World War Whatever-it-is

"*The* World War." Would that it were so. So many dead that if there's room in the cemetery for an individual marker, it might have only initials, if any identification at all. And more bones on the pile every day, in every corner of the world.

“*The* World War.” Would that it were so. So many dead that if there’s room in the cemetery for an individual marker, it might have only initials, if any identification at all. And more bones on the pile every day, in every corner of the world.

My meanderings in old cemeteries offer frequent reminders that poverty and hunger, natural dangers, and lack of medical advances or resources were far from the only causes of early and numerous deaths among our forebears. Chief among the causes is—and I fear, will always be—ignorance. All one has to do is spy a few headstones marking the graves of persons killed in The War, the World War, or even the so-called Great War to realize that despite terrible, lengthy, massive battles and wars in ages past, our more recent ancestors still believed that one war would ‘end all wars’ and that it was an anomaly. We should be so astute and peace-loving. Instead, we always find new ways to mistreat and murder our fellow beings, and the rate of discovery for cures and self-improvements never quite keeps up with the pace of our ills, let alone outruns them.

Photo: "World War"

“World War.” The End. If only.

The Emperor’s Newest Costume

An Empire never gave good reason why

It ought to rule instead of native sons

And daughters, who, if they survive the guns

And carpet-bombing, still might long to die,

For terrible and bitter is the rule

Of anyone who dares to steal the throne

Of any land or country not his own,

Who often trades a despot for a fool,

Or worse, fool for a despot, and the land

And all its people suffer at the change,

No better, oft enough, and ever strange,

Without the hope and strength to countermand

The awful miseries imposed by those

Who choose to rule as wolves in ovine clothes.

Photo: Flag-waving

Let this be a lesson to us all. Seems to me that flags are better planted in our own hearts and front gardens than on others’ turf.

10 Terrible Words that Shouldn’t Exist in Any Language

Digital text-illustration: 10 Terrible WordsOne person who hates is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. One who cares and shares? Perhaps the only antidote.

As I recently said to my friend Maryam: poverty—both of concrete, material resources like food and shelter, and of intellectual and ephemeral resources (education, spiritual enrichment, the arts, community engagement, etc)—seems to me to be perpetrated and perpetuated more by selfishness than by an actual shortage of any of those resources. The rich and powerful always want more riches and power, and what they do have makes them able to afford and acquire more and to keep their feet firmly on the backs of the have-nots. Plenty is never enough. The resulting imbalance is as old as history, and rotten as ever. Only those who will speak up and resist entrenched inequities and injustices will have any hope of making change.Photo montage: Wolverine & Badger

The badger and the wolverine have a reputation for being among the most tenaciously savage brutes of all the mammals. Yeah, Honey Badger even has his own meme to show for it. But let’s be honest: no beast of earth, air, or sea has a capacity for vile, rapacious cruelty rivaling that of the human animal. Even creatures of the natural enmity of predator and prey compete, fight, kill, and are sated. They have little apparent ideation of hatred and war to match people’s. A wolverine or badger will fight to defend, or to kill for food, but unlike the human, doesn’t seem inclined to attack indiscriminately outside of its primal needs for safety, shelter, and food; when the skirmish is done as efficiently as possible and the need assuaged, the sharpest of tooth and reddest of claw among them doesn’t do an end-zone dance to celebrate its pleasure in winning but will usually depart the scene or go to rest for the next time of need. The remaining food and shelter and other resources stay in place for whatever creature comes next, hunter or hunted, cousin or not.

Can we humans not learn from such a thing? I’m pretty sure that if we destroy each other and ourselves in our constant self-righteous, self-congratulatory belief that we deserve everything we can get our hands on, Honey Badger won’t be the only creature that doesn’t care.


Graphite drawing: Self-Inflicted“Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.” It’s part of my credo, I guess, and may well have been aided in its development by doing those hilariously futile duck-and-cover atomic bomb drills of the Cold War era. And the air raid drills—we lived in a Ground Zero area near several military bases, strategic coast, and a handful of Nike missile sites in those days—fire drills, earthquake drills, tsunami drills, and later when we lived in the midwest, tornado drills. You’d think we’d all have grown up incredibly paranoid after such stuff in childhood. But I think that besides being remarkably resilient, kids use logic on such daily puzzles far better than they remember how to do when they hit adulthood and have been taught their prejudices, and are much more easily distracted and blinded by grey areas.

I don’t remember ever believing that crouching under a flimsy little wood-and-steel desk would save me even from the shrapnel of shattering windows and imploding walls in the event of an attack or large-scale disaster, particularly since I imagined the desk itself would become shrapnel along with everything else in the atomizing roar of a bombing. Little and naïve though we were, we had gleaned hints of the enormity of such things from our beginning school studies of the world history of war (skewed to our own culture’s view, of course); no matter how grownups think they’re shielding kids by sanitizing and limiting the information the wee ones are allowed to see and hear, children are quick to notice the blank spaces where redacted information interrupts the flow of facts, and no adult is more curious than a child to hunt for clues as to what was redacted. Frankly, if there really is any use for an institution like the CIA in this day and age when practically anyone can find out practically anything with the aid of easily accessible tools like the internet, cellular phone, and, apparently, privately owned drones, along with all of the more traditional tools of spy-craft, I suggest that the crew best equipped to uncover any facts not in evidence would probably be a band of children all under the age of about twelve.

Meanwhile, we still have large numbers of people who think it prudent to withhold or skew the information passed along to not only kids but even fellow adults, giving out misguided or even malevolent half-truths or remaining stubbornly silent and in full denial about things considered too dark for others’ knowledge. And what do we gain from this? Are there truly adults among us who still think that even smallish tots can’t quickly discern the differences between a fable or fairytale, no matter how brutish and gory it may be, and the dangers and trials of real-world trouble? Does delusion or deception serve any purpose, in the long run, other than to steer us all off course in search of firmer, more reliable realities?

As I just wrote to my dear friend Desi, it seems to me that the majority of humans always assume a fight-or-flight stance in new or unfamiliar circumstances before allowing that these might be mere puzzles to decipher, and more importantly, we assume the obvious solution to be that whatever is most quickly discernible as different from self IS the problem. Therefore, if I’m white, then non-white is the problem; if I’m female, then male. Ad infinitum. And we’re generally not satisfied with identifying differentness as problematic until we define it as threatening or evil. This, of course, only scratches the surface—quite literally, as the moment we get past visible differences we hunt for the non-visible ones like sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, and so on.

Unless and until we can change this horribly wrongheaded approach on a large scale, we’ll always have these awful problems, from petty playground scuffles right into the middle of the final mushroom cloud. The so-called justice systems of the world are set up and operated by the same flawed humans who make individual judgements, so the cycle is reinforced at all levels. Sometimes it truly makes me wonder how we’ve lasted this long.

Can we learn from kids? The younger the person, the more likely to blurt out the truth, whether it’s welcome or not. The subtleties of subterfuge are mostly wasted on children, who unless they’re engaged in happy storytelling for purposes of amusement and amazement, would rather be actively puzzling out the wonders of life than mucking about in search of evasive answers and duck-and-cover maneuvers. We might gain a great deal by reverting a little to a more innocent and simplistic view of the universe, one that blithely assumes that others are not always out to get us, that direness and doom aren’t lying open-jawed around every blind corner, and that the great powers of the internet and cell phones might just as well bear cheery tidings of goodness and kindness, and drones be removed from deployment as spies and weapons to work instead at delivering birthday presents to friends and packets of food to hungry strangers.

I’m not fooled into thinking any of this is easy to do, any more than any savvy kid would be, but I’m willing to believe it’s possible if more and more of us will commit to such ideals.

Empathy over Courage

Bravery is a rare commodity. Many people who think they’re being brave only dare to do so from within a like-minded group, however small in number, and when they are genuinely in the minority spend more energy on protesting that the majority from which they’re excluded is unfair and unjust than on doing anything useful to change it. It may be true—knowing human nature, often probably is true—that one’s opposition is no exemplar of justice and fair-mindedness. But we’re seldom willing or able, ourselves, to make a cleanly balanced assessment and especially, to act wisely and compassionately on it either. We’re generally convinced that anyone else having anything good means less goodness for ourselves, and that that is a terrible thing.

What impresses me more than bravery, real or imagined, is seeing anyone express real empathy for others through their own beliefs, lives, and actions. I tend to doubt that we’re capable of doing or even wanting very lofty things, but I also think that small doses of empathy will go ever so much further than any amount of derring-do and action-figure heroics in bettering the world and the human condition within it. Daring to let another person be richer or more privileged than me or to have the last word, even when I’m fairly sure I’m smarter, closer to correct, or more deserving requires quite a different sort of courage than running into danger in anyone’s defense or their stead.

But treating others with such respect seems to me far more likely than argument and defensiveness, self-protection and fear, to get anyone to trust and respect me in turn. So shines a good deed. The unselfish willingness to accept another person’s reality as valid even when it might cost me something significant is a kind of courage I dream of having, hope to learn.Graphite drawing: Reach Down to Raise Up

A Plague on All Our Houses

Even the most steadfastly unquestioning among believers in various versions of mainline religions will allow that, if their deity cares for them as a shepherd cares for sheep, their own religions, yes, even their own temples, mosques, and churches, sometimes harbor wolves in sheep’s clothing. Partisans of every political and philosophical school of thought have seen the unmasking of many such monsters that have hidden behind the guise of goodness and faithfulness, selflessness and judiciousness, or at least experienced the dire effects those have on the lives of the truly committed. There are reasons most languages have such large inventories of words like heretic and traitor, infidel, apostate, renegade, impostor, infiltrator, double agent, betrayer, and hypocrite.
Digital illustration: A Pox on Both Your Houses!

So it astounds me every day that such experienced, otherwise reasonable people are either afraid, or simply refuse, to regularly and thoroughly question and examine the sources of their information, whether they are people or inanimate forms of evidence. Even among the most dedicated, wise, and well-meaning persons the human flaws we all bear cause mistakes and missteps. The most widely accepted proofs of truth may have come about by means of equally imperfect human study and the telephonic accidents of human transcription and translation. No matter how inspired the origin of the wisdom, it can’t be guaranteed to get to the page and from hand to hand, meeting to meeting, one end of the surprisingly not flat earth to the other, without sometimes being misinterpreted or co-opted, whether it’s by the false sheep in the flock or by our own good intentions.

All I can say is that if such stubbornness against rigorously examining our beliefs and every source of them is at its roots a terror of self-examination, we are doomed. We will forever repeat the grim side of human history, by acting out of doubt, cowardice, and ignorance, assumptions that have as much chance of being incorrect as not, and hidebound inability to see the wolves in our very midst for fear of discovering our own culpability. Circling each other with rapiers drawn and fighting to uphold traditions or beliefs or codes that we have so ingrained that they are unquestioned no matter how wrong, we will only deserve the curse of Shakespeare’s Mercutio—who, by the way, may or may not have said “A plague a’ both your houses,” in the original text, but various scholars over the years have guessed at such a reconstruction of it. Even Shakespeare, that demigod of English literature, is only as reliable a source as the many readers and interpreters since his time can determine, assuming that there was one playwright and poet of that name and not, as some believe, some cadre of the great literary minds of that era. Don’t get me started.

I will say right out that I know full well that I am guilty of being poorly or misinformed on a host of topics, and a stubbornly slow learner on top of that. I am trying, however I may stumble along the way, to grow beyond such ossified thinking. If only we could all begin with the premise that the fault might be not in our stars but in our selves, I think we might discover that our reliance on incomplete or incorrect information puts us constantly at risk for inner and outer conflicts we ought to have laid aside or, better yet, avoided altogether. The Other Guy might in fact deserve a listen, and acting first, asking questions later is not a conversation but is likely instead to end in swords crossed and lives lost. Acting in haste or acting in hate, the result may be the same because we were ill prepared to ask the right questions, let alone come to a wise and humane conclusion as a result. There are, sadly and unquestionably, baddies among us. But even so, if we all insist on clinging to our own versions of the truth without regularly and rigorously questioning their verity, then the attack we are all under begins inside, not from any external enemy, real or imagined.

Stars Everywhere

Photo montage: Stars in the DarknessThis world is a dark place. War and strife, fear, hunger, hatred, greed, self-righteousness, and poverty gnaw the bones of suffering people on every continent at every hour. And all of these menaces are, in accordance with early expressions of the idea of Tragedy, nearly entirely the making of our own species.

Little hope, at least in my mind, of that sorrowful truth changing as long as our species continues to dominate the planet. We are deeply flawed. Even the finest among us tend to forget themselves and their mortal limits at time; regardless of how educated, high-minded and genuinely well-meant their attitudes and actions may be, it’s sadly true that underlying those attitudes and actions is a firm belief in their rightness. Only natural that it’s hard, from that perspective, to allow that others might have an equal possibility of being right, or at least as wise and well-meaning, as they themselves are, and to show them the full respect of that acceptance.

What, then, of accepting life among my fellow flawed beings in this imperfect world? No comfort is found in denial or in persistently, aggressively resisting what may not have the possibility of ever changing. But to accept this grimness as an eternal truth and let it lie like lead on my soul is no help, either.

I look to the stars.

Physical stars exist in a surprising number of places, many lower and commoner than the depths of the sky, and I look to them and rally as I realize that they stand, every one, as beacons reminding me of what is good not only in the nature in which we imperfect beings live, but what is good within us as well. Small as our fineness may seem, individually and corporately, at times, it does exist, and if there is to be any hope of overcoming the dark, it must come from the nurturing of every little glint seen starring that darkness.

I look to the stars in the indigo distance of the sky, sparkling like promises of better things as they look back at me. I look to the lesser stars of reflected light that dazzle on earth, the  diamond dashes on every body of water and glimmering in every eye, never mind among real gems and the many things made expressly to be beautiful and good and positive. I look, more than anywhere else, at the multitude of stars that shine from the hearts of good and true people, people who are thoughtful and generous, merciful and hardworking, and kind and loving, sometimes despite and against the dark things of this world, and often, wonderfully, for the sole reason that they were made to be such earthly stars.

Remembering Them All

Memorial Day is a US holiday begun after the American Civil War to recognize and honor the service and sacrifices of soldiers killed in the line of duty.

I have an immeasurable horror of war and every single thing associated with it.Photo: Memorial Day 1

But on our recent visit to Puerto Rico, as we were walking around the museum ruins of  a fortress in San Juan, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, looking at the remains of its heavy battlements, at its cannons and their tracks in the gunneries, at the sparse quarters of the soldiers who served there, and at the museum signs telling the stories of El Morro’s past, I remembered too that the vast majority of the people who are involved in wars hate them as much as I do. War is chosen and declared by a tiny minority in even those bands or nations that instigate the wars. The rest, soldiers included, pretty much have it thrust upon them, and I can’t imagine anyone who dies in battle had any desire to do anything other than to defend or capture whatever or whomever he or she was sent to defend or capture, and go home peacefully. Even some of those who declare the wars and enlist willingly to fight in them probably often have done so with a sense of rightness, if not righteousness, in the cause.Photo: Memorial Day 2

I looked around the Castillo and, for all of its historical interest and the beauty of its locale and weathered stone walls, the birds and iguanas and wildflowers decorating it quaintly, what I saw was a memorial to the many lives lost, soldiers and civilians, natives and outsiders, adults and children, the good and the bad alike. All because humans aren’t famously good at sharing their world with each other and resolving conflicts without violence. I will always have a horror of war and all the loss of life that it brings.Photo: Memorial Day 3

But I am, honestly, grateful to those who have—willingly or not—paid with their own lives for the lives and welfare of others, and I remember them not only on this designated day but every time I pause to reflect on the high cost of peace for our oxymoronically named species, man-kind. Seems to me that there’s no better way to honor soldiers for their service and sacrifice than to end the potential for any more such work and eliminate all wars forevermore.Photo: Memorial Day 4