Throwing Shade

It’s that time of year again, eagerly anticipated by some and dreaded by others. The Fair is back in town.

If you live in Hiawassee or Young Harris, or have to drive through them to get to work, you may be in the latter group. Our small towns are served by one highway with limited options for bypass, so the effects of any increase in traffic are magnified by constriction.

On the other hand, if you have been to Atlanta recently or do much driving outside our area, you may not even notice the traffic. It’s a matter of perspective.

Nevertheless, the summer months do generally see an increase in traffic here which peaks during the Fair. We’ll find out next month what an eclipse will do for traffic. The last total solar eclipse in the United States was in June of 1918. Traffic was not an issue, and we did not have the great instigator of the Internet to book every motel room and rental property in the area. Next month, millions of people across the US will travel to the narrow band where the eclipse will be total and spend approximately 7 minutes being reminded that we are all here together on a ball suspended in space.

It would behoove us to keep that fact in mind. The way we so often maneuver our gas burning climate controlled sports utility vehicles to be the first ones to the stop light,  one might think that we consider ourselves to be individual planetary systems on four wheels.

Here’s a thought experiment that might occupy our time while we’re waiting in traffic. Think of all the motors running around us – the ones that got us to the traffic light, the ones cooling the interiors of our vehicles as well as our homes while we drive. Think of every bit of asphalt we will cross, every structure we will see, every item on every shelf in every store and pretty much every single thing we will encounter during our climate controlled journeys from here to there. It was all brought to us by the burning of some kind of fuel.

Think of the billions of gallons of oil that were burned to create the world we think of as normal. Think of the wars that have been fought, and continue to be fought, to make it possible for us to consume what we so often take for granted: Millions of little independent planets rushing to be the first climate controlled enclosure to get to the drive through window.

We are all so very important these days, and there is nothing like a little traffic to remind us of just how important that is. Yet, we do share just the one planet, with its finite resources and limited space. Perhaps an eclipse of the sun will throw some shade on our colossal egos and remind us of our limits. A little humility, even seven minutes worth, would go a long way.

 

 

Garbage In, Garbage Out

We can understand the basics of how the brain works by thinking of it as a kind of difference engine. The brain processes a continuous flow of data from the senses, as well as data from its own internal functions, and it interpolates. It assumes, averages, fills in the blanks. This is why optical illusions work. It is also why memory is unreliable, and why some people see a butterfly in an ink blot and others see a bat.

“Difference engine” refers to a mechanical device first conceived by Hessian Army engineer, J. H. Müller, and later attempted by English polymath, Charles Babbage. These were the first inklings of what we now know as the “computer.”

A computer needs an operating system to function. Most of the human operating system, like a modern computer, is automated. The heart beats and blood circulates; we breathe; we digest food. On the cellular level, billions of chemical reactions occur at every moment, and the average human brain produces about .085 watts of electrical power (although some appear to produce considerably less). That’s enough, by the way, to charge an I Phone in about 70 hours.

So far our basic brain functions are on par with every other living thing, but humans have sophisticated proprietary software and tremendous storage capacity which, as far as we know today, may be unique in the Universe. We reason. We have a sense of time. We develop complicated algorithms for belief, fantasy, morality and religion, as well as countless other concepts far removed from the electrochemical processes going on inside our heads.

There is an acronym as old as the Information Age:  GIGO, or “garbage in, garbage out.” Computers that receive faulty data can never return accurate answers. We have understood the logic behind this bit of wisdom for much longer than we have understood computers. This is why so much time and expense is applied to education.

Unfortunately for our species, even the most sophisticated programs for producing educated, well rounded human beings are plagued by the limitations of our basic operating system. That OS was designed over thousands of years for surviving a great number of dangers and physical challenges. We were built to be able to quickly respond to these challenges by fighting or fleeing, and we are burdened or uplifted by an almost irrational desire to reproduce.

What happens when you install a sophisticated program onto an operating system that was designed for basic survival? Many things can happen. We can build pyramids, produce great works of art and literature or push back the boundaries of science. We can also fight over words and shoot each other over parking spaces. History contains a litany of horrors that testify to the glitches inherent in our programming.

We have understood the basic functions of the brain for a long time, and when we did not understand, we intuited. Whether by design or by accident, there have always been individuals and groups who were capable of affecting the programming of large numbers of operating systems like a computer virus. Marketing attempts to achieve this end every day. Political types seek to do it. That odd hybrid of business and government that we call “mainstream media” seeks to influence our programming every moment of every day.

Not all of the programming is bad. That which seeks to educate, to motivate or inspire for the good of the community, is always needed. The problem is that many of our programmers are allowed to move beyond motivation and inspiration to control, and to accomplish this control, whether for the purpose of selling soap or buying votes, the programming targets the survival subroutines built into our basic operating system. In order to sell soap and buy votes, they stimulate the fear, anger and lust that we inherit from our animal nature.

Programming us for viral responses is effective, and it is profitable. It also gets out of hand on a fairly regular basis, as anyone who has studied the history of war can tell you. But on a personal level, the place where we live our lives among our fellow humans, where we digest our food and sleep at night and where we try to maintain a healthy body/mind – too much of the wrong information makes us feel bad. It literally makes us sick.

Think about it. We wake up to a curated selection of bad things that happened overnight. Throughout the day,  every bad event that is horrific, or shocking or tacky enough to grab our attention is broadcast for our consumption. We digest our food with generous servings of fight-or-flight metabolites circulating throughout our bodies.

Many of us seem to forget that we are all capable of self-programming. We do it unconsciously in the repetitive behaviors that become our habits, but we can also do it with intent. We can choose at any moment to disconnect from the external programming, and we might be surprised to discover how smoothly we will run without all the constant updates.

It won’t be easy for some of us. Many of us are addicted to the neuropeptides that are produced by the constant stimulation of our reptile brains. But we can start with a simple, very personal question, a question that can be applied to every shooting and stabbing reported, every celebrity scandal, every imperial presidential tweet and just about every syllable uttered by every talking head out there:  Does this information enrich my life in any way?

So turn off the television. Shut down the web browser. Put down the phone. Select quality information in the same way you would shop for ingredients for a home cooked meal. You will find it in libraries, in books, in online courses or continuing education programs.  Granted, it’s more work this way, but it digests better, and it’s much healthier.

Snake Eyes

It’s hard to love a snake.

I know, all creatures great and small, but even though I am a snake supporter, I have to admit that there is something very snaky about a snake.

I had a pet King Snake in college. (It was just a phase.) I’ve captured beneficial snakes and brought them to the farm and I’ve relocated  other snakes. My official snake policy on the farm is “live and let live.” In fact, we have the same policy for all the creatures that share this space.

Except for Copperheads. Copperhead behavior and puppy behavior is not compatible. Copperheads just won’t get out of the way. They “bow up” and stand their ground and wait for you or one of your dogs to step on them. “Go ahead. Step on me. I dare you. I was here first and I’m not moving.”

I don’t relocate Copperheads, but I do relocate parts of Copperheads.

Rattlesnakes? No problem. We have co-existed here with timber rattlers for decades. Rattlesnakes are thoughtful enough to alert you to their presence, otherwise they are good at getting out of the way.

Snakes are just too beneficial to disrespect. They earn their keep in mice alone, and the only cost to me is watching where I put my feet. We could all use an occasional reminder to watch where we put our feet.

We don’t have water moccasins here in the North Georgia Mountains. Some people will argue with that, but I’ve never seen one, and the biologist for our Conservation Easement says that this area is outside their range. I’ll take the word of the person who can name every living thing you encounter when you walk with her in the woods.

We do have water snakes though, and they look enough like water moccasins to get your attention,  and – they are extremely snaky. They can also be aggressive. They like to jump out of a bush and into the water when you’re trout fishing. I think it amuses them to wait until the last minute when you’re almost directly under them.

Water snakes are spring-loaded, and they can jump an unbelievable distance. I saw one jump about 10 feet into the Chattooga River. The kid who disturbed him was in a canoe and decided to float over to a rock face and investigate a hole. The snake cleared his face by about 3 inches.

Fear makes you do illogical things. The poor kid screamed and jumped into the river – with the snake. When he realized what he had done, I swear that kid walked on water. I don’t blame him.

We have a water snake living in our frog pond. When you look at her head, there is no doubt that she is non-poisonous. She looks almost sweet, with a ghost of a Mona Lisa smile, and she has pretty eyes. I named her Hazel.

While Hazel’s visage is very becoming, if you come upon any other part of her unawares, there is a visceral reaction. The grab in the gut, the raised hairs on the arms and the tingle in the spine all shout, “Snake!” We’re trying to get used to each other, since the pond is right next to the garden. But even when I know it’s her with the pretty eyes, those intimidating markings and that serpentine slither do not inspire a warm cozy feeling.

The frogs in our pond are not very happy with Hazel as a neighbor. Some of them have moved to another nearby pond, and the ones that remain are not nearly as mouthy as they once were. There were far too many frogs in that pond for the available food supply, but thanks to Hazel, there is a better balance now. Nature always seeks balance, if we get out of the way and allow it to happen.

Got No Soul

When you have lived here long enough you start to forget what it’s like to be back in the rat race.   That’s OK. We want to forget. We came here to forget.

The rat race is, nevertheless, always available for those who want it, and some people thrive on it. It’s only a click away in a society intent on finding new ways to become connected. We are urged at every turn to login, to join in – to follow – the vast electronic network that reaches ever further, probing, collecting, and often manipulating. This web of impulses and opinions and motives has become almost a form of consciousness on its own, greater than the sum of its individual parts, though there are those who are ever intent on using it for their own purposes.

Some of us never disconnect from this increasingly global hive mind. Even here in our green valleys far from broken news updates, we bow our heads to the little glowing rectangles, and walk into walls or drive into ditches.  We expect instant access and constant updates to everything the hive declares important. Even the random thoughts fished from our own streams of consciousness are now so significant that they need to be instantly recorded and shared with our friends and indeed, with the world. As the Borg said to Captain Picard, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

I’m reminded of this assimilation when we go to the city on business. Without a mountain to lift our spirits,  a wooded path to sooth the soul, growing things to quicken the spirit, the sound of running water and the wind in the trees, the television gets turned on more often. The computer stays on. The smartphone, which doesn’t work at all at behind the mountain, comes alive with beeps and buzzes.

Handel. Ossoff. Ossoff, Handel. That’s all the television seemed to say on a recent stay in town. Each candidate said that the other one was dishonest, corrupt and bad for the country.  No one ever seemed to consider that they may have both been right.

Or wrong. But that’s how partisanship works, and after too many years of partisanship we have reached an inflection point in history where each side in this continuing conflict is convinced that their team is on the one true path to saving civilization. Each side is encouraged to believe that this is exactly what is at stake. Each team is the sole possessor of the truth. We’ve been here before, if that’s any consolation.

Oh, the spectacle of it all! The tens of millions of dollars spent. Wasted. The talking heads, the misleading polls, the celebrity tweets. There were those of us who hoped that the embarrassment of the entire 2017 political race would awaken some voters. The dishonesty and the raw cunning of the candidates, the political machines and the media was laid bare for all to see. But we did it all again, this time in Georgia, next time somewhere else.

So we elected a Republican in the 6th District. The tweets are tragic and triumphant, but nothing has changed, and nothing will change as long as the pendulum keeps swinging left and right, powered by the latest crisis. This election turned out not to be a referendum on Trump at all. Though the democrats outspent the republicans in multiples, and the same discredited coalition of celebrities and media giants  took their best shot in Georgia, they failed. They failed because they still don’t understand why they lost in 2017.

And what does the hive mind think of the election? It’s hard to say. It seems to be of two minds, at least in America. The creative front part of the mind, where a lot of democrat thoughts gather, is wasting away, caught up in visions and fantasies. The back of the brain, the part that is responsible for keeping the body alive and where republican thoughts are more at home, is consumed with thoughts of survival and often quite fearful.

The nation, just like a person, can function quite well with a brain divided by its basic functions as long as the mind is healthy, and what is mind but the central processing unit for the soul? But the national mind is not healthy. We have a splitting headache, and we’re beginning to think we might be bipolar.  We’ve lost contact with our national soul, and we’re not quite sure who is calling the shots, or what direction we’re headed. Our mind is in a bitter tug of war between fantasy and fear. We need to find our soul connection again before something breaks.

To Catch a Thief

Most of us have experienced theft at some point in our lives. Anger is a normal response, but a sting of betrayal can follow, for thieves take more than material possessions. They take peace of mind and faith in humanity.

Some thieves steal out of need or desperation. Some do it for the thrill. Some thieves are as blunt as a bludgeon. Some are as cunning as a politician. Woody Guthrie said, “As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen.”

Like most places on Earth, we have our share of theft. The crime rate here in the peaceful valleys of North Georgia is lower than in many parts of the world; lower than many places within our own state.  We have some break-ins and other incidents, but we rarely have to endure anything as dramatic as the nightly shooting report from the city. For this, we are ever grateful.

There is another kind of crime, however, that is not uncommon in our area. It is rarely prosecuted. It is not even considered a crime by some of its well-heeled perpetrators. This crime happens all over the country where there are old farms and old buildings, places that the uninformed or insensitive might consider neglected or abandoned.

The perpetrators of this crime sometimes look just like you and me. They are well mannered and often well-regarded members of our community. Like many of us, they might appreciate quaint old things or enjoy collecting antiques and such. You may even know some of these people yourself, people who do not “need” to steal anything.

Unfortunately they seem to have a misguided notion that it is acceptable to rummage about private properly if that property appears sufficiently remote, neglected, or “abandoned,” as some have said. They seem to believe that stealing from an old farm is “rescue” or “salvage.”

You, dear reader, know better. You know that old houses, old barns and old out-buildings may look abandoned. They may actually be neglected. But this does not mean that they are not cherished. Sometimes here in the country we let our old buildings take their own time returning to the ground. They hold memories, better than any photograph ever could, and there is a quiet kind of dignity in just letting them be.

We know that some people disagree, but if we had a microscope, we would still be unable to locate the slightest interest in a drive-through opinion of what constitutes an “eyesore.”

This does not mean that we don’t appreciate beauty and order. We respect natural order and live according to its rhythms. We believe that what time and nature do to old farms, old buildings, and old people – is beautiful. Nevertheless, we still sigh with sadness at the sagging roof or the cracked window at the place where our grandmother once greeted children with smiles and sweetbread. We miss the carpet of flowers that used to decorate the neighbor’s farmhouse, before his wife passed away and arthritis limited his ability to garden. Some of us wish that the job that kept us on the road so much had given us more time to drive an extra nail or pull more weeds. There are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in a lifetime.

Some of us wish that our backs were straighter, that we still had the strength to mend the old barn where we were mighty in our youth, where our children learned about life and death and where our grandchildren played before they all grew up and moved away. When we look out the window and see someone digging up bulbs from the old “neglected” flower bed, they are digging in our memories.  When they put a shoulder to that closed door, and then carry out something “quaint” and “abandoned,” we are wounded. We feel an anger that would call down lightning, and when that passes, we feel the weight of the years even more.

Now as to the thief who is the subject of this week’s discussion, we must assume you are smart enough to read a newspaper. You were smart enough to earn the money to buy the new SUV you drove. Chances are that you might not even consider yourself a thief, but you are. Be advised: Some of us who love old places still have strong backs,  very likely stronger than yours. We are the ones who put up the posted signs that you chose to disregard and climbed the trees to hang security cameras, in the shadows. You won’t see them. But we will see you.We were reluctant to do all this, but you, and others like you, keep coming, and digging, and taking.

In a quiet, remote grove of an old homestead there is an old log barn that was built a century ago. It is a simple structure, but a family treasure. The roof is kept in good repair. The sills are still sound and the little barn sits high and dry above the ground. You came quite a distance through the woods, thief, to get to that barn. You damaged the frame when you pried off the door. It wasn’t locked.  Maybe you thought that you would take it with you, but it was too heavy to carry. You forced out a beam from the wall, leaving an ugly gap in the side of the barn. Your desire for that “quaint” old beam did not come close to justifying your theft. It was a load bearing beam, and now the entire wall sags. Left unattended the whole structure would soon have fallen to the ground, after all these years.

The wall will be repaired, but a memory of the quality of your character will persist, as well as an electronically preserved image of your face.  Remember those cameras we mentioned earlier? They take remarkable pictures.  Don’t come back.

A Sailor’s Story

The number of Americans who have died in battle since the Revolutionary War is 657,946. When we look at that number printed on the page in black in white, it does not cry out. It does not tell the stories of the men and women who died. It does not speak of the bravery and the sacrifice, not of the soldiers who died nor the families who watched them go away to war, never to return.

Politicians are good at telling us about bravery and sacrifice. Few, very few of them ever serve. Fewer still have ever seen battle. But they are good at talking about it, and about how everyone who dies has contributed to the great cause. The speeches have not changed much since the Revolutionary War.

War is ugly. It is chaotic and messy. It usually takes a couple of generations for us to find out, but war is rarely about the reasons given by the politicians. War is usually always about business and politics, though stating that may be somewhat redundant.

My father was drafted to serve in WWII in 1944 when he lost his student deferral. He lost that deferral when my grandfather voted for the wrong person in a local election, or so he was told by someone on the draft board at the time. Nevertheless, Dad thought that serving his country was the right thing to do, so he went willingly.

My father went through basic training for the Navy in, of all places, central Texas. So many GI’s were being processed at such a rapid rate in 1944 that the Navy was using every available facility for training. Dad’s swim test consisted of being herded across an irrigation ditch with a bunch of other recruits. He “couldn’t swim a lick,” he used to say, but the ditch was shallow enough that he could bounce on the tips of his toes while waving his arms.

After basic training he was garrisoned near Terminal Island outside of Los Angeles while waiting for his ship to arrive. Dad always loved music and he was an excellent dancer. In high school he had even won a couple of ribbons in dance competitions at the John C. Campbell Folk School. So when Dad and his buddy heard that Tommy Dorsey was playing in town one weekend, they were determined to see him. They slipped off the base on a Friday night and made their way to the club where Tommy was playing. They figured the risk was worth this once in a lifetime chance.

As luck would have it, dad’s friend and his partner won a dance contest that night. There were reporters in the club following Tommy Dorsey and flash bulbs popping. Someone snapped a picture of the contest winners, which appeared in the local paper the next day.

The Navy was not amused, but the War in the Pacific was heating up and the authorities had no intention of wasting two freshly trained and badly needed sailors. Nevertheless, they confined Dad and his friend to their barracks for a couple of days – just long enough for them to miss their ship. While they waited for the next available berth, that ship was sunk and went down with all hands.

For months, everyone back home thought that my dad had been killed; everyone, that is, except for my grandmother, who prayed morning and night for him. She was a woman of Faith, and she knew that he was still alive.

During his two years at sea, Dad survived typhoons, torpedoes and kamikaze attacks. He had so many near misses that for the rest of his life, he attributed his survival to his mother’s prayers.

Six hundred and fifty seven thousand, nine hundred and forty six stories. Perhaps now, one more of those numbers is something more than a number. Many of you have your own stories. Never forget them. Pass them on. We need to remember each and every one of them, every time the politicians come around waving the flag. They speak such beautiful and inspirational words when they send us to war, but most of them will never know what that flag really means.

 

 

Shocking

Faced with a choice between being ignorant or being depressed, the bliss of ignorance begins to look more attractive. Being informed is hard work, and since fact can also lead to cognitive dissonance, it doesn’t always make us feel good.

Being entertained is much easier. Nevertheless, some of us still prefer knowledge. Peddlers of media realize this, and they are also very aware of our tendency to rubberneck at the scene of an accident. So the facts they present are often dire, urgent, and breaking. Their facts have shock value to get our attention, but we can only stand to be shocked for so long. This is a win-win for the peddlers, as we are soon driven to consume entertainment to assuage the pain of being shocked.

Those of us who still want to be informed consume action-scene-live-breaking commentary in an effort to seek knowledge, and we consume entertainment to ease the pain of the harsh reality of broken news. Every year that passes finds more of us skipping right over being informed and going straight to entertainment.

Network ratings are high this year on the heels of a very painful (though not very factual) presidential election. Many people simply refuse to discuss politics now. This is unfortunate, but understandable. However, the disdain for knowledge is expanding to include world events and scientific advancement. We can all remember the last conversation we had about “Dancing with the Stars” or the latest sports scores, but when was the last time we discussed a documentary?

The largest single group of people eligible to vote last year – did not. Those of us who did vote have done little to entice non-voters into our camp. We, the fact seeking voters of the United States of America, are partisans. We suffer in various degrees from confirmation bias, allowing only those facts which agree with our preconceived notions to penetrate momentarily into our consciousness. We are so partisan, in fact, that we make value judgments about world events and decisions by our elected officials based, not on merit, but on political affiliation.

So we gather here this week in yet another attempt to overcome partisanship and transcend confirmation bias while we seek the truth. To aid in this quest, we offer you something to rubberneck at the scene of an accident of historic proportions in a long and ongoing emergency. It is shocking in its own right, but doubly so because of the fact that so many people have overlooked it. If it does not shock, we hope that it will at least offend. Offense also increases the flow of blood to the brain.

Without further delay, here is the statement most shocking: President Trump and President Obama are very similar, and in some ways identical.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming. It occurred to me while watching a video of Trump’s entourage and Saudi royals in a traditional dance with swords to celebrate “peace after war.” This, after the largest single arms deal in history. One could choke on the irony.

You see, Obama, the Nobel laureate, was overall the biggest arms dealer in history. Not to be outdone, Trump has already penned the single biggest arms deal in history barely 100 days into his first year.

Obama ran on hope and change for the middle class and the oppressed and spoke of peace in our time. He abruptly packed his cabinet with Wall Street bankers and war hawks, bombed someone somewhere every day for eight years and instituted a program of global assassination. Trump ran on a platform of “draining the swamp,” and then abruptly packed his cabinet with Wall Street bankers and war hawks.  Obama talked of a world free from nuclear weapons, and then spent over a trillion dollars upgrading the US arsenal. Trump accused Secretary Clinton of being a warmonger for her suggestion that we bomb Assad, then soon after getting elected, launched a cruise missile attack against Assad.

No doubt there are distinct differences between the two presidents. Obama abandoned his campaign promises by redefining terms and violating the spirit if not the letter of those promises. Obama was more sophisticated while Trump is more blunt and abrupt, already flipping positions on NATO, China, Russia, The Federal Reserve, and most recently, Islamic terrorism.

Both presidents ran, or rather “postured” against the establishment, but as Sam Husseini of Vote Pact wrote recently, they simply “rebranded” the establishment.

I saw an economic analysis recently which demonstrated that earning power for Americans peaked with those born in 1942. Washington has been occupied almost exclusively by Democrats and Republicans (and lobbyists) since then, so it would be almost impossible to blame this political philosophy or that for the decline in our fortunes. Yet we still do. We are supposed to. Our blame and our partisanship is essential for business to continue as usual.

In all these years, throughout all the arguments over social justice, fiscal policy, immigration, abortion and gun control, gender studies, wars on drugs and wars on concepts, with the changing tides and shifting sands of party platforms and talking points, we have seen quite a show. Somehow we were so distracted by the theater that we often failed to notice that our pockets were being picked. We failed to notice that the same companies always prospered. The same lobbyists stayed in Washington year after year. We failed to notice that every president, no matter what their party or platform, was always the chief salesman for the biggest arms dealer on the planet.

Are you beginning to notice yet?