Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Sudden Death for Thirty Classmates

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Thirty of my high school classmates wiped out in a few seconds! Did disaster strike a class reunion? No, in truth they have been dying one by one over the years, while I was unaware of it, just as I was unaware of any details of cialis their lives. But reading the list of the names of the deceased, as I did recently, was like reading in the paper that they had all been mowed down at the same time, and I was shaken.

This experience has made me realize how my life, divorced from contact with anyone from that time in my past, has been unrealistic in a certain way, shielded from the strongest material evidence of mortality, the numerous deaths of those my own age with whom I shared the rather unhappy years of my adolescence. Suicide and heart attacks and causes unknown to me—accident? AIDS? cancer?—have brought them down. The total represents roughly ten percent of our class, which seems reasonable, though the list is probably incomplete. Of the thirty dead, twenty-two ambien were male.

Some of the names on the list I merely recognize as belonging to a classmate but associate with no face or personality. A couple of names are even below that level of recognition. A few names evoke phantoms I can almost but not quite make out clearly. Some names are attached to persons or events that have survived in my memory. Here are some I remember, without mentioning names.

The girl and boy whom I and the rest of the class gathered around to watch dance the “dirty bop” at the seventh grade Christmas party—they’re both dead. That girl whose ass caught my attention with such curious force (as I watched her walk out of the room one time in the seventh grade) that the event seems to have marked the beginning of a new phase in my life, as if some dormant primate instinct came to life at that moment—she’s not moving now, or ever again. The senior football player, whom I saw brutally put a sophomore player in his place (I picked a tooth up off the ground)—he’s no longer commanding respect on this Earth. The catcher that threw me out at third base in “Show Me Where It Hurts: Memory Illuminates a Few Moments of My Baseball Career” is gone as well. Our exuberant male cheer leader—silent now as old Marley. Dead also is the boy I envied as he related how a neighbor kid’s older sister had called him into her bedroom for an initiation I could only dream of.

My friend with the Ford convertible, one of only a couple of boys with whom I could talk about books, God, life, and death, now knows nothing—or perhaps everything—about what we pondered then. My fellow unexpected National Merit Finalist—he’s been dead some twenty years. A girl xanax whom I imagined to have suffered, as one deemed so unattractive must, feels neither suffering nor joy anymore in this life. A boy that later served voluntarily in Vietnam and survived the war, now rests in endless peace. Another who went to West Point (and Vietnam too?)—also dead. An odd fellow I really didn’t like, who once in the ninth grade invited me to meet him after school for a “friendly fight,” is now among those I’ll never meet again in this life. How could that boy I knew as such a lively, smiling kid in junior high, before he slipped into the background for me, have come to such a static, stolid end? The boy I resembled superficially, whose name a friend would tease me with, owes any current resemblance to the embalmer.

Also on the list of the dead is a guy with whom I shared a hair-raising (for me) ride home from an out-of-town football game as he drove at high speed on the city streets; we stopped to retrieve beer from the back of a building, the site where he had earlier in the evening used the full beer cans as missiles in a battle with someone encountered on the way to the game. Had he tried to escape there, only to find himself cornered? Or had he and a different passenger been the pursuers? I never understood what had happened. The chance for him to clarify has passed away with his existence.

I’ve written this piece to convey the shock that I experienced on learning of all these deaths at once and then the contemplation I fell into about this new knowledge. I remembered some of the dead and have presented a few images of them, just to cast the light of memory on a moment or two of their lives. The moments I remember are by the nature of memory—mine anyway—ones that stand out because of something out of the ordinary in my experience, and thus they are not at all of the sort to give a full and undistorted picture of the person. Should any of my surviving classmates read this (and I know at least one will), I request you not to ask me about the identity of any of the people in these memories. Read the names and see what images your own memory pulls up. As far as relevance to the lives of those dead classmates goes, I could have made up my memories. To me these memories made the people real again, though, and let me experience more intensely the knowledge that they have left this world forever, trailblazers for the rest of us in the class, whose names will all surely join theirs on the list of the departed within the next three decades.

Something on Memories

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

This post is going to be about memories, at least as I experience them. I just tallied up the number of posts to this blog that are what one could call reminiscences. I think they are the ones that resonate the most with people, and the majority of the “Best Of” posts are in that category. I was a little surprised that there were only ten. That’s out of a total of thirty-four posts since I started this blog at the end of last February. That’s somewhat encouraging since I know that the number of memories I can use here is easily countable, though I can’t know the actual number.

Just to categorize all the posts so far, there have also been ten posts devoted to recent personal experiences, including three in the special category of computer troubleshooting experiences and one dream; five that were partly in the nature of research articles (e.g. on Ronnie Knox and the Large Hadron Collider critics); two commercial announcements about my science education software; two in the broad social/political observation category; one science observation; two that were basically thanking other bloggers (might have been included in recent experiences); and two miscellaneous ones, including the short introductory post.

I’ve thought a lot about memory lately, not just from reading Proust, but more from writing here. I’m realizing something obvious: it’s as though most of the events of my past life lie in darkness or in semi-darkness, where all the daily details are irretrievably lost, and only the rough outlines of routine can be distinguished, except for scattered spots of illumination, and even they are sometimes more penumbra than clear light. I remember something of my first day of school, for example, but nothing of the first day of second grade. I remember saying goodbye to my parents in the parking lot of the rundown private dorm I stayed in during my first semester at the University of Texas, but nothing about the first day of any other year as an undergraduate, or even much more about that day. Where did I eat that evening? I have no idea.

For me, looking into the past is like stumbling through a completely dark house and suddenly coming to a place where a magic window lets in enough light to illuminate a small area, allowing me to see, not just a place, but across time. For example, I remember clearly what the woman I would marry the next summer looked like for a moment at age nineteen in the backyard of her family home near the Texas coast. The memory is like a one-second film clip, complete with weather conditions, locale, and my feeling at the time; the rest of my first visit—how long I stayed, what we did, etc.—has fallen into oblivion.

For the past few months I’ve been jotting down events from my past that I might want to write about here. I scan the list for ideas, and I never know when a particular one (say the FBI interview) will become the one that bubbles to the top to take my attention. What I’m realizing is that practically everything I can remember, excluding things I would not write about for reasons of privacy (mine or others’), is a potential topic for a blog post, for I just don’t remember much that wasn’t significant in some way in my life, or at least seemed so by its novelty at the time.

How accurate are my memories? There’s nothing to compare them with in almost all cases, so I can’t really know for sure. Still, I feel certain about almost everything I write, and I note when there are uncertainties. Just a few days ago, I wrote (My Appointment with the FBI and a Long-Delayed Connection) that I couldn’t remember whether, in advance of my interview with the FBI, I had considered that they might have been calling me in to seek information on the SLA. Now I feel almost certain that I had considered that possibility and had actually been hoping that was the reason. Almost certain; but, since I wasn’t certain at first, I have to wonder slightly if it’s not reasoning more than memory at work. I now think I felt relief but no surprise at the sight of the SLA photos. The surprise of having my name linked to the handwriting of Nancy Ling Perry and an SLA safe house may have washed back over the original view of the photos in my memory, thus making me uncertain about whether I’d considered the possibility beforehand, as I tried to recall the event. I wrote that last post while I was still recovering from a bad cold, which may have affected my power of memory and discernment.

When writing about my bicycle accident in Times I Might Have Died, I kept going back and forth on whether to report that I had cytotec gone flying over the handlebars when I hit the wall. I could vaguely picture it, but I couldn’t convincingly feel it, so I decided it might not have happened; and I couldn’t in good conscience describe it, even though I thought it might well have happened. Perhaps it happened some other time. It doesn’t matter except that I would like to know and tell just to have that detail correct. I wish some particular detail would come back to nail down the candidate memory as a true memory or to definitively reject it.

There are some memories of habitual activities, I’m realizing. The thought of biking in my childhood in Eastland, Texas, has brought up the memory of a metal culvert that lay partly above ground, and over which my sister and I had to ride our tricycles when we circumnavigated our block; but we went over it many times. It was along a stretch where there were no houses fronting the street and no sidewalk, as I remember it.

OK, scratch the hasty assertion of the previous paragraph. Having had a short time for the memory to complete itself, I’m now sure the reason that the culvert came so clearly into my consciousness is that the first time I encountered it on my first tricycle trip all the way around my block, it appeared to me as an unexpected and formidable obstacle in my path; and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I halted. What to do? Turn around? Could I get over it? I can’t remember if I rode over the culvert or walked my trike over it. I can’t remember that, but I know right where the culvert was on the block; and I am certain about being thoroughly disconcerted by its presence the first time I came to it. So the first encounter with the culvert was in fact a significant event to the child I was, and that is surely why the culvert came to mind. I wonder if I had just taken off around the block on my own, having grown tired of staying on the sidewalk in front of our house? I’m pretty sure my little sister wasn’t with me, though we definitely triked around the block with my mother’s knowledge after that first time. Years later, I wouldn’t have let my kids ride a tricycle around our block. What about all the driveways? What about sex offenders waiting for such an opportunity? We rode our trikes around the block in our little Texas town, just as I later rode my bike all over town and even on the highway beyond the city limits. We had so much (amoxicillin) freedom!

So how did an unconscious chain of thought link those two events (as it turned out) so many years ago? Was it just the easy mapping by association: encountering an obstacle (wall, culvert) as I rode a pedaled conveyance (bicycle, tricycle) while a child in Eastland, Texas? Yes, I imagine that was it. That was not a full-fledged, immersive Proustian involuntary memory triggered by some physical sensation, but it was still an unexpected, unpredictable arrival at a place in distant memory which I hadn’t visited in decades. Yes, I can feel the quandary of that preschool boy encountering the unexpected obstacle in that unexplored part of the world. It had been smooth sailing until then. Now I’d become anxious. Then I forged ahead. Good for me. And the child that I was then still lives, strangely, just as the young woman I mentioned earlier does also, though untold thousands more have fallen into unmarked graves.

Try as I might, I couldn’t recall any of the details of the physics demonstration that changed my life (The Second Most Important Event in My Life). I have a clearer memory of using a manometer, of the kind with a slanted arm, to make some pressure measurements along with a lab partner (faceless, nameless), though I can remember only the the look and feel of the apparatus, not the details of the measurements. That is, in fact, as close as I can come to a memory of doing any experiments in my physics class, though I’m sure we had new experiments at least weekly. That probably means that the pressure measurements with the manometer were my first experiences with physical measurements, which also makes it likely that the physics demonstration central to the blog post was also the first class demonstration by the teacher.

The memory that is very possibly my earliest one is vague and dreamlike, but I feel certain it is a true memory. I don’t remember any of my great-grandmothers, though two and possibly three were still alive when I was born. My memory is of looking across a faintly lit room, possibly from a doorway, trying hard to make out something I feel sure was the body of one of my great-grandmothers. The room was one at my maternal grandparents’ house in the country in northeast Texas. I imagine I was two years old. I’m not aware of any other people in the room, though someone may have been at my side. I just know I was straining to see something I couldn’t understand from some distance. It’s almost as though there was a gauzy tent in the room into which I was trying to peer. I don’t know if this could have corresponded to something real about the way bodies were displayed or not.

I think we had either just arrived to find things thus or I had stumbled upon it by myself, my parents possibly not having meant to expose me to it. It may have been a relatively brief look; perhaps someone took me away from the scene when they noticed me. I imagine it was the solemn behavior of the adults and the change to the room that made the scene so memorable, but I must have heard some words related to death to be able to associate the image with death and with my great-grandmother later. What was I thinking? I think I was trying to comprehend something new that was beyond my capacity. Perhaps they had told me that was Great-Grandmother, though I doubt it. Somehow or other I knew that death, a new concept, was involved and remembered it, though I was very young; and that hazy, mysterious image is still inseparable from my idea of death; so strongly do first impressions last.

I recently saw something about a man who had total recall of every minute of every day of his life, which sounds like a terrible affliction. Though I often wish I could retrieve greater detail of events from the past, I think that, without the filtering action of selective memory, focusing on, and possibly even identifying, the important events in one’s life would be very difficult. I haven’t really talked to others about the nature of their memories, so I may be unusual in only remembering certain, in some way impressive, events. I should add that I am talking about the events I remember, which doesn’t mean I can’t remember other things such as the layout of a house I lived in many years ago.

Having such vast lacunae in my memory of events in the past, I might as well have been etherized for months at a time, as far as my ability to recall details of my life goes. My memory is like a dark summer evening, where only here and there a firefly shows light and life. That makes the memories that I retain seem positively miraculous and the events associated with them all the more significant to have survived the almost universal destruction by time. I am thankful for the memories I have, for they are of the sort that take me out of time. The necessity to pull those memories up from the well of the past in order to have something to write about here is the main justification for keeping this effort going, I

Reading Proust for the Last Time

Friday, September 19th, 2008

A few weeks ago, I sat down in my customary reading chair, leaned forward to pick up from their customary nearby place on the floor the last volume of my Pleiade edition of A la recherche du temps perdu and my Concise Oxford French Dictionary, which I need to refer to frequently enough to warrant keeping it in my lap while I read Proust (Petit Robert on the shelf close by should the Oxford not suffice), as I had done so many times in the months since I impulsively started my third trip (second time in French) through Proust’s roughly three-thousand-page masterpiece, then posed the small Oxford volume on my lap and opened the Pleiade Proust to the page marked by the one of its two yellow ribbon bookmarks placed most deeply into the book. It was only then that I realized that I had merely been unconsciously following the path of habit, for I had finished the final volume the night before. I suppose that’s when it really sank in that the long journey had been completed and that, considering my other interests and duties, the number of years that had elapsed between my last two readings of Proust, as well as my undeniable sharing of at least one essential characteristic with Socrates, I had very likely read Proust through for the last prednisone time.

Since I’ve already talked about Proust’s importance to me (Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I), it seems fitting that I look back briefly on that last reading and pass along a few somewhat idle thoughts. Some of what I’m going to say will refer to incidents or characters in the book, which may not mean much to anyone that hasn’t read Proust, but no one need need worry about a so-called “spoiler” appearing, as it is not the nature of Proust’s work to be spoilable.

The first part of the work, which deals with the narrator’s childhood and especially the vacations he spent away from Paris with his family at his Aunt Léonie’s house in Combray, the small town of his family’s roots, is the part that I have always found the most magical. Though my circumstances were very different from those of Proust (and the narrator in his work), I spent a lot of time in my childhood in the country, staying with my grandparents; and the scenes and people Proust depicts resonated strongly with my own memories, so much so that even on first reading, I felt the narrator’s childhood memories to be coming from within myself and not just from the book I was reading. Of course, this was exactly Proust’s intent, expounded in the final volume, Le temps retrouvé, where the narrator finally discovers the secret of art that thrusts him into almost literally full-time writing after decades-long writer’s block.

Reading Proust once more this last time, I already had within me the memory of my previous reading, itself ready to be awakened by Proust’s evocative phrases and images (like so many  crumbs of Petites Madeleines dropped into the full, waiting teacup of my mind), so that the feeling of having actually lived the narrator’s childhood was even stronger in the retelling (Yes, I remember exactly the sound the bell of the garden gate made when Swann rang to announce his arrival in the evening!).

I believe I enjoyed even more than before (though I can’t be sure after more than twenty years) all of the work that comes before the time the narrator takes Albertine to live with him in Paris. It’s sometimes very funny, sometimes very moving, and always insightful and illuminating about human nature (including in particular that of the portion of humanity he refers to as residents of Sodome et Gommorhe), society, social class, personality, sleep, dreams, habit, memory, desire, jealousy, vanity, adolescence, anticipation, disillusionment, obsession, sloth, illness, nature, political passions, death, writing, music, art, and the artist: to (tramadol) mention only a few, as they say. And let’s not forget Time and those pages of deep poetry, such as the closing ones of Du côté de chez Swann.

Although Proust completed his long work, he did not truly finish it; the last part is more like a late draft. He reconciled himself to the fact that he would not live long enough to polish it all, got it into publishable form, and was able to publish the better part of it in several volumes during his lifetime, famously paying for the printing of the first great volume himself. I think I was more aware of the ragged edges, multiple sketches for the same scene, and outright contradictions in the later volumes this time than in my previous readings, but perhaps those fade from memory, as they are not what makes Proust Proust. I found overly long and repetitious the narrator’s analysis of his obsessive jealousy of Albertine, the mistress he had turned into a virtual prisoner in luxury. The analysis of his obsession became itself obsessive.

Despite his dispassionate voice, or perhaps because of it, I couldn’t help feeling sorry at times for Proust the person, since his writing makes it clear (even explicitly at times, and the reader knows it is Proust speaking then, not a fictional character) that he knew, being one himself, that there were people who never inspired love in anyone else. I gather he was always in the position of having to buy a semblance of it. He talks of shared love at one point as something attainable by others, which seems contrary to his usual view of love as an unfortunate affliction, inevitably one-sided, based on jealousy and the fear of loss and the destruction of habit. I think he may have been missing something inside himself; but, in any case, there is no more detached and acute scientific observer of human nature and psychology, including his own, than Proust the writer. We can say about Proust that, having produced such a work as A la recherche du temps perdu, his suffering was not in vain; and there’s every reason to believe he felt the same way. For Proust, it was mainly through suffering that we are forced to transcend our ordinary, largely mechanical, lives in which habit dominates, and go deeply into our true selves; and Proust took advantage of those times to a rare degree.

It’s impossible to know what difference it would have made for Proust to have presented the feminine Gilbertes and Albertines of his book as the masculine Gilberts and Alberts they must have been in his life, but there is something unconvincing about his relations with them as painted in his book. And I have never been able to decide if one should interpret Albertine’s sexual attraction to women, and the narrator’s obsession with making sure she had no chance of acting on it, as a substitute for Proust’s own fear that his male paramours might actually prefer women to him or what. If the depiction were successful it wouldn’t matter, but it ativan seems false somehow, which makes me look for some explanation outside of the realm of art.

In any case, I have to say that Albertine, despite the number of times her name appears in the work and her supposed great importance to the narrator, is not for me in the least a memorable character (one can hardly call her a character at all), in a work containing many that were very memorable. Consider Françoise, Charlus, or the narrator’s grandmother, for example. Perhaps this is because Albertine was based on a composite of more numerous real-life persons; or perhaps it reflects the distorting influence of money in Proust’s real-life liaisons, and the lack of trust inseparable from such relations, which must have made it impossible to know for sure what the “prisoner” was actually thinking. Or maybe the gender switch was just too difficult to pull off. It should be noted that Proust had no patience with the biographical sort of literary criticism, and I agree that these speculations have no bearing on the merit of his work.

No doubt because I am now of an age that can only be described as old, if not yet very old, I found the descriptions of the characters the narrator was seeing at a social gathering after an absence of something like fifteen years, to be rather dispiriting. During the narrator’s absence, time has been devastatingly cruel to most of the characters, and some are mocked openly by younger newcomers to the society scene. I might mention that Proust, who died in 1922, seems to have projected the last actions of his book well beyond his lifetime, based on the amount of aging of characters he describes, including that of Gilberte’s daughter, who couldn’t have been born before 1913, but is said to be about sixteen. This obvious fact has no doubt been noted before, and I only mention it because I had already felt that the passage of time seemed unrealistic, without having done any calculation. It is also in this last section that we encounter numerous contradictions in the text, including totally contradictory descriptions of how a character has aged.

Lest my words on the last volume make it seem that it wasn’t worthy of Proust, it should be noted that it is there that the narrator makes his inspired connection between the timeless realm into which the sudden onrush of intense memories triggered by unexpected accident takes one and the state of aesthetic contemplation into which it is the goal of art to bring one. In his flash of insight, the narrator recognizes that his experiences of powerful involuntary memories have revealed to him the way that literature might accomplish the aim of art: sweep us away from the habits of daily existence to plunge us deeply into our true selves. For whatever reason, it was only on my third reading of Proust that I felt I had fully gotten what he meant; and I was strongly impressed by how clearly the narrator (and obviously Proust) had come to see the urgent task of the rest of his life and at the same time the justification for his previous life.

Near the end of the book there also occurs one of the most striking images in the whole work (for me at least): that of Gilberte’s daughter, whom the narrator sees for the first time at about age sixteen, as his own youth personified and incarnate. I’ve experienced something similar in my own life, though without the transcendent vision. It’s one thing to see someone from our past for the first time in many years and note how he or she has grown older, as so have we; but the sight of that person’s child (before only a baby or even nonexistent) standing before us as a grown person presents us with an undeniably material measure of elapsed time, yet glowing with the mystery of existence.

Finishing a trivial book, or even a good one, is not an event to necessarily make one think of one’s mortality. Finishing a very long and very deep book of the very rare kind that alters one’s view of the world and life is like finishing a stage in one’s life, which feels like a farewell, and so makes one especially conscious of the finiteness of one’s time. Obviously, Proust’s book is such a one for me.

Have I read Proust for the last time? I can’t know that, and I don’t want to put the thought of a jinx in mind by any sort of prediction; but, just as the narrator of Le temps retrouvé had to consider that, even as he realized he had a great work before him, he also had a limited amount of time of unknown duration in which to accomplish it, since events both internal (organ failure) and external (accidents) beyond his control might prevent its completion, I too have to recognize the possibility of such unforeseeable events. Of course we are every one of us in that position, for whatever modest plans we might have, but as our years mount, we have to face the increasing likelihood that our projects for the future may be left unfinished. Blogs are good from that standpoint. One post per week is all I aim for.

Cries in the Night

Monday, September 1st, 2008

A few weeks ago, as part of my post called “On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism,” I examined a couple of quotes from atheists, which I had once liked, in a misery-loves-company sort of way. One of these passages was by Richard Dawkins, who has become, I think, the leading spokesman for atheism as a laudable, desirable, even necessary ideology, one to which he seeks to win converts through writings, personal appearances, and selling atheist-logo tee shirts.

In rereading the Dawkins excerpt, I was rather surprised to see how much of his case for there being no God rested on the observed suffering inherent in the animal world, where the contest between predator and prey propels the evolution of species, which here on Earth has led to thinking creatures that may view the process with pity, anguish, and dismay. Dawkins cannot forgive God for doing it this way, and denies His very existence as a consequence. He would rather have no God than what he sees as a cruel God. He cannot reconcile his innate sense of a loving God with the facts of the biological world. In a sense, he is rejecting his Father for cruelty to phentermine animals.

Without denying the truth of animal suffering, I usually just try to put it out of my mind and avoid it. I eat meat. I love to eat meat, I might even say; though I do it without thinking about what I am eating or how it came to be on my plate. This is a rather unnatural situation. Until very recently the slaughter of animals was not hidden, so almost all people were either involved in it or witnesses to it. I even killed some chickens at my grandparents’ as a boy, and the image brought to my mind by the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” is vivid and rather disturbing.

We can also note that there is a wide gap between the hunter and the non-hunter in the industrialized world. I was struck by this a few minutes ago when looking at a picture on the internet of the governor or Alaska, Sarah Palin, newly announced as John McCain’s running mate, posed, along with her younger daughter, with the very bloody carcass of the caribou she had just shot. The sight is almost shocking to this city dweller, though I have seen plenty of kills in my younger days. Does our move away from killing represent progress or an evasion of our nature?

From recent occurrences in my life, I can’t help thinking that I am being forced to consider more deeply animal suffering and the cruelty of nature. First there was the Dawkins quote itself, which just came into my mind back when I wrote the post referenced above. I hadn’t thought of it in years; and, when I started to look for it, the only part I could remember was the “universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose,” not recalling what those “precise properties” were supposed to be. Then on my recent visit to Texas my mother several times referred to the cruelty of nature as witnessed by the vicious gang-pecking of birds in the tiny aviary of the assisted living facility she lives in.

But all that was nothing compared to what I experienced a couple of nights ago. I was awakened sometime in the night by what I at first thought was a cat fight. I mean with real felines; and not the preliminaries, but when they are really going at it tooth and claw. That was more or less what it sounded like, but with only one cat. That sound became mingled with a heart-rending cry of pain or call for help by what I took to be a young animal of some kind. It might not have been young, and I can’t for the life of me decide what kind of animal it was. I think I can eliminate any domesticated animal though. It did not sound like a dog or cat of any age. It sounded a bit like a wounded rabbit, but softer, less raspy, and terribly plaintive, as though calling for a parent to come to the rescue. Could it have been a squirrel? We have lots of those, but it was a far different voice from any of the sounds they make ordinarily.

After the cat-fight sound had ended, the cries of pain or for help went on and on at several-second intervals. Two or three more times, spaced at five or more minute intervals, the original cat-fight sound resumed, once or twice accompanied by a rustling of leaves xanax or undergrowth that seemed to be made by a fairly large animal.

What was going on? Was there some kind of cat and mouse game in progress, where the predator animal would release the prey animal and then capture it again? Was the wounded, scared animal in some sort of hole that the predator animal was trying to get it out of? Did the prey animal garner the strength and desperate courage to fight back or  attempt escape at intervals?

Perhaps it was a cat with a young squirrel, but there was no yowling mixed with that hissy attack sound I heard. We have raccoons around, but I’ve never heard one sound like that. Could the prey animal have been a young raccoon? Again I’ve never heard one sound like that. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any sound from a raccoon. We also have possums and skunks in the neighborhood, but I suppose the possum would have fallen into its playing possum state and we would have smelled a skunk. The predator animal almost sounded birdlike. Do owls make such noises? Obviously, I’m mystified.

I went to the window to look out into our back yard but couldn’t see anything. I think it may have been happening on the other side of our back fence in a neighbor’s yard. My wife, who had been half asleep, was finally awakened by one of the cat-fight sound outbursts, but she was spared hearing the other pitiful cry. Finally, mercifully, all sounds stopped.

I lay awake a long time after all the sounds of the night had ended. It was almost as if I were being tested. So, you think it’s easy to dismiss Dawkins’s position, do you? Or perhaps I was being told something. I have certainly been compelled to think about animal suffering more.

I’m far from being knowledgeable about all the world’s religions, though I know there is a great deal of overlap in their teachings of right and moral conduct. Still, it seems to me that Christianity is more accepting of suffering than any of the other religions; not that it necessarily has a ready and satisfactory explanation for the inherent suffering in the world. The Fall only deals with stepping over the threshold from blameless animal to human being, as I read it. But Christianity posits the unjust suffering of Jesus, deemed God incarnate, as having been essential for the redemption of the world. Perhaps there is some deep connection between God and suffering in the world that Christianity has discovered. Try as we might, can we separate love stromectol from suffering in this world?

Simone Weil believed that it was only through suffering and fully recognizing how terribly contingent our position as creatures in the material world is that we are able to reach across the infinite distance that separates us from God. I don’t feel that is true, but these cries in the night have set my my mind off in the other direction. I’m wondering, and not wanting it to be true, if God is not crucified continually in Creation; if that is not the necessary condition for Creation; and if the cries of that animal in the night, and all such cries, are not a sign and measure of God’s love.

On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism

Monday, July 21st, 2008

At the risk of thoroughly alienating some potential readers, I’m taking this opportunity to set the record straight. Despite my physics background, I am not an atheist, though I was one—and a “hard” atheist at that, one who would almost certainly have quit reading the blog of an avowed theist had there been blogs back then—throughout most of my adult life. I well remember my mindset as an atheist, though it is absolutely foreign to me now, and I look back at those decades with some wonderment at how I stayed stuck so long in what I now see as an immature world view, which I stumbled into during my adolescence.

I, as many do in those years of immaturity, made some bad decisions back in high school. First I joined the Cool Sophisticates’ Club (open to all cigarette smokers without further accomplishment) and a little later The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club (one of whose main requirements was a rejection of all religion and any belief in a Creator). I think I was fortunate that there was no functioning Cool Drug Users’ Club at my high school back in those days, though the possibly even more dangerous Wild and Crazy Beer Drinkers’ Club was definitely taking in members. I’m not sure The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club had any other members in my high school, but I could read (Bertrand Russell, for example), so I knew it existed, and I was ready to claim my place in it, especially as I had just discovered (and greatly overestimated the extent of its explanatory power) ambien physics.

I was able to get beyond the idea of cigarette smoking as a cool thing to do (even if Sartre, Brando, and James Dean all smoked) in a few years and, after about a year of trying to quit, finally escaped the notoriously strong hold which nicotine has on those addicted to it. But my addiction to the view that science can explain everything worth considering proved to have more staying power than nicotine’s chemical changes to my brain. Part of the difference was, I think, that, while I came to see that membership in the Cool Sophisticates’ Club, in addition to bringing serious health hazards, really carried no cachet, since any punk with half a dollar could join it, The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club maintained its elite, even heroic, status in my mind.

Someday I may trace on these pages (if I may call them that) my path to recognizing that our universe is created and meaningful. Given my intellectual approach to things, it was certainly a more purely reasoned and rational path than most people would take; which is not to say that it was at the end merely a logical conclusion with no mystical component. So the story may be of interest to zithromax others.

Today, however, I feel moved to look back at a couple of statements made by famous atheists, which, when I first read them, found great favor with me as being wonderfully eloquent. I somehow felt pride at being able to join with these highly intelligent and bravely defiant men in facing the reality of the meaninglessness of the universe, while inwardly mocking those who took the cowardly, intellectually weak way out: religious mystification and consolation. Of course, I have a very different response to them xanax now.

The first passage to which I refer was written by Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist whose work on unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces of subatomic interactions was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. Weinberg, in addition to his contributions to theoretical physics, has written several books that attempt to explain new physics discoveries to the general educated public. One of his most famous works in this line was The First Three Minutes, which dealt with physicists’ understanding of what took place immediately after the initial singularity or big bang (or moment of creation or beginning of time) from which our universe seems to have sprung into being.

In the Epilogue of this book Weinberg writes the following (speaking at first of our beautiful Earth): “It is very hard to realize that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.”

Weinberg is a very good writer, and I recommend his books both for the science and the writing. But let us critically consider this passage of his. First comes his dismay that, from what we can tell, life must be very rare in the universe. The thought of all that vast space devoid of the conditions for life is evidently depressing to him, but that is a personal view, not something everyone must feel of necessity. If God created the Heavens and the Earth, this is the Earth and everything else is the Heavens. Consider the wonders of what we have here, whether or not we are the unique home to ativan life!

Then comes his reference to the “unspeakably unfamiliar early condition.” What should we expect from the moments after creation? Isn’t there cause for joy that we have been able to arrive at a reasonable scenario for that almost unimaginable period of time, rather than depression that it is so strange to us?

Future extinction? We know that each of us faces personal extinction in this material world already. That the universe may (and we are extrapolating from incomplete knowledge) also have an end, or an end to its life-supporting time, is depressing from the purely materialist viewpoint to some minds, but is it inherently depressing? Weinberg sees the continuation of life or, in truth, conscious, intelligent life, into the indefinite future as the main criterion for there being (just possibly) purpose to the universe. I wonder if the reason why the prospect of an end to all life in the universe seems so hard to Weinberg is that psychologically it makes our own end seem even more final. Perhaps it is just a transference of sadness over personal mortality to that of the universe. I might add that, whatever beliefs a theist may have about personal survival, God’s eternal existence is not in question.

From my current perspective, it seems obvious that hoping to find purpose in mere matter is bound to lead to disappointment. Weinberg is trying to read the universe as one reads tea leaves, searching for meaning in quarks and galaxies, but he seems to be excluding in advance the existence of a Creator as an outcome of this interpretation, thereby eliminating the only possible source of purpose. Weinberg sees the scarcity and precariousness of life as a sign of pointlessness. In Weinberg’s view, the briefness of life’s candle in the universe, makes human life in essence farcical, with scientific research offering the only meager, perhaps illusory, hope of temporary transcendence. Thus he rejects the mere existence of any conscious life existing at all as evidence for meaning, though I see this is as clearly a matter of personal opinion and interpretation.

At the time I first read it, I think I took Weinberg’s statement (and the words that follow it) as a powerful upholding of the materialist viewpoint and an admirable way of responding to its hard realities. Now I see that the only argument that could be extracted from it is circular, as it assumes materialism from the beginning. Within this materialist context, a single finite creature examines the universe from the standpoint of his own personal preferences and finds that the universe fails to match his hopes, which he takes as proof that there is no purpose to the universe. And it is only this perceived lack of purpose that could be used as an argument for the materialist view, already assumed.

It may be reasonable to think that the creation of moral, rational beings was one of the purposes, or even the purpose, for the creation of the universe, but a human being is overstepping the bounds of competence in rendering judgment on the whole project of creation based on personal feelings about whether the universe should continue to support material life eternally. And what is Weinberg getting at anyway? Does the idea of a purpose without a mind and agent behind it make sense at all? It seems that Weinberg is actually trying to see signs of God in the universe; but he has auditioned God and rejected Him as not suiting the part.

The second quotation comes from Richard Dawkins, the well-known biologist and author of popular books explaining natural selection and evolution from a strongly anti-teleogical standpoint (e.g., The Blind Watchmaker) and, more recently, a spokesman and propagandist for atheism (The God Delusion).

Here is what Dawkins wrote in a Scientific American article in 1995: “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. …In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

Whoa, Richard, hold on. Precisely the properties? I can imagine universes much more devoid of obvious design or purpose. What about one with only empty dark space: no matter and no light? What about one in which stars never ignite? What if the physical laws were changing all the time, so that nothing could persist, nothing were predictable? Yes, but there would be no pain and suffering in those empty universes, and that is really Dawkins’s only point.

While Weinberg is downhearted over the insufficient friendliness of the universe to life in both space and time, Dawkins, the life scientist, sees the existence of life as it actually is as a conclusive argument against purpose and good and evil. Beyond the suffering, Dawkins doesn’t seem to like chance and contingency at all, which is somewhat surprising given the supreme role it plays in his view of evolution and its wonderful results. But I gather he finds evolution by natural selection as being in itself an argument against God for the reason that any God worth his salt wouldn’t leave things to painful chance that way. Curiously, on this point he thus finds himself in agreement with religious fundamentalists who use it as an argument against evolution!

Dawkins surveys our universe of beautiful order, as seen in its physical laws and the immensely complex phenomena that flow from them—including the production of thinking creatures such as Dawkins himself—and then implies that if he were God, he would surely have done things differently. I gather he would have avoided all animal suffering and the eating of one animal by another. He is not the first to wish for this, but does the existence of animal suffering really show there is “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good?” Or does the notion of good and evil only apply to moral creatures such as ourselves? Is Dawkins not trying to impose his own idea of morality to the whole animal kingdom?

Dawkins is really wishing for Heaven on Earth, isn’t he? The ultimate materialist seems to be longing for a purely spiritual existence in which eating and dying don’t occur. In some circles such beings are known as Angels. Or perhaps there should be only vegan animals that live forever. That is an Edenic vision. Yes, Dawkins has a particular bone to pick with God: he doesn’t like animal suffering or anything involving chance accidents that harm the good as well as the bad or even give better genes to one individual than to another. Starting from his perception of “pitiless indifference,” he extrapolates to “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.” How can one even speak of good and evil if the concepts have no meaning in this universe? Dawkins goes well beyond Weinberg in his willingness to judge Creation.

Both Weinberg and Dawkins are turning their backs on God basically because they find fault with Creation: Weinberg because it seems life won’t last forever and Dawkins because of animal suffering. There can be no God because this universe offends me in certain ways is what they seem to be saying. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth! Actually, I shouldn’t say they are turning their backs on God because of these perceived shortcomings of the universe. They, as I did, very likely banished God from their lives without giving it much thought at an early age. Now they are finding reasons to maintain their world view; and it is good to remember the distinction.

Why did I particularly remember these two statements? I think I know. They are both examples of how deep the spiritual pit can be for a materialist that thinks a lot about such matters as purpose in the universe. I too was one of those. These men both find that the universe is far different from their ideal one They use the perceived defects in Creation as their argument against a Creator. This goes well beyond “I see no evidence for God” or “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

No, these critiques are from men who are deeply disappointed in their failure to discern purpose in the universe, though this is bound to be the result of confining their search to the materialist context. Based on my own experience, I have to think that they are yearning for God, even as they resist turning to God, and even rail against belief in God, which they see as irrational, just as I now know I was yearning when I found their indictments of Creation praiseworthy. Purpose cannot be pulled out of the material universe without reference to a Creator whose power and wisdom, by very virtue of their being the Creator’s, are beyond question.

So what about suffering? That there are some things beyond the limits of our understanding is something we must humbly accept. Those who believe in God do not demand that God satisfy their personal criteria for perfection in the universe, but recognize the great disparity between creature and creator in understanding, wisdom, and power. I think the immense disparity–infinite disparity—between creature and Creator is the hardest thing for an atheist to imagine and appreciate. It really has to be experienced. This disparity is expressed poetically in an ancient text (Isaiah 55:8-9) thusly: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

I think that in originally accepting both Weinberg’s and Dawkins’s statements as exemplary, I was looking for and finding support from prestigious sources for my world view, with which my very self seemed inextricably entwined after so many years. Weinberg is one of us! I should have known that a man of such brilliance would agree with me on the subject of God and purpose. This of course confirmed once again that I was indeed a member of The Truly Smart Peoples’ Club. Beyond that, I have come to realize during the course of writing this piece, I took heart from the authors’ being able to carry on in the world under the burden of purposeless mortality.

I recall a conversation my wife had with one of my son’s sixth grade teachers, an atheist who, as most atheists probably are, was puzzled at the persistence of the superstitious, as he saw it, belief in God. I think more out of curiosity than through a desire to convert the students to his unspoken view on the subject, he had had them write briefly on why they thought people believed in God. In discussing this exercise with him my wife had told the teacher that I wasn’t an atheist, which he had naturally found surprising since he knew I was a physicist. She told him a little about my conversion and that I thought theism was more reasonable than atheism. This revelation evidently made him consider in a theoretical way the possibility, perhaps for the first time, that he might change his own mind on the subject. He said, “I don’t know how I could deal with that. My atheism is so much a part of who I am. I wouldn’t want that.”

Our strongly held beliefs, including our negative ones, are a major part of who we think we are. Weinberg and Dawkins were helping to reinforce my sense of self and the pride I could take in it. My son’s teacher was saying that even if he were wrong on the most important question of all, that of God’s existence, he would rather not change his mind because the attendant psychic adjustment would be too great. I doubt that he was really admitting the possibility that he might be wrong, but only thinking about how utterly different his outlook would be were he to change his mind on the ultimate question. In other words, he feared the mutilation of his self beyond recognition. For myself, during decades as an atheist, the only reason I could have imagined for my adopting theism at some point in the future would have been insanity.

When I was addicted to smoking, every cigarette I smoked not only kept my physical addiction going; it also helped reinforce my image of myself as a smoker; and, of course, the world can be divided along smoker and non-smoker lines just as along atheist and theist lines. I believe there was a similar dual reinforcement of my habit of thought at work in my reading of atheistic writing by authors I admired. I find it very plausible that statements like those by Weinberg and Dawkins may have served the function of maintaining a kind of downright physical addiction to the atheistic outlook. I certainly took pleasure in reading them far beyond what was justified by the content, which, as we’ve seen, was deeply pessimistic in tone and without value as argument. Thus there was probably something chemical going on in my brain that I liked and would want to have repeated.

Just as smokers continue to light up in order to relieve the anxiety brought about by the onset of nicotine withdrawal symptoms, so that the main purpose in the drug’s use becomes preventing the negative psychological effects of the addiction itself; so did I find comfort in reading such statements, though small comfort, from the ever present sense of despair that came with my bleak view of the universe as a place without meaning.

I would like to encourage any atheist that’s read this far to consider this one thing: whether or not God exists to give a purpose to the universe and our lives is the most important philosophical and personal question we have to answer correctly in our brief time of life. Were you raised an atheist or did you come, as I did, to atheism before reaching intellectual maturity? If so, then you may want to re-examine that step you took. Throughout history and into our own times there have been many “truly smart people,” who have recognized God’s existence, and their conclusions should not be dismissed out of hand. I’m speaking of scientifically literate people to whom the idea that God is a substitute for science applies not at all.

The question of God’s existence deserves deep investigation and thought and not casual dismissal for lack of scientific “evidence,” when the very nature of such hypothetical conclusive evidence is never even postulated. Can you imagine what the scientific evidence for God would look like? If not then perhaps you are looking in the wrong direction and not seriously looking at all. If there is some single phenomenon in the world (the suffering of innocents, for example) that prevents your even considering God’s existence, try to put it aside for the time being.

If the evidence you demand is something in the nature of a direct communication from God, then you are speaking of revelation, not sharable evidence. Keep in mind also that hostility to belief in God often becomes hostility to God. Are you truly open to revelation? The best way to become open to it must be through prayer, but few are the atheists who would start from that point. Only a miracle will satisfy you? Just remember that if God exists, you are not in a position relative to the Creator to set the terms of your enlightenment.

Also, keep in mind that if God exists, then so does the spiritual realm; for God is not material. Thus a categorial dismissal of the spiritual right from the outset is already a renunciation of the inquiry. If we are spiritual creatures as well as material, then internal evidence may need to be considered also, even though it is not objective in the sense that you could guarantee the same experience to another under the same conditions.

Evidence can be material or circumstantial. The law recognizes that circumstantial evidence can lead to certainty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Perhaps there is circumstantial evidence to be considered in the question of God’s existence? There is. A book that made a strong (decisive, really, coming when it did) impression on me was by John Polkinghorne (a theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest) entitled Belief in God in an Age of Science. It is of course written from a Christian standpoint, but the main arguments are for a Creator God without reference to scripture but only to the observable facts of the universe. Polkinghorne is a prime example of a “truly smart” theist. Of course, for an atheist to accept God’s existence requires him or her to drink long from the cup of humility, which comes with recognizing that oh so many “dumb” people have been correct on the most important question of existence all along.

Will strong circumstantial evidence satisfy you? There’s no way to answer that question in advance. From my own experience I can say that becoming convinced intellectually can lead to an opening of the heart from which certainty comes. And, in my experience, the nature of that certainty is very different from and stronger than the anxious and despairing lack of hope I felt as an atheist. The recognition of God as the Creator is not the end of the journey, far from it. With that awesome recognition comes the exciting responsibility of figuring out what that means for one’s own life.

My own evolution from atheist to theist took many years, and I was not consciously open on the question until near the end of that time. There’s no turning back the clock, but I feel very blessed that I didn’t die before I changed. I recommend to anyone at all open to the quest for God to try to become yet more open. If you are looking for Truth you are already on the right path.

A Nightmare: My Father, Saddam

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

I don’t remember dreams that often, and nightmares are in the minority of those I do remember, but last night I had a memorable nightmare.

Of course, I don’t remember exactly how I found myself in the predicament of my dream, but here it is: my father was none other than Saddam Hussein, and he was about to kill me by blowing my brains out with a pistol shot to the head.

As we all know, dreams don’t have to make sense while they are happening. They just are, and we have to accept the situations they place us in. I think I tried reasoning within the dream a little. Saddam, my father? That doesn’t make sense. But finally, there was no getting around it. This was real, and the gun was at my temple.

Although I had no reason to believe Saddam would spare me once he had determined I was to die (I’ve seen footage of him watching his comrades being escorted out of the Baath Party Congress to be shot on his orders, as they pleaded that there was a mistake, that they were loyal.), whether or not I was his son—which I didn’t feel myself to be—I said something like “How can you kill me? I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? I’m your son.” Actually, I don’t remember what I said to him, only that it was a desperate last-second plea. The important thing (for understanding the dream) was his surprising reply: “That’s not my business.”

What? This powerful dictator with a gun at my head, supposedly my father, was telling me that the why of my death through his imminent action was not really his business! This answer implied that he was only doing what he had to do, that he himself was only carrying out orders in some way.

The trigger was never pulled, or if it was I awoke before the bullet penetrated my skull. Relieved to realize I was safe in my own familiar bed, with no gun at my head, I lay awake to ponder the meaning of the dream. Which I think I have found.

Dreams are metaphorical dramas. Saddam was an implacable killer, against whom I was powerless. But, contrary to what I would have thought, he had no motive, however crazy, for wishing me dead. He was just doing his job in some sense. He was not the all-powerful man I imagined him to be.

There was nothing personal about it. The Saddam in my dream was a heartless killer, but neither sadistic, angry, nor calculating. And he was supposedly my father. What else could this Saddam be but Nature? Nature has given us life, as a father does, and it will eventually, when the time comes, subtract us from this world as cooly as Saddam Hussein might have, but without willing it.

“That’s not my business,” Saddam said in my dream. Whose business is it? That is the mystery we all either try to find the answer to or try to ignore.