The Consequence of Destroying Meaning in the English Language

A typical conversation about any everyday experience, these days, commonly goes like this:
“That was amazing.”
“I agree.  It was just incredible.”

Notice that the words “amazing” and “incredible” are used interchangeably as synonyms, despite their having distinct, well-defined meanings of their own.   “Amazing” actually means out-of-the ordinary and is therefore synonymous with “Remarkable.”  In contrast, “Incredible” means “Not Believable,” and therefore literally suggests that the second speaker is accusing the first one of distorting the truth.

An important implication of this continual misuse of these words is a degradation of the language, ultimately creating a permanent separation between words and the true meanings they were designed to communicate.  After all, if every mundane observation is categorized in common speech as amazing or incredible by large segments of the population (indicating something extremely positive or extremely negative) these terms quickly forfeit any meaning and are no longer capable of communicating something that is truly amazing or incredible.

The true meaning of these words, however, can still be understood by gaining an appreciation of their historical usage.  The best example can be found in the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which effectively communicates the power of the word that has been consigned to triviality in our modern culture.  That power is reflected in its lyrics

Amazing Grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

These words have been used in a wide variety of circumstances to express the despair of lost hope in the wake of some specific adversity, and the weight that is lifted by the unexpected appearance of a force that restores the suffering party to his or her previous state of lucidity.

The flagrant disregard for the use of language to communicate truth in preference for exaggerated and extreme statements does not stop with everyday experiences.  Food, for instance, doesn’t merely taste good, but every culinary event is “delicious.”  Of course, if every meal is delicious, meaning extremely tasty, then nothing is truly delicious.  So, “delicious” has become the new “amazing.”  Similarly, some occurrence that the lemmings in our society perceive as very positive is now labeled as “awesome.”  In reality, awesomeness is very rare, but in our culture, “awesome” has become the new “incredible.”

Other uses of language that would have had the potential for meaningful communication in a more authentic context are now employed ubiquitously in a way that reduce them to superficial exchanges, where all participants express themselves in empty chatter, neither seeking nor giving any real information.  The most egregious examples are the universal question, “How are you?” followed by the universal command, “Have a good day.”   Vis-à-vis the question, everyone responds “Good,” regardless of how they really feel, with the understanding that the inquirer really doesn’t care how they are and would be put off by an honest answer.  Similarly, whether the respondent proceeds to have a good day after the encounter is independent of the command that he or she do so.

In addition, these perverse modes of expression have been adopted in interview situations where one party, the interrogator, is seeking information about some topic from another party, who is credited with having expert knowledge on the subject.   In responding to any query, experts will typically begin their answer with the word “So,” implying that their opinions carry the weight of self-evident conclusions and are  not to be questioned.  Responses to any clarifying questions are then initiated with the interjection “Look,” suggesting that the person seeking such additional information has no business doubting the expert’s insightfulness and therefore deserves to be bullied.

At first glance, it might appear that harping on these substitutions of the sloppy usage of words in place of their traditional counterparts might be a case of placing form over substance, like objecting that an adjective was being used as an adverb, or an intransitive verb was being used as a transitive verb.   But there is a deeper, more sinister development that has occurred contemporaneously with this separation of language from meaning and of truth from falsehood that has enabled it to come into being.  This event occurred during the 2016 presidential election cycle in which Republican candidate Trump was elected over Democratic candidate Clinton.  Some of the features that characterize the Trump presidency are often attributed to the president’s unorthodox personal style, but I would argue that those features have been facilitated by the very developments involving the cultural misuse of language that I have identified here.

What are the elements that characterize the Trump presidency?  I believe there are six:  First, COUNTERFACTUALISM, the communication of a narrative to the public that is clearly inconsistent with readily verifiable events; Second, NOVICITY, the complete absence of relevant governing experience on the part of the president and his staff; Third, ELITISM, the drafting of a legislative agenda and the appointment of a cabinet staff chosen to promote the mission of further improving the lot of the extremely wealthy at the expense of minorities and the middle class; Fourth, INCOMPETENCE, to date, the complete inability to enact any element of this agenda; Fifth, RACISM, evidence of a consistent pattern of preferential treatment  for white nationals over minorities;  and Sixth, ISOLATIONISM, the forfeiture of America’s traditional world leadership role through its withdrawal from global organizations and multilateral trade agreements.

The misrepresentation of past and present reality by the president and his representatives is the direct result of the current divorce of words from the truth they were brought into the language to communicate.  These individuals rely heavily on two language fads in particular to implement their message.  First, there is the penchant for exaggeration: Not only are many of their enterprises “amazing” and “incredible,” but everything they do is “great,” while all their opponents’ efforts are “horrible.”  Second, their dependence on superficiality, championing simplistic positions that appeal to a narrow segment of the electorate supported by well-organized lobbyists (such as in the case of the right to bear arms,) or naively explaining, for example, that another country (China) should solve the U.S.’s conflict with a third country (North Korea).

The resulting poor correlation between the president’s pronouncements and any trustworthy information is further exacerbated by his heavy reliance on the social media platform “Twitter” and his representation by particularly uncommunicative communication directors.  The antidote for overcoming these obstacles is the role of a free press, whose job it is to separate truth from fantasy.  Despite the roadblocks news organizations are required to overcome and the barrage of criticism they receive from the administration, they have performed yeoman service, recognizing that their work is the critical element in creating a reliable source of real information in an authoritarian regime.

Two of the other characteristics are closely related: it is almost axiomatic that an administration sadly lacking in governing experience will demonstrate incompetence in accomplishing any legislative goals.  But the more fundamental question is why, with control of the presidency and both houses of congress, the Republican Party is still unable to push through its elitist agenda.  The answer is found in the wisdom the country’s founders, who allowed for the possibility that the public might make poor electoral decisions and so designed a constitution with checks and balances, making it hard for an antidemocratic government to do any real damage.

The administration has proposed deporting Mexicans who have been living and working in the country for years, building a wall on the southern border to keep Mexican immigrants out, and claiming naively that the Mexican government should be forced to finance the project.    It has also proposed a ban on all Muslims seeking to enter the country, it has tried to “repeal and replace” the signature health care legislation of Trump’s predecessor, the first black president, which would have the effect of causing millions of citizens to lose their health insurance coverage, and it has put forth a tax overhaul proposal that would be a windfall for corporations and wealthy Americans while raising taxes on voters with extremely high medical costs or living in states with significant state and local tax burdens.

The main branch of government that has prevented the most blatantly discriminatory elements of these plans from being enacted has been the Judiciary, which has ruled them unconstitutional.  The Mexican President has made it abundantly clear he has no intention of financing a wall, and Congress has been unwilling to allocate funds for such a wasteful project in a federal budget already hampered by an out-of-control deficit.  But it has also been the Legislature, divided by opposing factions in a Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives, that has been unable to enact elitist laws, and so to date, in the conflict between the Trump administration and the safeguards put in place by the country’s founders, the safeguards are winning.

Candidate Trump had made his platform abundantly clear in the Republican primary race, which began with 17 presidential hopefuls, and he still he won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency.  How then, did he manage to get elected?  The basic reason is that the American electorate, as it has demonstrated many times in the past, lacks the character to resist the appeal of a demagogue who identifies a scapegoat to blame for all its problems and makes the unrealistic promise that his election will solve all its woes.  In this case, he tied the long-term trend of job and wage stagnation accompanying technological progress with white workers’ antipathy toward a black president during the previous 8 years, specifically holding his predecessor, President Obama responsible.

But an equally important reason was the weakness of the Democratic nominee, candidate Clinton.   Like President Obama, her candidacy had historical significance:  following the first black president, she was the first female nominee of a major party.  Unfortunately, her behavior bore the stain of dishonesty and corruption.  In fact, her flaws are comparable to those of President Trump:  he refuses to distance himself credibly from his global business interests and won’t release his tax returns, while she took exorbitant fees from financial firms, secretly arranged for the Democratic National Committee to sabotage the candidacy of her rival for the Democratic nomination, and, as President Obama’s first Secretary of State, she stored classified information on a private email server that was then vulnerable to cyber attacks by a foreign government.  It is no wonder that in requiring voters to choose between the lesser of two evils, 2016 was marked by historically low voter turnout.   And, although both candidates continually claimed to speak for the American people, neither has ever apologized to the American people for their behavior.

I now turn to the final two elements that define the Trump presidency.  Racism is most apparent in the president’s obsession with his predecessor, whether more people attended his inauguration, falsely claiming President Obama wiretapped the president’s home, and even whether President Obama was legitimately eligible to hold the office by virtue of his place of birth.  Moreover, the influence of racism is seen in a number of his cabinet choices, in his failure to denounce Neo-Nazi violence on a college campus, and even in his judgments about terrorism incidents, needing more information before he could comment on a white rifleman who massacred hundreds of concertgoers, but vilifying a Muslim who killed 9 bicyclists with a truck.

But again, racism has its roots in the peculiarities of the misuse of language that has become so rampant in the society at large.  Thus, when white people casually ask minorities the universal question (“How are you?”)  and give them the universal command (“Have a nice day,”) they seem oblivious to the additional degree of insipidness  they impose on them.  Racism is so deeply ingrained in the larger culture that even white people who fancy themselves sensitive to the burdens of discrimination are often intolerant of members of minority groups who express themselves more sophisticatedly than the enlightened  white person privately expects.

The basis for the final element of the Trump presidency is his message that, under his predecessor’s leadership, America’s allies exploited the country financially.  The language the president uses to signal his intention to change this state of affairs is “America First,” which became his campaign slogan, and this expression has resonated well with his base of alienated voters.

This simplistic slogan, though, hides a very serious departure from the country’s long-held foreign policies.  Now, as the new president lectures the country’s allies that they need to pay a larger share of their common defense expenditures and to grant America more favorable terms of trade, he also makes friendly overtures to a number of antidemocratic regimes, most notably Russia, on whose president he showers praise (one possible reason that he has chosen to pursue this reversal of the country’s traditional foreign policy might be that President Trump committed some embarrassing indiscretion while performing his business dealings in Russia, and the Russian President has threatened to expose him if he does not maintain this new policy.)

One result of these changes is that the president continually threatens to withdraw from the international organizations in which America has traditionally enthusiastically participated (e.g., the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization)  and to renegotiate established treaties (e.g. the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Iran anti-nuclear deal, and the Paris Climate Accord.)  Should any of these plans literally be implemented, the effect would be to leave the country isolated from its allies and viewed as untrustworthy by everyone else.  Like the other elements of this presidency, this effort represents a retreat into the past.  It should be recalled that America’s dalliance with the now-discredited policy of isolationism in the 1930’s ultimately led to its being drawn into the conflict of World War II anyway.

I believe I have demonstrated that modern society’s linguistic sloppiness has been a contributing factor that has led to the Trump Presidency in all its elements.  Nevertheless, the absence to date of a groundswell of protest suggests that that the public may have become inured to the president’s language and his behavior, from his articulation of an alternate understanding of reality, to his reactionary perspectives on social issues, to the attempts to enact his elitist legislative agenda, and to his reckless foreign policy, which ultimately has the potential to involve the country in nuclear war.

Although there is an official reaction in the form of investigations by two Congressional committees and one special prosecutor, the scope of these seems to be limited to a search for evidence of collusion or obstruction, rather than the charge of treason that would be applicable if it is discovered that the president is  indeed willingly being blackmailed by the president of Russia.  Meanwhile, everyday life continues as usual, with no real sense of urgency and no awareness of this connection between the Trump presidency and the language people use to communicate with one another every day.  Every citizen who reads this essay should remember this lesson the next time he or she unthinkingly describes some phenomenon as amazing or incredible, or the next time they ask someone how they are and tells them to have a good day.

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You’ve Changed

 

Hi, Paul. Don’t you remember me? Not so long ago, you told me you loved me and that I made you feel loved. And, after I baked one for you, you said I was your cupcake.

When I met you, I wasn’t planning on falling in love…but I took one look and somehow knew. You made me feel like a kid again, as though I was falling in love for the first time…and then I realized it was the first time I had really fallen in love. When I met you, I didn’t realize how much that love would grow – how that first attraction would reach beyond passion to the comfort of knowing there was someone I could trust to always be there for me, to honestly love me.

On our first date, I remember we went back to my one-bedroom apartment after dinner, and you took me in your arms and we slow-danced around my living room. You were respectful enough to go home after kissing me good night, so when we arranged to meet again a week later, it felt more natural for us to become more intimate. I knew you were very successful in your job at the bank where you worked, and I could tell that you really liked me. Nonetheless, I was taken aback when, a year later, you asked how I would feel about selling my one-bedroom condominium and buying me a two-bedroom apartment in the same complex. I thought about it a little, but I could tell that it was your way of showing me I was important to you, so I agreed. Later, you remember, we sold the two-bedroom for a small house further north, and later still, we sold that house for an even larger one. I knew without a doubt…the luckiest day of my life was the day I met you.

Meanwhile, I was still working in an unimportant job in a large, impersonal office. Not only was it meaningless and boring, but it didn’t even pay well.   Once, we were talking about it, and you asked if I could have any job I wanted, what would it be? I knew right away that the business I would be excited to be in was to become my own boss as an independent antiques dealer. I imagined how I could buy old, used items, manage the inventory, and find the best marketplaces to sell them in at a profit.   I had even “dipped my toe in the water” by going to tag sales on weekends and listing my purchases for resale online. You were quite interested in my idea and said it was similar to equity trading in that my success depended on an ability to spot undervalued assets. When you suggested that I quit my office job and offered to help me start an antiques business, I couldn’t believe my good luck. That was the moment when I knew that I loved you with all my heart.

Once I’d thought about it though, I knew it wasn’t something I should have let you do. As long as I can remember, even as a kid, I’ve had a problem with money: it’s obvious it’s all tied up somehow with my lack of self-esteem, and while I know that, I don’t know how to deal with it or control it. I used to shop compulsively for clothes, and even though I had closets full, it seemed I only felt good when I was buying things, and I didn’t feel attractive without a constant supply of new clothes. Whenever I was unhappy or lonely or depressed or felt inadequate I would shop. I always had trouble paying the bills, but I couldn’t stop. When I got the “antique bug,” that became my compulsion. The hunt for treasure was addictive, and it seemed I had found a way to justify shopping: I could sell what I bought.

It was expensive getting started in the business, but you always regularly gave me a check every time you visited. Even when I had other expenses, like for my car or repairs for the house, you would always pay for them. And afterwards, we could relax in the house. I knew you had been disappointed in other relationships: your previous girlfriend was dishonest and didn’t take your love seriously, and the woman you had lived with when you first returned to the city was disrespectful and often expressed hostility toward you.   With me, I did everything I could to prove to you how much I loved you. And I would always send you different interesting greeting cards on Christmas, your birthday, and especially on Valentine’s day, and, I would always include a note expressing how important you were to me to let you know I was thinking of you.

Still, sometimes, you’d lose your temper with me about all my spending, and I hope it was the anger speaking when you said you gave me things to buy my love. I loved you for your sensitivity, your honesty, your sense of humor, your integrity, and your thoughtfulness – not for your money. It did bother me that I always seemed to be exchanging intimacy for financial assistance, but I believed that situation was just temporary and would be corrected when my antiques business finally took off. 

I’m not sure exactly when our happiness started to fade. You told me you were experiencing unaccountable mental lapses, after which you couldn’t remember obvious things. You’d seen doctors about it, but none of them seemed to recognize any of the symptoms. I let you know I would always love you no matter what happened, but that didn’t seem to encourage you the way it usually did. After that, you would still visit me at the house as usual, but when we’d talk about things, you didn’t always make sense, you wouldn’t remember what we’d talked about the day before, and then you’d give me a check, but you’d leave after a few hours without making love to me. At some point, you just stopped visiting me altogether.

Later, you phoned to say you weren’t going to visit anymore, that you realized you still loved the woman you had lived with earlier (the one who didn’t respect you, remember?) , and that you were marrying her. You said you were sorry if you were hurting my feelings, but your health was at stake, and, more than my feelings of love, you needed someone who was competent to deal with those challenges. I also got the impression that this other woman was more sophisticated than me about art, music, foreign travel, and generally in the finer things in life that weren’t just utilitarian.

Well, actually, Paul, your “dumping me” did hurt my feelings. I know I made you happier to be alive than you’d ever been before. I’m sorry about your medical condition, but I would have taken good care of you right up to the end, and, anyway, you know, nobody lives forever. Now, I have nothing against this other woman, beyond her stealing the man of my dreams, but I’m confident in saying that she doesn’t love you like I do. True love isn’t just fun and games but must encompass the element of truth that forms the basis for its validity. Anyway, I wish I could have been what you wanted me to be. I miss you so much and I love you always. No matter what else happens in our lives, I’ll always be your cupcake.

Looking back on it, two songs always remind me of you, Paul, and I often imagine myself singing them to you. One is called Once I Loved, and it was co-written by Filho Ney, Veloso Caetano Emmanuel, and Viana Teles. It was most movingly performed by Shirley Horn. These are the lyrics:

Once I loved,
And I gave so much to this love
You were the world to me

Once I cried,
At the thought I was foolish and proud,
And let you say goodbye

Then one day,
From my infinite sadness you came,
And brought me love again

Now I know,
That no matter whatever befalls,
I’ll never let you go
I will hold you close,
Make you stay

Because love,
Is the saddest thing
When it goes away

I will hold you close,
Night and day
Because love,
Is the saddest thing
When it goes away

The other song that makes me think of you is called You’ve Changed, it was written by William Carey and Carl Fischer, and it was most meaningfully performed by Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics are as follows:

You’ve changed
That sparkle in your eyes is gone
Your smile is just a careless yawn
You’re breaking my heart
You’ve changed

You’ve changed
Your kisses now are so blasé
You’re bored with me in every way
I can’t understand
You’ve changed

You’ve changed
You’ve forgotten the words I love you
Each memory that we’ve shared
You ignore every star above you
I can’t you believe you really cared

You’ve changed
You’re not the angel I once knew
No need to tell me that we’re through
It’s all over now
You’ve changed

 

 

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.

*************************************************************************************

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.

****

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, chemically-induced dependencies, 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 Simmons College, 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,  but 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, 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”.