for understanding of both the Winnebago people and my own place in that Indian nation revolves around the idea of the fragility of life.  This notion then informs the activities in which I have engaged, the decisions I have reached, and the actions I have taken to implement those decisions.  Early in my childhood, I remember my parents had acquired two puppies to serve as companions for my sister Mountain Wolf Woman and myself.    We really loved those little puppies, but when they were fully grown, they both wandered off the reservation and were hit and killed by automobiles in a place called Good Hope Road.  Watching my father bury the corpses was the first time I can remember being aware of death’s finality.

This early experience with violent death has lent a melancholy demeanor to my outlook on life.  I wondered whether such death might be a consequence of previous impure thoughts or actions on the part of the victim, unobtrusively observed by some higher power.  And, if so, who is this higher power anyway?  If He is the Creator of the Universe, I have a bone to pick with Him about the way He designed living creatures.    As it is, we are input/output processors, which require daily inputs of food and water to survive. It seems to me that life would be much simpler if we were engineered more as celestial beings without the need to maintain the upkeep of a physical body, susceptible to suffering and death by starvation, disease, or violent causes.

But the explanation is more likely that the world is a risky place, and our beloved puppies were simply unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The role chance or uncertainty plays in our lives cannot be overstated, but paradoxically, its influence is probably underappreciated.  Discrete events that have the potential to adversely impact our lives can occur at any time without our conscious awareness of their existence.  Our reaction after the fact is always that we need to take remedial steps to ensure that such disruptive events never happen again.   But it is in the nature of randomness that disruptive events never disrupt our lives in precisely the same way again, so we are continually refighting the last war.  What is needed to escape this cycle of failure is a paradigm to accurately anticipate future events.

Unfortunately, the record shows that human beings are singularly inept at forecasting future developments.  At a roundtable seminar held for probability theorists and other professional prognosticators at the turn of this past century, none of the participants predicted the technological breakthroughs of the electric light by Thomas Alva Edison, the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, or the airplane by Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Nor were the political changes of the women’s right to vote, the imposition of prohibition, or the rise of Fascism foreseen.

If we consider the other characteristic of our old friend, the higher power, namely that of Omniscient Being, we may imagine a game-theoretic environment in which we are called to be researchers, where we utilize our skills and our observation of the available evidence to compete with Him for purposes of uncovering the underlying logic of His laws, with the aim of improving our predictive batting average.  Because of the uncertainty intrinsic to the nature of this struggle, though, we must be ever conscious of our potential for error.  Although the world may judge us after some development has occurred by checking whether we had anticipated it, this simple metric fails to appreciate the complexity endemic to our task.  Conceptually, there are actually two distinct types of errors we could commit when we make a prediction about the future:  certainly, we could predict something that later failed to occur, like the economist who predicted 9 out of the last 5 recessions, but we could also fail to predict something which later did in fact occur.  The world tends to view being blindsided by an unanticipated development as being somehow more egregious, but both types of mistakes are equally serious.

I wanted to apply the need for improved anticipation of future events to this theme of life’s fragility a bit further.  The Winnebago tribe is occasionally involved in warfare against other tribes in cases when diplomacy to resolve differences fails to produce satisfactory results for either or both parties.  Whether we are attacking an enemy position or defending our own, the successful prosecution of the conflict depends critically on our ability to anticipate our position relative to that of the opposing tribe.  There are normally four stages in any confrontation:  SIEGE, in which the aggressor lays its foundation that announces its offensive intentions to the defenders; ASSAULT, in which the aggressor launches its well-defined attack on the defensive position; STRANGULATION, in which the defenders, seeing the adverse impact of the aggressor’s assault, proceed to lose hope; and ASPHIXIATION, in which the defenders must choose between death and surrender.

More generally, I mentioned earlier my view that human beings are called to be researchers, to work to understand the complexities of the world in which we find ourselves and to apply our reasoning skills to the task making sense of the phenomena we observe.  In this regard, these same four stages can also apply analogously to our research efforts:  we first lay siege to a problem of interest by identifying it and marshaling our intellectual resources appropriate for the goal of transforming the issue from an unknown quantity into understood knowledge; launching an assault against it is the application of analytical methods in a disciplined way to address the particular problem as mapped out in our research strategy; strangulation involves the specific technical details of solving the individual complexities not necessarily foreseen in the initial strategy;  and asphyxiation occurs at the point where the problem surrenders its mystery and is assimilated into the researcher’s bank of knowledge.

Now, I have struggled with the need to anticipate sometimes-violent conflict in my own personal life.    A random event which had a life-altering effect on my life occurred when my brother-in-law, Thunder Cloud, was murdered.  For a long time afterwards, I became very despondent and attempted to drown my troubles by consuming large quantities of alcohol.  My father, Blow Snake, too, drank prodigious amounts of Scotch, but it was only blended whisky, whereas I much preferred the rarefied taste of single malt Scotch.  I also found that this liquor was favored by young ladies when I would retire to the nearby tavern to buy them drinks for the purpose of getting them inebriated and transporting them back to my apartment to take advantage of their impaired judgment.   I should add that I have always been intrigued with the appearance of the female body and find it interesting that when a woman removes her clothing in a burlesque parlor, it is considered obscene, while the nude sculpture of a Greek goddess in a park is regarded as highly artistic.  I can only conclude that pornography depends on geography.

Not all expressions of intimacy, however, can be characterized as debauchery, and I have found that the most satisfying of these occurs in the context of a relationship based on a mutual feeling of love between the two partners.  Now, in my experience, there have been three different types of love:  false love, true love, and competent love.  While I have made many mistakes in my life, a large percentage have resulted from misjudgments about the individuals in these categories.  False love, for instance, is highly correlated with physical beauty, which can be ambiguously interpreted.  It could reflect inner purity and genuineness, but it could also hide deceptiveness stemming from a selfish inability to feel empathy.  When I encountered false love, I was seduced by the beauty, stubbornly extended the benefit of the doubt in spite of the evidence, and stupidly said yes when I should have said no.  In the case of true love, the beloved communicated a sympathetic identification with her partner, although she lacked the capability to react  effectively to adverse developments in my life and she was not  sophisticated about the finer aspects of life.  In my encounter with true love, I regretfully said no when I might have wanted to say yes.  Regarding competent love, the deficiencies in true love are corrected.  I said yes and I have not regretted my decision.  She does not sugarcoat the truth, however, and she does not suffer fools.

One day in the midst of my life of dissipation, I learned that my brother’s killer was a member of the Pottawattomie tribe living in Nebraska.  This information gave my life new purpose, and I gathered my other bothers together and we went on the warpath, journeying to the offender’s hometown under the cover of night and taking our revenge in a particularly gruesome way.  I mean we really got Medieval on his sorry carcass.  Later, however, we were arrested, put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to life sentences in the state penitentiary without hope of parole.

Do you see the irony here?  I had been concerned with the fragility of life and how difficult it is to predict future events without error, and I now found myself in circumstances where there was no chance that my life would be imperiled, but there was also no hope that I could ever experience freedom again.  I began to appreciate that life without hope was more debilitating than facing a death sentence, and the prospect began to stimulate the morose side of my nature.  I began to dream of escape, but all pathways led to the same destination. Like someone facing an incurable disease, I began planning ways to end my own life.  I realized that this outcome would not happen by itself, so that the issue of method was not just a minor detail, but was central to the goal of achieving the result.  I reasoned that the appropriate method needed to possess the properties of certainty, quickness, and painlessness, and in lieu of acquiring a handgun, only a fall from a great height would accomplish the task.

I was eying the exercise yard from our common living quarters three stories above it when word came that our lawyer had discovered a procedural error in how the district attorney had gathered the evidence against us, and we were all being released pending a new trial.  Talk about almost saying yes when I should have said no! I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I realized that if the timing had just been a little different and the lawyer had made his discovery a little later, prisoners might be scraping parts of me off the soles of their shoes during their exercise period in the yard.

On the Sunday after my release, I experimented with the hallucinogen Peyote I had gotten from one of the other prisoners.  After ingesting it, I fell into a trance and found myself in front of a large ornate throne with a deafening sound like rushing water ringing in my ears.

“Mr. Crashing Thunder,” boomed a deep baritone voice, “I am Earth Maker, the higher power I believe you made reference to earlier.  Our records indicate that you wished to deliver some feedback to me about the job you think I’m doing.”

I was quite disoriented by this experience.  In fact, I was shaking in my boots.  I didn’t even have the presence of mind to ask for inside information on His latest laws I might need to research.  I was so intimidated by this encounter, that I lost my courage and believed that a straightforward response was not a viable option.

Well, you see Sir,” I stammered, “I only wanted to tell You that I think You’re doing a great job; that design of Yours to make living creatures input-output processors was a stroke of genius.   And to think You did the whole thing in only six days and came in under budget.  You’ve earned Yourself a well-deserved rest.  I think You should take the rest of the day off.”

“But you indicated there was room for improvement.  Don’t you have any suggestions?” Earth Maker urged.

“Well, on the commandment side of things,” I squirmed, “I thought Your prohibition about graven images was spot-on, but maybe You could also include comparable rules outlawing casting votes for Fascist dictators or buying retail?”

Earth Maker looked pleased.  “I’ll take it under advisement,” He said.  “And now, if you’ll excuse me,” He said, looking at His watch, “I must be off to another appointment.  Earth Maker’s work is never done.”

My audience with Earth Maker marked a significant turning point in my life, as it was after that I began to define myself as a spiritual person.  I can see my flaws in the willingness to compromise my core values, and the awareness of my cowardice has taught me humility.  The experience has also given me some detachment from the ways of the material world, as well as giving me a better handle on the mysteries of beauty in our lives.  I have finally learned that authentic beauty cannot be merely decorative, but it must have a spiritual basis.  As Count Leo Tolstoy once remarked about the nexus between poetry and mysticism, “Mysticism without poetry is merely superstition, but poetry without mysticism is just prose.”

 

I Could Have Been a Real Billionaire

It all started out innocently enough. We were ensconced in our usual hotel suite at the Carlyle for one of our regular Thursday afternoon meetings to engage in yet another mutually satisfying, invigorating and tension-relieving episode. As we were transitioning from the arousal stage to the state of tranquility which follows it, I lay back in our four-poster bed, lit up a cigarette and told her that we were really going to have to stop meeting like this.

“Must we?” Avery purred. “Why is it all right for you and that blackguard of a husband of mine to do it, but not me? Well, as evidence of my commitment to equal rights for women, I say what’s good for the gander is good for the goose”.

But I remained firm. “We can’t afford to be indiscreet now that I am the Republican nominee and you are the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 2016” I told her.

“But, don’t you love me, Deeejay? She pouted. “Deejay” Srump is the name I took after I Included a segment on my really great reality television program in which I spun 45 RPM records from my 1960’s collection. Fortunately, before I could respond to Avery Hill’s inquiry, the telephone rang, and it was that boob of a husband of hers, a former president himself, quizzing her on what she was planning to cook him for dinner that evening.

It’s true that she and I were destined to meet in this epic battle to decide which of us would lead the country at this critical point in its history. I, of course, with my successful business background, was initially confident that I was the better candidate, although the latest public opinion polls did suggested that I was in the minority in this belief.

Respondents to these polls placed my complete lack of government experience in the “needs improvement” column, while Avery was seen as the stable continuation of the socially liberal policies of the previous administration. In addition, she would be the first woman president, which was viewed as a positive attribute in the same way that the previous office holder’s being the first black president was seen as plus.

“I’ve waited patiently,” Avery used to tell me. “Now it’s my turn.”

I thought we were preparing to leave when Avery told me she wanted to discuss a business proposition with me. “Listen, Deejay”, she began, “I know you’re just running for president as a lark to expose the hypocrisy of the political establishment, and that presidential power runs a distant second to wealth in your personal preference function. In contrast, being elected president would be very fulfilling for my ego and would permit me to serve as a role model for other women. I’m way ahead in all the polls, so it looks like I’m going to win anyway, but just as a little extra insurance, how would you like my foundation to write you a check for an amount of money that would bring your account balance up to an even billion dollars? I remained calm. “What makes you think I’m not already a billionaire?” I asked her.

She burst out laughing. “Who told me you aren’t really a billionaire? “she retorted. “You did by how you conduct yourself. A real billionaire can afford to be a little magnanimous in how he interacts with the world. Instead, you’re always rabbiting on that you think others are taking advantage of your good nature and not paying their fair share. I’m sure you’re not starving, but a girl on a date with a billionaire shouldn’t have to go Dutch treat”.

It was true what she said, but I always assumed that if I bragged that I was a billionaire, voters would perceive me as immune to bribery and therefore more honest and trustworthy than other candidates. Still, I was intrigued by her observations asked her to tell me where she was going with all this, but she answered my question with one of her own.

“Who’s your favorite Fascist dictator, Deejay?” she queried.

This was actually a complex question. To respond accurately, I needed to rule out successful non-Fascist dictators like Stalin or Mao, so that only Hitler, Mussolini and Franco possessed the necessary credentials. Of these, I always believed that Hitler suffered from self-esteem issues, and Franco wasn’t sufficiently ruthless. Mussolini, on the other hand, exhibited a certain joie de vivre and a degree of swagger that announced to the world, “This is who I am. Deal with it.”

“Fine” she said. “Now, you throw the election to me by doing your best imitation of Mussolini during your campaign, and later, after I’m elected, I’ll transfer the money to your account”.

My immediate reaction was one of anger, but upon reflection, I realized I was just being swayed by my foolish pride. In fact, she was correct that I didn’t care about being president like she did, and I could use the extra cash, so I agreed. It was just the tremendous type of agreement to be expected from a terrific dealmaker like me. I offered to shake on it, but she demurred.   “We could indicate our assent another way,” she said.

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You might wonder why Avery felt the need to go to such expensive lengths when the popular wisdom held that she had victory all but sewed up anyway. The answer lies in the realization that 2016 represented an atypical election. Normally, voters feel strongly that one candidate is good and the other is bad, so that casting one’s vote entails the straightforward decision to vote for the one they favor. But in this case, both candidates were generally viewed unfavorably, so the act of exercising one’s civic duty became a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.   As a result, support for one of them was more often an expression of dislike of the alternative than a positive endorsement for the voter’s choice and is accompanied by lower than-normal voter turnout. In our case, Avery had routed classified emails on a private server, while I had engaged in questionable business practices. A case could be made that both of our actions bordered on criminal behavior, and both of us became quite adept at articulating alternative interpretations of the facts. Avery confided to me that my candidacy was the necessary condition for her victory.

Anyway, in keeping with our secret agreement, I began a series of actions that showcased my ability to bully her and be downright cruel to her in public, permitting her to come across as the nicer person. And when we met in a number of televised debates, I intentionally failed to do any preparation, so she would have an opportunity to appear more knowledgeable on the issues, as well as having a more presidential temperament. While my plan initially had the desired effect when I came across as a dunce and Avery appeared as a student who had just studied for a big exam, unfortunately, it came out later that one of her friends in the Democratic National Committee had given her the questions ahead of time. When this fact was publicized, it took some of the bloom off the rose of her performance.

One strategy I employed to make her appear to display better judgment than me was my public admiration for the president of Russia, the former head of the KGB who was publicly providing aid to the brutal and corrupt regime in Syria. Now, normally I would have expected this friendliness toward America’s archenemy to be toxic to my campaign, especially after the pundits speculated that my positive attitude was prompted by the possibility that he was in possession of incriminating evidence about me and was threatening to blackmail me with it. Unaccountably though, my core supporters were not phased by this admission and continued to prefer me. And, flattered by my kind words, the president of Russia began taking active steps by leaking false and unflattering information about Avery into American media outlets. Of course Avery was no stranger to this kind of underhanded misuse of the media, having used the same tactics against her challenger for the Democratic nomination, but it is just ironic that what started as a plan to make myself look bad should end up boosting my candidacy.

I then secretly released my special bombshell – the Hollywood Access tape, which depicted me bragging to a colleague about sexually assaulting women. Not only should this event have firmed up Avery’s support among that handful of women who weren’t already committed to her candidacy just because of her sex, but Republican men, not exactly paragons of support for women’s issues, were abandoning my candidacy in droves. Avery unquestionably had momentum on her side, but it turned out to be her high-water mark.

The director of the FBI had investigated her email missteps early in the campaign and there had been rumors of a possible indictment.   We were holding our breaths, but after a lengthy investigation, he had cleared her of any wrongdoing. Now, just a few days before the election, as Avery was busy making speeches on behalf of Democratic down-ballot candidates in an effort to run up the score on her coattails, the FBI director announced that some new emails had just come to his attention, and he needed a few days to review them to make sure there was nothing incriminating in these new ones. The timing of this new delay couldn’t have been worse, and although she was again exonerated just before Election Day, it came too late to prevent those voters on the fence from changing their allegiance.

In spite of these bumps in the road, though, on election eve, Avery still had strong leads in all the polls, and she spent that final day preparing her acceptance speech, and selecting the location for her anticipated celebration on election night. It was to be held in a building with a tall glass ceiling which she would symbolically shatter when her electoral vote total passed the magic number assuring an insurmountable victory. I myself had begun planning how I would absorb the huge increase in my wealth that I was about to earn. Accordingly, I was more surprised as anyone when the vote tallies began coming in, first in small states with insignificant numbers of electoral votes but then, at some point, it gradually became clear that something had gone horribly awry. All those states without many electoral votes had voted for me and those small numbers individually were adding up to a total that swamped my opponent. I won virtually every state outside the East and West Coasts–- the parts of the country I had labeled the “out of touch elites” during the campaign.

After the fact, the pundits claimed that my victory was not that surprising, given how unlikable Avery was. Why the Democrats hadn’t thought about this problem earlier was unclear, but the issue that still mystified the pundits was why all the polls had failed to accurately predict the outcome. I’ve thought about this puzzle myself, and I developed an explanatory theory: Avery was unquestionably viewed as the more respectable choice, but no one liked her. So, when the pollsters asked people who they planned to vote for, they were too embarrassed to name me, so they lied by naming her and then voted for me.

Winning the presidency was not something I had expected. My biggest disappointment, of course, was that Avery was no longer in a position to pay me that wad of cash, so I’m just glad I hadn’t incurred any debts in anticipation of that windfall. Of course, no one has to know I missed my chance to be a real billionaire. After all, if I wanted them to know that I’d have released my tax returns.

The other problem is that I’ve spent my life being scornful of politicians, so I’m completely unprepared for the responsibility of assuming the office of president. I was in my element when I was addressing my hardcore faithful supporters at a campaign rally where I could articulate my evaluation of some opponent’s flaws. I don’t know if that campaign-style rhetoric would be received very well if I’m supposed to be the president of all the people and responsible for uniting the country, including those who didn’t support me. Still, I was elected to this office by a sizable majority of the electoral vote.  And if anyone criticizes me, I’ll remind them of that fact.

 

 

 

The Origin of Ideas

 

 

Civilizations rise or fall on the strength of the level of intellectual development reflected in their cultures, which, in turn, revolves around individuals’ capability to articulate their thoughts in the form of ideas. These ideas are not restricted to any one type of accomplishment but are the motivating force behind achievements in all fields of endeavor. Thus, discoverers of truth, such as researchers in theoretical physics, as well as creators of beauty, who specialize in artistic endeavors, both share the characteristic that their insight and skill stem from the ideas they can articulate. But where do these ideas come from? And why do some ideas contain the seeds of important contributions to human history while others are forgotten? Perhaps the answers will shed light on the elusive concept of human significance, whereby a small number of individuals are remembered long after their deaths by people who did not know them personally, while history takes no note of the overwhelming majority, who are left to die in anonymity.

There are potentially many sources of ideas, but the most important are those that are central features of human consciousness. Of those, three in particular stand out: dreams, imagination, and memory. To evaluate these potential sources we propose to construct a four-fold table along two independent dimensions. One characteristic that distinguishes among these sources is whether they are the result of a conscious, active effort on the part of individuals or something that occurs subconsciously. Apart from this conscious/subconscious division, some possible causes correspond to actual events in a person’s experience, while others are purely fictional. Combining these two sets of distinctions creates four possibilities: conscious evaluations of actual events, subconscious processing of actual occurrences, conscious reviews of actual observations, and subconscious analysis of fictional matters.

One possible origin of ideas is in dreams. In terms of the four-fold classification scheme, dreams fall into the subconscious grouping, occurring during sleep, so that we are not actively involved in experiencing them.   And the possibility of willing the action during a dream to go in one direction or another does not appear to be an option. So, for instance, when people experience nightmares, they are usually unable to extricate themselves from the unpleasant dream. This dream state should not be confused with daydreams despite their similar name, as those attention lapses occur during waking hours and are therefore fundamentally different from nocturnal dreams.  Regarding the other dimension, dreams can draw from both actual and fictional experiences in the dreamer’s life. The former correspond to the subject’s obsessions, the latter to his or her fantasies.

A second area for analysis is the imagination, wherein an individual elaborates on an initial inspiration by an effort of brainstorming or freethinking. Almost by definition, all these episodes of “thinking outside the box” are exclusively examples of the conscious or active efforts to “take the ball and run with it.” The use of one’s imagination, like dreams, can apply either to ruminations about actual events or to things that have not yet happened but are only “imagined”.

The third area to consider is memory, which serves to insulate a person’s stockpile of ideas from the passage of time. Thus, while imagination develops ideas that don’t yet exist forward to completion in the future, memory is backward-looking, performing research on already-existing ideas to enhance the subject’s understanding of them.

Reviewing these observations at first glance, it seems that the inspiration for innovative ways of interpreting the environment is received subconsciously, rather than by some active, purposeful effort.  Moreover, truly new ideas often come from the quadrant of things that are not yet elements of actual experience, so that the subject is left with the impression that he or she is “taking dictation from God”. This line of reasoning is the justification for the argument that the ultimate origin of ideas lies in dreams.

If dreams were the only source of inspiration for new ideas, imagination would be the transmission mechanism for their development. Through their imaginations individuals would find creative ways to implement their received sources of inspiration. The most obvious manifestation of these creative efforts is in artistic expression. The development of new schools of painting or music exhibits a break with traditional forms and leads to the establishment of new ones.  Due to the subjective nature of art, however, it is not possible to say anything more definite than that one form follows the other, since judgments about the relative value of alternative styles in art would be inconsistent with their property of subjectivity.

In contrast, the research disciplines have adopted innovative strategies to utilize new technologies often aimed at improving the fundamental nature of life on Earth.   To date, these have consisted in the proliferation of new laborsaving devices and the search for increased efficiency in existing ones. Many of these innovations occurred during this past century and altered the ways in which human beings understood the nature of their lives. Most examples of these achievements implement what mathematicians and economists call “separation theorems”, in the sense that they delink phenomena that normally occur together in nature. Some examples are the electric light, which separated the workday from daylight hours; the telephone (and before that the telegraph), which separated communication from physical distance; the automobile (and later the railroad and the airplane), which separated physical presence from physical distance; the camera, which separated likeness creation from artistic skill; and the printing press, which separated experience from knowledge and memory.

In this century, the pace of technological innovation has accelerated. In America’s Silicon Valley, “high tech” corporations have combined scientific new product research development skills with production and marketing capability to transform the world’s populations from originally agricultural and later manufacturing communities to collections of cyber-based individuals communicating with other individuals in their isolated groups through their I-phones. Originally portable versions of the telephone and the telegraph to use for verbal and written communication, the newest versions of the I-phone now include camera and video features, as well as a portable version of the internet, which is the modern version of the printing press. As such, it enables users to access information well beyond that acquired from their personal experience simply by typing the appropriate keyword into “Google”. Even without this new technological capability, though, the ability to find inspiration in creative ways makes imagination an origin of ideas in its own right.

Beyond dreams and imagination, the other important role in the idea-formation process is played by memory. Through memory, people can review and refine the insights obtained from their dreams or their imaginations, thereby improving the extent of their understanding. Moreover, by leveraging their own personal experience through the incorporation of notable information of mankind’s historical achievements gleaned by accessing the internet, it may actually be the case that human beings have never before had such opportunities to be productive in their chosen endeavors.

While memory has the power in principle to craft a consistent idea acquired from a dream or through the application of the imagination, it is still vulnerable to potential pitfalls that could derail the process under less than ideal conditions. One possibility is that a dream containing the inspiration for a new idea is only remembered for a limited amount of time upon waking from sleep and then forgotten. There might remain a vague feeling that something important has transpired, but the exact details that constitute the substance of the dream cannot be recovered from consciousness. This temporary memory loss is exactly analogous to hearing a snippet of music that is instantly recognizable, but its name and composer remain elusive.

The other way in which memory can be misleading is in the case of false memories. There might be instances where someone is convinced that he or she remembers an inspiration, but when they go to apply their imagination to the task of fleshing it out, they become aware of inconsistencies, and ultimately they must confront the reality that what they originally thought was a new idea was is in fact not one. With reference to the four-fold classification scheme, this result is all the more likely if the dream or the application of imagination that conveys the new idea originates from the quadrant of things that did not actually occur.

Memory is not only important for individuals, enabling them to perform research on their own personal remembrances, but it also plays a larger role in forming the basis for collective memories that are shared by the larger community. Certain deceased individuals can have embedded themselves into the world’s consciousness for a host of possible reasons (beneficent or notorious heads of state, memorable discoverers of truth, (e.g., theoretical physicists) and famous creators of beauty (e.g., accomplished painters and musicians). And because significant human beings have the capacity to serve as the inspiration for others, memory, like dreams and imagination can also be an origin of ideas.

Although countless numbers of people throughout history have fulfilled these roles in a most competent fashion, very few are considered significant, in the sense that they are known about by large numbers of people with whom they were personally unacquainted. Why many accomplished people lead anonymous lives outside of their small circle of friends and family, while others rise to the level of significance, originating ideas judged to be seminal, remains a mystery. It appears that excellence during one’s lifetime is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. What role is played by chance, not only being in the right place, interacting with colleagues who facilitate success, but also being there at the right time in history, cannot be overstated.

The final issue concerns the addition of future “aps” or functional capabilities to the I-phone device.  The basis for these new applications rests on the answer to a fundamental philosophical question: do human beings possess a soul independent of the physical body? On the face of it, most people would respond in the affirmative, that the human spirit or that spark of life, which uniquely defines each person, is different from his or her body. But is that soul immortal and not just an integral part the body, perhaps residing in the brain, but incapable of surviving apart from the body? If this mystery could be unambiguously resolved in the affirmative, the stage would be set for ambitious producers of I-phones to engage their medical research staffs in the task of engineering still another separation theorem, this time separating the soul from the body. In an updated version, the I-phone producers would provide separation services and functionality for instantaneous time travel and space travel for separated souls.

The implications of such a scenario coming to pass are staggering. There would exist two parallel worlds, one of unambitious physical bodies, serving life sentences in an “Eastern Pennsylvania State Corrections Institution”-like environment, plagued by the crumbling infrastructure endemic to aging bodies, and capable only of mechanical activities necessary to sustain their lives, but missing the functionality associated with dreams, imagination, and memory of the separated souls. These features would not only be sufficient to ensure self-definition distinct from other souls, but the enhanced capabilities would permit reunions with deceased loved ones and interactions with souls from different time periods and distant locations. The role of subjects’ dreams in making possible contact from others and subjects’ memory in bringing about active efforts to instigate contact with other souls could be important elements in creating this new reality.

It’s Not Rocket Science

Do you recognize this expression? It’s one of two synonymous questions referencing complex activities that are beyond the grasp of the average person.   The meaning is therefore that the issue under investigation is so familiar to everyone already that any discussion about it can only reach obvious and therefore superfluous conclusions.   But it is the other variation on this phrase where I propose to focus here, so that for our purposes, if it’s not rocket science, then it is brain surgery.

This discipline, carried out by trained specialists using precision instruments, aims to cure bodily malfunctions by applying invasive procedures to the most vulnerable and least understood organ in the body, the human brain. Brain surgeries are undertaken for a wide variety of purposes, but I will restrict the discussion here to their application for the purpose of alleviating the scourge of mental illness.  This medical condition manifests itself in two distinct problems: first, mentally ill individuals suffer from inexplicable, psychotic mood disorders, which interfere with their ability to function normally around others; and second, these disturbed people engage in a variety of antisocial behaviors, sometimes violent, placing the society at large in the position of needing to protect itself from their behavior.

A few decades ago, brain surgery in the form of frontal lobotomies was hailed as the miracle cure for certain extreme varieties of mental illness. Patients that suffered from psychotic episodes would find themselves committed to asylums where board-certified physicians would surgically remove the white matter in their brain’s frontal lobe, which was deemed to be the source of their antisocial behavior. Worldwide, the procedure was performed on thousands of troubled individuals, including a small number of musicians and the sister of President Kennedy.   The developer of the technique was a Portuguese doctor named Egas Moniz, who performed a number of lobotomies himself and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his achievements in 1949.

Was Lobotomy an effective cure?   The answer depends on the perspective from which the question is asked. As an expediter of social control, it unquestionably transformed hyperactive, sometimes violent offenders into passive, well-behaved citizens. For the lobotomized subjects, though, the operation brought good news and bad news: it served to neutralize the inner demons, which tormented them, but it also left them in catatonic stupors, unable to live productive lives. Over time, this form of brain surgery came to be seen as overly invasive, and the harm to the individual was deemed to outweigh any benefit to the rest of society.

The larger question the lobotomy procedure was attempting to address is at what point does merely nonconformist behavior become more serious and enough of a problem for the larger society that authorities feel justified in the need to intervene medically. Individuals are encouraged to express themselves freely in their speech and actions, so long as they don’t impinge on others’ right to do likewise. Accordingly, the line along which justifiable interventions might divide is the internal-external one. The argument can be made that when an individual’s antisocial actions present a threat to others, forcible restraint seems reasonable, but if that individual merely suffers mental anguish, it is not the authorities’ business to apply remedial measures, unless the individual petitions for assistance.

The phasing out of the use of brain surgery to perform frontal lobotomies was further facilitated by the paradigm shift within the medical community that held that mental illness originated from a chemical imbalance in the brain. One implication of this growing awareness was that, in addition to their other shortcomings, lobotomies represented an imprecise tool for alleviating such an imbalance. Preferred approaches that emerged included the direct intervention in the chemical composition of the patient’s brain through a course of medication drugs (meds) and the external approach of altering that internal chemistry through the application of electro convulsive therapy (ECT), popularly known as shock treatment (ST).

There have also emerged other treatment alternatives to the application of brain surgery to address mental illness. The two most prominent are psychotherapy (the talking cure, not to be confused with behavioral therapy, which seeks to positively reinforce socially desirable behavior and discourage non-acceptable behavior through a regiment of rewards and punishments), and meditation (ohm). With regard to the former, almost by definition, sessions with psychiatrists to explore patients’ feelings about their perceptions of damage incurred from mothers obsessed with the need to inflict guilt on their offspring cannot be an effective means of altering the brain chemistry of those afflicted with mental illness. But, although the latter treatment comes no closer to explicitly addressing chemical imbalances than psychotherapy, there seems to be some evidence that the rigorous pursuit of the practice of meditation can produce positive results in this regard. Although the transmission mechanism is not clear, there seems to be a connection between the calming effect of relaxation exercises and the production of healthy brain chemistry.

Having discussed the advantages current medical research accords to the methods of meds, ECT, and meditation over the default option of brain surgery, it might be worthwhile to evaluate whether these alternative therapies, like lobotomies, also contain negative aspects that might serve to undermine their effectiveness.

With regard to drug treatments, the issue is contained in the existence of side effects. Any substance powerful enough to alter a patient’s brain chemistry enough to change their disposition from self-destructive to optimistic or their behavior from antisocial to constructive, must also admit the possibility that the treatment could be accompanied with unanticipated consequences. The most common side effects are ancillary chemically induced illnesses stemming from either the rejection of the meds by the body’s immune system or interaction effects among the various specific drugs.

ECT presents a different problem. The same jolt of electricity aimed at realigning the body’s brain chemistry could also have the capacity to damage that same brain, and indeed, the entire nervous system. Although not as invasive as brain surgery, it is safe to say that shock treatment is the next most intrusive cure.

That leaves only non-invasive cures as safe forms of therapy, unless drug therapies or ECT can be administered in more measured doses that are more readily absorbed by the individual patient. Unfortunately, while psychotherapy might be safe, it is not very effective in attacking the root cause of mental illness.   The one remaining course of treatment, which holds out the possibility of safe and effective therapy, is meditation. Its shortcoming is that it does not enjoy widespread use in modern societies, because most human beings are not temperamentally suited to utilize this form of therapy effectively.   Instead, they are compelled to rely on more traditional methods, which is unfortunate, because some of these people might find that their road to sound mental health might lie in meditation rather than in medication.

I will conclude with a case study to apply these concepts to the situation of a fictional mentally ill individual. The raw material is provided in a song by Kenny Rogers entitled, “I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.”  While the literal circumstances that generated the narrator’s thoughts might well have been the ingestion of one or more psychedelic drugs, the resulting lyrics could certainly be consistent with the ramblings of someone exuding the symptoms of mental illness. They are as follows:

I woke up this mornin’ with the sundown shinin’ in
I found my mind in a brown paper bag within
I tripped on a cloud and fell eight miles high
I tore my mind on a jagged sky
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in
I watched myself crawlin’ out as I was crawlin’ in
I got up so tight that I couldn’t unwind
I saw so much that I broke my mind
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

Someone painted ‘April Fool’ in big black letters on a ‘Dead End’ sign
I had my foot on the gas as I left the road and blew out my mind
Eight miles outa Memphis and I got no spare
Eight miles straight up downtown somewhere
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.

The narrator of this song certainly qualifies for assignment to the category of“mentally ill”. He describes his surroundings in nonconventional terms, but is he a danger to society or is he merely an artistically inclined nonconformist with a fanciful way of expressing himself? Like many artists, he comes across as very self-absorbed, but is that a crime? If 99% of the society can only express itself through conventional means, surely there must be room for the 1% which sees the world through a fresh pair of eyes.

The only remaining question, if expressing himself freely doesn’t adversely impact anyone else, is whether he is a danger to himself. On this point, the jury is still out. At the very least, he should be encouraged to attend a course in driver’s education, but would society be made better off by restricting his access to psychedelic drugs, or would conventional thinkers merely be deprived of a refreshing exposure to a new way of understanding the world around us?

I’m Breaking Down

 

Hi! Booboo DiStefano here. Well, actually, my real name is Barbara, but my parents gave me the nickname “Booboo” because my mom’s pregnancy wasn’t something she and my father had planned for. At first I really didn’t like it, but later I grew to love it as a name that set me apart from other girls. I work in this Connecticut real estate agency with my mother, who had been employed here for several years before me and is a member of the office’s management committee.   One of the fun things that my mother and I did together was to make a video on the Internet in which we took turns advertising some of the houses we have listed.

Although everyone here works for the same company, there is a fair amount of competition among the individual salespeople. In my case, I was the 2015 agent of the year for the most housing units closed, which made me a director’s council member, a platinum circle member, and earned me the president’s bronze circle award. I also won the most housing units sold award in 2012, which got me the president’s silver circle award that year. In recognition of my achievements here, my mother arranged for the management committee to present an actual medal to the most successful salesperson each year, and because I had received so many honors, the medal was called a Booboo.

About a week ago, the strangest thing happened to me. I had spent the morning showing houses to a prospective buyer who was looking to move here from another city, and we had gone to a restaurant for lunch after a full morning of looking at possible homes. I was sitting at a table facing the front window when I looked up from my lunch to see someone who looked very familiar walking down the street holding hands with a woman as they ambled past the restaurant. Then I recognized him: it was my old boyfriend, Paul Galvin, who I hadn’t seen in years. More importantly, I was under the impression that Paul was dead. My father, who was about the same age and had always liked Paul, was the one who broke the news to me back in 1989.

“I don’t know if you heard, but your old boyfriend shot himself at work this morning,” he telephoned to tell me one evening. “He made quite a splash on the evening news. One of his doctors was on television, explaining that Paul had been suffering from some obscure neurological disorder, and rather than struggling with an incurable illness, he apparently elected to end his own life”.

I was in shock. I had met Paul when we both worked in the Economic Research group at a large commercial bank in midtown Manhattan, where he was responsible for the domestic interest rate forecast, and I was a support analyst in the Gross National Product forecasting group. My father had a job at one of the large brokerage firms in the city, and one of his colleagues was able to arrange an interview for me in the Economic Research group at the bank. I had just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Connecticut, where I majored in both Economics and Italian, the language of my grandparents.

I became friendly with Paul at work. He was very knowledgeable about all sorts of economic issues, so I always learned a lot from talking with him. He had accomplished a lot in his life. He had a Ph.D. in Financial Economics from an Ivy League university and he had been a professor at a major university in the Midwest before leaving to work as a bank economist. So, you might ask, what did I bring to the table that would interest him? The answer is, and there’s no easy way to say this without giving the misleading impression that I’m conceited,  I was the prettiest girl in the whole department. In fact, most men think I look a lot like Natalie Wood.

Well, Paul had always behaved very professionally toward me, although I could tell he (like all the rest of them there) found me very attractive. It was close to the Christmas holiday, and I mentioned to Paul that it would be nice if we could have a departmental Christmas party. Just as I hoped he would, Paul offered to host a party at his apartment in the city. After everyone had left, we were alone together, and he must have thought I was getting ready to leave too, which I thought was a little insulting, so I asked him why he didn’t take me seriously. We wound up kissing, but Paul remained a perfect gentleman.

After that, we started dating. I knew he was in love with me, but although I liked Paul, but there were at least three reasons why I didn’t lose my head over him: first, he was fifteen years older than me; second, he wasn’t Italian; and third, he always treated me a little too respectfully, so I never got the feeling that that I awakened any strong passions in him. One day, he asked me to marry him, but I had to tell him that, although I was very flattered, I had to turn him down, and I heard he later married someone else. Meanwhile, I needed to turn my attentions to finding a serious marriage partner while I was still of childbearing age.

My parents had three daughters, and I was the middle one. Both of my sisters were already married, and each one had three children. My older sister had three girls, while my younger sister had three boys. I knew I needed to shake a leg if I didn’t want to fall too far behind my siblings. There was a mixer dance at the local community center, and I thought I would go just out of curiosity. I met a boy there who worked in the county government, and we started talking. He didn’t seem to be very excited about his work, but he spoke passionately about his artistic hobbies, which I thought was a good sign, since my father had a big interest in opera. This boy was my own age, and although he wasn’t Italian, I figured two out of three wasn’t bad. We began dating, and later, when he asked me to marry him, I accepted his offer.

We didn’t waste any time, and I got pregnant almost right away. The baby was a girl, and following my urge to give girls more traditional names than my own, I named her after a female movie star. Later, I got pregnant a second time, and this time, the baby was a boy. Not having any guidelines for boys, I named him after an old boyfriend. My third baby was also a girl, so I thought it was only fitting that I name her Natalie.

It was a couple of months after Nat’s birth that my husband casually mentioned to me over dinner that he could no longer remain dishonest about our marriage. At first I thought he had discovered and was referring to one of my various secret extramarital affairs, but he surprised me by disclosing that he needed to get in touch with his softer feminine side. After delivering this body blow, he informed me that he had made a connection with another man at work with whom he had created a bond, and he wanted a divorce so that he could be with his true love. “I can no longer continue living a lie,” he said after finishing his coffee and dessert.

Naturally, I sent him packing, allowing him exactly twenty minutes to gather his belongings and get out. But here I was now, with three small children to support, to ensure their education, their health, and their social skills, all on my salary at the real estate agency. I knew I’d need to sell a lot of houses to be able to afford college tuition for all of them. When I remember how cavalierly I treated Paul, I could just cry! Oh, What a fool I was!

But now, with Paul’s reappearance, maybe all is not lost. I left the restaurant to go to look for him, but he had already left the area. I resolved that I would return to this spot every day around this time until I saw him again. We’ll have a big laugh over that crazy rumor erroneously reported on the evening news that time. And I’ll tell him about the many important events in my life. How it looks like I’ll be on track this year to win yet another Booboo medal. And I’ll tell him about my three children and how my example will be an inspiration to make sure they graduate from college, and go on to have successful careers and satisfying marriages. They’ll all be very happy, smart, well adjusted, successful, and kind adults.   It will be a very tough transition for me, and afterwards, I’ll be an empty nester.

But that’s where Paul will come in. I sent him an email to alert him to the fact that I saw him here, and I am looking forward to seeing him here again soon. I know he’s already married right now, but as I know from my own experience, that’s no guarantee of anything. And he may be my last chance for happiness. As I was thinking these thoughts, the lyrics from that Crystal Gayle song, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” came into my mind:

Don’t know when I’ve been so blue
Don’t know what’s come over you
You’ve found someone new
And don’t it make my brown eyes blue

I’ll be fine when you’re gone
I’ll just cry all night long
Say it isn’t true
And don’t it make my brown eyes blue

Tell me no secrets, tell me some lies
Give me no reasons, give me alibis
Tell me you love me and don’t let me cry
Say anything but don’t say goodbye

I didn’t mean to treat you bad
Didn’t know just what I had
But, honey now I do
And don’t it make my brown eyes blue

It’s now a week later, and I still haven’t received a reply to my email. Of course, that by itself doesn’t mean anything. He may no longer have the same email address, or his computer program may not recognize my email code, screen out the message, and trap it in his program’s junk mail file. I’ll just have to be patient. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a —

Suddenly, I spot him. Paul Galvin is striding purposefully down the street, holding hands with that same woman. I can see them coming, and I fall in a few paces behind them. I walk a little faster so that now I’m directly behind them.

“Paul? “ I ask hesitantly. Upon hearing my voice, he spins around to face me, and I can see at once that it’s not Paul. He has some of the same facial features, so that from a distance there’s definitely a resemblance, but it’s not him. He looks at me questioningly, and the woman also stares at me as she turns back to her companion.

“There are so many mentally ill patients in this part of town that make it their business to harass law-abiding citizens,” she said with the self-assurance of someone who neither knows nor cares what the impact of her malicious words will have on me. She was so mean.

After returning home, I sat and reflected on these new developments for a long time. I knew I just needed to take stock of the situation. There was no percentage in panicking and losing perspective on these matters. After all, the only thing that’s breaking up is my marriage, so there’s no need for me to go breaking down.

“Well, that’s all right,” I said to myself, “I never really cared about Paul anyway. I’m sure there are lots of others who would be thrilled to meet me”.

Beauty

Have you ever had the experience of anticipating a critically acclaimed artistic presentation – the unveiling of a new collection of paintings by a famous artist, or attending the premiere of a new play, a motion picture or an opera – only to be bitterly disappointed by the actual performance?   Or, what about an event which the critics panned but which you obstinately attended anyway, only to be pleasantly surprised?   Upon reflection, we understand the reason for such occurrences to lie in the nature of artistic expression itself.  Whether it be in the form of painting, sculpture, the various categories of music, the different forms of creative writing, architecture, or any other form of creative endeavor, the artist aims to create something profoundly beautiful, and an essential property of beauty itself is its very subjectivity.  Accordingly, in contrast to mathematics or the sciences, the effectiveness of an artistic creation depends upon the reaction of the individual experiencing it.  Alternatively stated, beauty is understood internally, as an emotional experience, while the external environment is susceptible to analysis through analytical methods.

Although some artistic creations are merely decorative, beautiful works that the perceptive observer finds inspirational must embody an implicit element of truth about human experience. In “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” the poet John Keats argues that not only is beauty identified with truth, but so too is the converse true, that truth calls forth the idea of beauty.   That beauty is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for truth, though, is somewhat controversial, precisely because of beauty’s subjective nature.  As a result, standards of beauty can change over time, from, say, haunting landscapes to redundant soup cans, as artistic movements in vogue at one moment may find themselves out of fashion at some later time, just as an individual’s tastes may change with maturity.  On the other hand, the content of truth itself may change over time with new scientific discoveries, creating a stochastic relationship between beauty and truth.

One scholar who contributed to our understanding of these issues was Marcel Proust.  In the fifth book of his epic masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, entitled The Captive[1], he highlights one of the most important truths in our lives, namely the disconnect between our behavior in everyday life and our finer impulses.  Proust discusses this paradox in the context of the death of his friend Bergotte, who learns that an art museum is displaying the painting by Johannes Vermeer, “View of Delft, “ and decides to go to see it despite his poor health.  He is mesmerized by the perfection with which Vermeer had painted a little patch of yellow wall, and, comparing it to his own work (Bergotte was the author of nine books,) he admitted that his life’s work came up short.  “That’s how I ought to have written,” he thinks.  “My last books are too dry.  I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of color, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.”

Meanwhile, Bergotte collapsed on the floor of the museum and died from his illness, prompting Proust to theorize about these events.  He wrote “ Everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted for in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an artist to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer.  All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one which we leave in order to be born on this earth before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts”.

Several insights emerge from this episode:  First, human beings carry within them the potential for good behavior, which they temporarily suspend in order to avoid being placed at a disadvantage in the harsh real world.  Second, good artists apply these high standards to their work, and their efforts can provide a good example for other human beings, causing them to reflect critically on their own artistic efforts in the world.  Third, unlike other human beings, good artists perform their work in a professional manner, without expectation of wealth or fame (as it turned out, Vermeer was revered by the world after his death, but he didn’t know that would be the case when he was alive.)  And fourth, Proust offers the speculative possibility that the attraction of these otherworldly values is so strong that human beings will willingly return to them after their lives on earth are concluded.

Another important art form that encapsulates these concepts is music, and this auditory expression of beauty can manifest itself in many different genres.  The unorthodox musician Ron Johnson famously expressed his belief that music was his pathway to truth.  But perhaps the most poignant examples of stirring music can be found in the operas of Giacomo Puccini, who created a total of nine operas during his career, a number of which are standard offerings in most opera companies’ repertoires.    One of his lesser-known operas is “La Rondine” (The Swallow), and in the first act, a poet and the female lead sing the aria “Chi bel sogno di Doretta”  (Doretta’s Beautiful Dream).  An English translation of the lyrics from the Italian is as follows:

Who could know the beautiful dream of Doretta?
Why her search for happiness ended?
One day a student kissed her lips
And that kiss was a revelation!
It was passion!
Mad love!
Unimaginable happiness!
Who will ever be able again
To describe the light caress
Of a kiss so passionate?
Oh!  My life!
Who cares for wealth
If at last happiness flourishes?
Oh golden dream!
To love like that!

In this aria, Puccini introduces another element closely associated with beauty and truth, namely that of love.  When one hears a musical composition or views a painting or attends a play or reads a poem of the quality that combines truth with beauty, its effect can awaken in that person strong feelings of love for that work of art.  People debate whether some art forms are more prone to induce such intense feelings than others, but the general response, like beauty itself, seems to be of a subjective nature and varies not only from person to person, but for any particular person, it varies at different times, depending on his or her mood.

Introducing the subject of love raises the obvious question of how well these feelings about artistic creations are transferable to relationships between human beings.   Reflecting beauty’s property of subjectivity, it’s been said that beauty in another person is the quality that makes someone else love that person.  Of course, since beauty only manifests itself in the realm of appearances, the translation of the appreciation of beauty from artistic creations to human beings may be less than perfect.  But while the desire for happiness seems eminently reasonable, a right endowed in the constitution, is it really so innocent that it contains no hidden consequences?  A number of the world’s great religions warn against desire, especially for wealth and material things, as the preoccupation by which human beings can lose sight of what is important in life, and what is not.  Moreover, the desire for the possession of material objects can easily become a slippery slope in relationships between people, especially when one party is dependent financially or in other ways on the other.

Relationships between adults are obviously complex and contain many facets, each of which may take precedence at various times.  While there may always be concern for the wellbeing of the other, this feeling is often consummated within mutually acceptable periodic episodes of arousal and tranquility.  But against the backdrop of the desire to possess material objects, a relationship based upon love and mutual respect may gradually drift into one of selfishness, in which the dominant partner comes to view the dependent one as a possessed object to be consumed.  And in defense, the beautiful partner may easily adopt a dishonest and untruthful manipulative approach to the relationship, prompting relationship counseling meddlers to wonder how matters could have deteriorated so badly.

Is there a civilized approach to relationships capable of balancing beauty, truth, and love with the potentially deleterious effects of desire?  One obvious answer is that both partners should be cognizant of the potential ill effects arising from an obsession with materialism.  Beyond that, some guidance may once again emerge from the realm of music.  In 1928, a song was composed with music  by Neil Moret and lyrics by Richard A. Whiting called “He’s Funny That Way.”  Billie Holliday recorded several versions of it, beginning in 1937.  The lyrics to the 1952 version are as follows:

Once he dressed in tweeds and drapes
Owned a Rolls Royce car
Now he seems quite out of place
Like a fallen star
While I worry plan and scheme
Over what to do
I can’t help feeling it’s a dream
And too good to be true

I’m not much to look at
I’m nothing to see
I’m glad I’m living
And lucky to be

I’ve got a man
Crazy for me
He’s funny that way

I can’t save a dollar
And I ain’t worth a cent
He wouldn’t holler
He’d live in a tent
I’ve got that man
Mad about me
And he’s funny that way

Though he loves to work and slave
For me every day
He’d be so much better off
If I just went away

But why should I leave him
Why should I go
He’d be unhappy
Without me I know
I’ve got a man
He’s crazy for me
And he’s funny that way

This song provides a cogent summary of these issues.  The female narrator is frankly puzzled by her situation.  By her own admission, she is neither physically attractive nor adept in financial matters.   Nevertheless, she has attracted the attention of a male admirer who is wealthy enough to afford all the luxuries of life, but he has renounced them all to devote himself to this unpretentious woman.  Her initial response is to utilize feminine wiles to manipulate the situation to her benefit, but eventually she realizes that it is her very dearth of those manipulative skills that has brought about this change in his life, and that her demeanor of genuineness has been the cause of it.  By the end, these events have had a positive impact on her sense of self-worth:  while in his previous life, she might have represented a potential conquest to him, now, in his eyes, she is his source of joy.

Artists endeavor to expend energy to create works of beauty, which transform their intrinsic limitation of subjectivity for each individual experiencing them.  Once that work is completed, however, it remains frozen in time, as the artistic creation does not respond to the artist’s further behavior.  In contrast, although some of the same idealistic characteristics of beauty, truth, and love can also inspire everyday human beings to appreciate these properties in others, human relationships are intrinsically interactive, so that they do not remain static but can evolve over time.  Specifically, the emotion of love, which can be inspired by the recognition of beauty and truth in the beloved, can be undermined by the desire that grows out of it.  Only through the continual recognition of the greater truth underlying the daily strengths and motivations of both parties may this vulnerability be overcome.

[1] Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin and Andreas Mayor. Page 186 First Vintage Books Edition.

The Lonesome Death of Alexander Niltab

 

I am the aforementioned Alexander Niltab, and I was born into a pre-revolution Russian family in June of 1914. I grew up in New York City, and I attended a high school that specialized in the sciences, so when I went away to a university in Baltimore, Maryland in the middle of what turned out to be the Great Depression, I focused my studies in that area, principally in chemistry and biology. It had been my hope to apply my skills to gain admission to a good medical school, so I transferred to the university’s pre-med program. Unfortunately, despite my desire to become a medical doctor and in spite of my good grades in the program, not a single medical school accepted my application, and I was left at loose ends for the first time in my life.

The university had required all male students to attend two terms in Reserve Officer’s Training College (ROTC)). Without other job prospects and cognizant that I would be entitled to enter the service as a First Lieutenant, I decided to enroll in the armed forces, and because of my background in science, I was assigned to the Chemical Corps. I found myself stationed close to my home in New York City doing mostly administrative work.

One evening as I was walking home after my day shift, I practically walked right into a girl who was an absolute vision of loveliness. Due to my preoccupation with my studies during that failed attempt to become a doctor, I hadn’t spent much time around girls other than my mother and my two sisters. In fact, it would be fair to say that I was afraid of girls, believing they possessed some special property which made them qualitatively different from us – more sensitive, and more skilled at navigating the finer aspects of life. This girl was quite vivacious, laughing over my clumsiness with her friend who was accompanying her.   I was embarrassed by the mishap and tried to stammer out an apology. She smiled, putting me at ease, and we began talking. I told her my name, what I did for a living, and where I lived. She laughed and told me she literally lived right next door, and that her name was Elissa. I observed how lucky I was and that if I wanted to speak with her again, I could just lean out my window and shout, to which she responded with peals of laughter.

I was pretty ignorant about dating, so I asked my older brother, who was married, what the protocol was for getting to know someone better. He suggested that I ask her if I could take her out for dinner, and if she answered in the affirmative, I should call for her at her house and introduce myself to her parents. Well, it all went according to plan. We dined at a neighborhood tavern, I had a Pastrami sandwich, and she ordered a salad. She could have had anything she wanted.

When we arrived back at her house, she asked if I’d like to kiss her goodnight. Well, the only thing I knew about that activity was what I’d heard on the weekly radio drama I occasionally listened to, and it sounded pretty unsanitary to me. On the other hand, she was standing right there, and it occurred to me that maybe I should broaden my horizons. “What the heck,” I thought.

That kiss was a revelation. My heart was pounding. My knees got weak. Let me slow down, I thought to myself. What was I getting myself into here? She was breathing pretty hard herself, and her face was flushed. Did this mean I’d have to marry her? What about my responsibility at my Army job? I worried.

Now that I was an old hand at it, I continued to take Lish, as I called her, out on dates on the weekends when I didn’t have to be working. We went to a variety of restaurants and occasionally to the motion pictures at the local Palladium. But mostly I looked forward to the end of our meetings when we would kiss. Lish was 6 years younger than I was, and she was not only beautiful, with delicate features and wavy chestnut hair, but she had this earthy quality that I found very stimulating, especially when we were kissing.

The next important event in my life arrived courtesy of the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This action prompted the United States to declare war on Japan. I was transferred to the Pacific theater, and the country was soon engulfed in the Second World War. With only a few days before I was to ship out, I asked Lish to marry me, and she agreed, so we tied the knot in January of 1942. I won’t go into the details of our brief honeymoon, but I’ll tell you it was a transforming experience for both of us.

We were separated for the next 4 years, as I was involved in combat in the Philippine Islands and New Guinea. By virtue of having a college degree, I headed a battalion, and Company E of the First Platoon of that Battalion presented me with an etching of me and my adjutants when I left that read “We Miss You Captain Niltab.”  And I don’t like to blow my own horn, but the War Department saw fit to award me the Bronze Star for valor. Anyway, by August of 1945, the war effort was not progressing as hoped, but two Atom Bombs later, these difficulties were satisfactorily resolved, and I was shipped home. During my time abroad, I was promoted several more times and left the hostilities as a Lieutenant Colonel. I had gone deaf in one ear from the shellings but the Army compensated me by volunteering to fund graduate school training in any field of my choosing.

I thought long and hard about this offer. I had wanted to earn an M.D. degree, but that had not been in the cards for me. As I reflected on it, though, I realized that my true interest was in using my skills to perform medical research, which more appropriately required a Doctor of Philosophy degree in biochemistry and bacteriology. Accordingly, at war’s end, I applied to and was accepted in the Ph.D. program of a university known for its outstanding faculty in these areas.

Lish and I relocated to Wisconsin to begin my new studies, and we agreed not to have children until I finished my degree. Of course, that decision didn’t prevent us from rehearsing for the blessed event, but we were always careful in how we applied our efforts. Meanwhile, we endeavored to make ends meet on my meager army salary, so we enjoyed fewer nights out on the town than we used to when I was courting her. She suggested we could go out dancing, but I wasn’t confident that I was capable of guiding her around the dance floor without stepping on her toes and embarrassing myself.

I began my doctoral studies in the fall of 1945 and was trained in the techniques of applied scientific research. I remained in residence at the university until one of my professors arranged an interview for me to head a research laboratory back in my old stomping grounds of Baltimore. It meant working long distance on my dissertation, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The logistics required us to move to rural Maryland, from where I could commute to the laboratory in the new used car I had acquired.

It took a little longer than I had hoped, but in the winter of 1946, I successfully defended my dissertation on the characteristics and behavior of the Vibrio Fetus Bacterium. After I had returned to our new home with the good news, I reminded Lish that the true significance of my achievement was that we then had some unfinished business to attend to, and we proceeded to get busy. Linda Viable Niltab was born nine months later in the spring of 1947. Though pleased as punch with our newest addition to the family, we also wanted a son, so we went back to the drawing board to try again, and Paul Niltab was born nine months later, in the spring of 1948.

Both Linda and Paul were accepted as legacy children in the university where I had earned my Ph.D. While Linda completed her four-year curriculum to earn her baccalaureate degree in French literature on time, Paul dropped out of college after his first year to travel around the country, later completing his B.A. degree in Economics. After college, Paul got a job doing economic research in a government agency but found the environment somewhat bureaucratic, even though all his supervisors had Ph.D.’s. He asked me about my experience with the doctoral degree, and I explained how its purpose was to train candidates in the skills of performing research. This observation came as something of a surprise to Paul, who had been employed in something of a “faux” research capacity in the bureaucracy.

Linda began working in the government agency in charge of overseeing the country’s weather services, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and moved to Colorado, where she lived her life separate from the other members of the family. Meanwhile Paul earned his own Ph.D. from a university in New York City, and went on to become a professor at a university in the Midwest. Lish and I once travelled out there and sat in on one of his classes. I was so proud of him. It was just after that trip that I began to lose track of Paul and then everything else. I remember Lish suggested that we attend a revival of “Oklahoma!”; and I remember one song that the lead actress sang. It felt as if Lish were singing it to me. Here were the lyrics:

Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly
I will come as evening comes to woo the waiting sky
Out of my dreams and into the hush
Of falling shadows
When the mist is low
And stars are breaking through
Then out of my dreams I’ll go
Into a dream with you 1

That was the last clear memory I have. After that, I started forgetting things. At first, Lish was puzzled about it and then became angry, losing her temper with me. But at some point, she became concerned that I might really have something medically wrong. I know she took me around to see many doctors, but none of them could give us a clear idea of what the problem was. I remembered from my science journals that there was an illness called Alzheimer’s disease with many of the same symptoms, and that the medical community was just starting to analyze it scientifically. But much of the research about it at that time was only anecdotal. No one knew that it could turn you into a stranger to yourself and to everyone close to you. And since no one really understood its causes, no one knew it could kill you.

After that, everything seemed to change. I don’t know what happened to my beloved Lish, but she was no longer there in our house. Instead, an old woman with white hair, who bore a slight resemblance to Lish, had replaced her. And this person was nothing like Lish. I’d try to have a conversation with her, articulating some ideas I had developed on something, and she acted as if I had been speaking gibberish. After a while, we just didn’t say anything to each other. Hours would go by in silence until it was time for dinner, and we would both eat in silence. In addition, this person put locks on all the doors, so I could never leave the house. Then, one morning I had a meeting I had to go to, and fortunately, she had forgotten to lock the front door, enabling me to escape to my meeting. It was raining out, so I opened an umbrella and started walking to my meeting. I hadn’t gotten too far when suddenly, the old woman appeared in the car telling me she was taking me back to that prison with the locks on all the doors.

After that, everything changed again. This time, the old woman drove me back to Baltimore, but rather than delivering me to my old university or my laboratory, she had me admitted to a hospital. She spent some time talking with some doctors there and told me to go to the room I had been assigned. I had just drifted off to sleep when I woke to find a strange man standing over my bed talking to me. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. “Are you my father? I asked him. “No,” he answered, “ you’re my father. I’m your son, Paul.” Later, Paul, the old woman, and a couple of doctors took me to a restaurant near the hospital for lunch, but I’m afraid I wasn’t very hungry. I never saw Paul again, but the old woman visited me often in the hospital.

I wonder how serious this medical condition of mine is. I know, for instance, it has had a deleterious effect on my brain, and I know the brain directs all the other functions of the body. But, I mean, could I die from this problem? And that idea of my own death, of the negation of my being, I’m having trouble absorbing it. I mean, I know it’s not the negation of my existence. I had a good life. I achieved a few things in my day. I had love in my life and I had two children. But, will I be remembered? My wife was not that much younger than I am, so, even if she remembers, for how long will that be?   I hope my children remember, but neither of them had children of their own, so in one generation, my existence will have been forgotten.

I must say, I am getting sick and tired of this inability to speak coherently. As you can see, there is nothing wrong with my ability to reason through an issue. It’s frustrating that my memory is so damaged, but what are all these doctors doing to earn their salaries? And what about this old woman with white hair? Every time I turn around, she’s here, looking at me.

It’s now the end of March in 1983, exactly three months before my sixty-ninth birthday. I’m feeling more and more confused every day. I was feeling all right a few minutes ago, but now, I’m feeling really sick. I don’t know what it is, but I have this really intense headache. That woman with the white hair is looking at me in a peculiar way. It looks like she’s getting ready to say something to me. But I can’t make out what she’s saying. She’s being drowned out by some noise coming from the hallway outside my room. It’s a radio. The announcer says they are going to play a song by someone named John Prine, called “Hello in There.” I can just make out the lyrics: 2

We had an apartment in the city,
Me and Loretta liked living there
Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown,
A life of their own left us alone.
John and Linda live in Omaha,
And Joe is somewhere on the road
We lost Davy in the Korean War,
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
But old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,”hello in there, hello.”

Me and Loretta don’t talk much more,
She sits and stares through the backdoor screen
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.
Some day I’ll go and call up Rudy,
We worked together at the factory.
But what could I say if he asks “What’s new?”
“Nothing, what’s with you? Nothing much to do.”

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,” hello in there, hello”.

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please just don’t pass them by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say hello in there, hello.

1 “Out of my Dreams” from Oklahoma! Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Music by Richard Rodgers. Copyright 1943 by Williamson Music.
2 “Hello in There” written by John Prine ©Warner/Chappelle Music, Inc.