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Notably Quoted

It’s good for an artist to try things. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous.
Sheila Heti in How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life (p. 18)


Books & Movies & The Meaning of Life

I was recently introduced to a children’s book I had not previously encountered: Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. It is a short, moving, simply-illustrated story about the relationship, and various encounters, between a boy and a tree, over the boy’s lifetime (into old age). A friend shared with me that the book was deliciously, perhaps painfully, illustrative of the role of parenthood. (Indeed, with a little research, I found that numerous interpretations of the book abound, including those with religious, friendship, environmental, satirical, and parent-child themes.) The same book popped into my consciousness again this week in a list of the best books to read at every age, from 1 to 100,” published by the Washington Post.

So, I already had Shel Silverstein and his work on my brain when I watched “The Upside” on the plane from MSP to SEA a few days ago. This movie, starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, is a story about a billionaire quadriplegic, Phillip (Cranston), and his ex-con caregiver, Dell (Hart). At one point, fairly late in the film, Phillip reluctantly agrees to a “date” with a woman, Lily (in a cameo role by Julianna Margulies), with whom he has been sharing an old-fashioned, snail-mail, love-letter relationship. Interestingly, Phillip and Lily had never met in person. This is where Shel Silverstein enters. Lily, during the course of this in-person lunch date with Phillip, describes the Silverstein book, The Missing Piece. In the story, a circle, with a pie-shaped piece missing, wanders (rolls) around looking for the perfectly-shaped piece which will complete it. When the circle finally finds the right object, it, at first, happily rolls along; ultimately, however, it discards the piece because it now moves too fast to be able to enjoy the companionship of others it had previously enjoyed, such as worms and butterflies. The storytelling leads Lily to reject Phillip, which devastates him.

I was intrigued by the fact that this children’s book was used to move the plot forward. So, I found and read The Missing Piece, and have been meditating on it a lot. For me, the story brings up a number of fundamental philosophical questions: What am I doing here, wandering around, in this life? What am I looking for? What is the nature of wholeness? What does it mean to be complete? Do I have to give up self to be with another? Does that other have to give up self to be with me? Can I be with another and be myself? Are soul-mates a myth? Does a union, perfect or not, create less happiness, not more? How could that be? What is happiness? What is relationship? What is perfection? Why pursue it?

As usual, I am a little confused. Life is such a mystery. So many questions. So few answers. So many books. So little time.

[Additional resources: The Upside. The Missing Piece.]

The Triumph of Evil

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. (Edmund Burke)

I am always appalled when politicians, pundits or others warn of an “impending” or “possible” constitutional crisis. What does that mean, “impending”? I, for one, believe we’re in the middle of that period right now with, quite literally, the future of our representative democracy at stake.

I have often said, and still believe, that the country will turn things around once we’ve hit bottom (to borrow that widely-used term from AA). Of course, where that bottom is, or when we’ll hit it, are open questions. For example, some thought that the Access Hollywood tape was a new low in American politics and that things couldn’t get any worse in the 2016 presidential race. Surely The Donald couldn’t win an election after that!

But we know what happened and, still, he persists. It’s the summer of 2018 and the Liar-in-Chief remains in the Oval. (Please, feel free to substitute “Bigot-in-Chief,” “Misogynist-in-Chief,” “Unstable-Idiot-in-Chief,” or some equivalent term, should you so choose.)

Then, Helsinki, this week. There has been much uproar, but tRump has doubled down and now says he’s inviting his Russian boss to the White House later this year.

It time to come together, America. And it’s especially time for rational, reasonable Republicans (for surely they exist) to step up, make themselves known, and to call the President out on his traitorous, dangerous, divisive, debilitating shit.

Please, it’s PAST time. Let’s call THIS POINT the bottom and start to turn things around before a world war and/or global economic collapse become the real bottom. Because that’s where I believe we’re headed.


Birthday Blackmail

So, here I am, age 70. My birthday was two days ago. As some of you may recall, in my 20s I was skeptical that I would ever live past 30. Ah, well, I have never been so wrong!

This essay is simply a little record about the 24-hour-run-up to my birthday. I really do love it when being alive is so darn fun. (And, yes, we live in very interesting times, but this report has nothing to do with a rich, orange-colored bigot who is bent on destroying our democracy.)

On the morning of August 16, I awoke to a rather unusual junk email. It was addressed to one of my legitimate, widely-known email addresses (in fact, the one associated with this blog). The author purported to be writing from Germany and was issuing a blackmail threat. He (I suppose it’s a “he”) said I had 24 hours to come up with $290 in bitcoin and deposit it in his account (a bitcoin wallet address was given). He claimed that a keystroke-logging program had been deposited on my machine, and that he knew a lot about me. So, if I did not forward the funds, the consequences would be an email message to everyone in my contacts (and everyone I was connected to via social media) containing embarrassing video of me recorded with my MacBook Pro camera. So, two things you should know: (1) my computer’s camera has been completely covered up for at least the last couple years; and (2) if you see a suspicious email from/about me, you might think twice about clicking on whatever link is provided. On the other hand, who knows how interesting it may be! (Yes, you guessed it: I have not paid him.)

Then, later in the day, while on my daily walk, on a beautiful sunny afternoon along the bikepath between the Willamette River and the Owen Rose Garden, I was approached by a woman approximately half my age, working in the world’s oldest profession. She hesitated, stopped, smiled, and asked if I “wanted a date.” All I could think of to say was “no thanks.”

Anyway, that’s a day in my life. Happy birthday to me.

As the World Turns

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I think they’re silly, and always have. After all, who needs a change of calendar to change their life? Not me.

That said, I did set a couple of goals for myself at the beginning of 2016. I didn’t make them public, and I knew the world would not end if I simply decided to abandon one or both.

Goal #1 was creative in nature: publish one iPhone photo per day to Instagram (and simultaneously to Facebook and Twitter). It became pretty obvious within the first month that this was going to be quite a challenge, but I was inspired to this quest by Facebook friend (Pulitzer Prize winning photographer; former Chief White House Photographer; Oregon native) David Kennerly, who published a book after he accomplished this task. He made and posted one iPhone 5s photo a day for the entirety of 2013 and then published David Hume Kennerly On the iPhone. It’s quite a great book. You should check it out.

This goal actually evolved over time. I wanted to take at least one publishable photo per day and then upload it. I quickly modified that to simply posting one photo per day, whether or not it was taken on the same day. Then, I decided one image per day was allowable, regardless of camera used or its content (screenshots became permitted). I kept on giving myself more and more flexibility or I might never have reached the goal. But now, on January 1, 2017, I am able to report that I did indeed post one image a day for each of the 366 days (yes, it was a leap year) of 2016. Whew. For those of you who follow or friend me, I hope you enjoyed at least some of the work I produced. (I highly doubt a book will follow.)

Goal #2 was physical- and mental-health related. In 2015, I had walked over 800 miles during the course of the year (as measured by the Walkmeter app on my phone). Therefore, I thought that 1,000 miles might be a reasonable goal for 2016. I am happy to report that I made it; my final mileage for the year was 1,066. Of course, many of the photos you saw me post during the year were taken during those daily walks. (There were only a handful of days during the year when I didn’t get out for at least a short walk). This final tally comes to an average of 2.9 miles/day. I’m pretty happy with that result.

Other than that, 2016 pretty much sucked. But at least I can say I lived through it.

The Campaign to Make America Hate Again

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you [Donald Trump] is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-age, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and … you scream about patriotism. (“The American President” – 1995)

As the sage, cultural observer John Oliver recently noted, the person we have just elected as president is a “Klan-backed, misogynistic, internet troll.”

It would seem, fellow citizens, that we “have a lot of ’splainin to do.”

Alas, I am one of those highly-educated, elitist, left-coast, blue-state, living-in-a-bubble progressives, who thought it totally impossible the country could elect such a toxic and unqualified candidate. Plus, this is true: I did buy into the polls that predicted a substantial win for HRC.

However, by donning my value-laden blinders this way, I was ignoring what I knew, deep down, about human nature. And, especially, what I believed about the male of the species in this country.

It now seems evident that Donald Trump’s racist, female-objectifying, gutter talk spoke to millions. In fact, I believe all those “disqualifying” verbal moments by the candidate, the ones we progressives expressed such utter disdain for, were actually the very essence of The Donald’s broad appeal.

And, oh, there were so many examples of his outrageous behavior: the labeling of Mexicans as rapists; implying that all Muslims are terrorists; referring to African Americans as “The Blacks.” He dismissed John McCain’s war heroism and went to absurd lengths to attack Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of a Muslim-American soldier who died heroically in Iraq. During the first Republican debate, he joked about his derogatory comments made toward Rosie O’Donnell, including calling her a “pig.” Further, during a Clinton-Trump debate, we learned of his sexist behavior and remarks toward Alicia Machado (“Miss Piggy,” “Miss Housekeeping”), a former Miss Universe. And then, the most explicit, demeaning and aggressive sexual language of all (“grab them by the pussy”), was revealed with the release of that “Access Hollywood” encounter with Billy Bush.

There was one outrageous episode after another, for well over a year, and still, Donald Trump was alive and well as a candidate. How could this possibly be?, we all asked.

Well, I’m here to suggest that the American public just couldn’t get enough of this in-your-face, potty-mouth, fuck-you-all attitude. In fact, (a huge portion of) the country fell totally in love with his message. There is a lot of racial rage, and anger with the system, out there, as well as a tenacious attachment to “traditional” male/female roles (that look and feel much like the 1950s). Unfortunately, such beliefs, attitudes, language and behavior haven’t changed much over time, no matter what we progressives would like to believe about the current level of American cultural enlightenment.

I say all this speaking from personal experience as a white American male who has been alive during the last half of the 20th century – and so far into the 21st. (I am basically Donald Trump’s age.) Although I have spent most of my life in the relatively safe arena of academia, I do have first-hand knowledge of the pervasive racism and sexism out there in the “real world.” For example, when I was in college, during two summers I worked “on the line” at two different factory jobs in the upper Midwest. Virtually all my co-workers were middle-aged white males. During these months, I witnessed, every day, the manner in which “the other” was viewed. I heard the “N” word – and learned about how “the woman’s place is in the home” viewpoint prevailed.  Many years have passed since my time on an assembly line, but I can assure you these attitudes and behaviors are all very pervasive, contemporary and real.

Then, in addition, I have years’ worth of other experience witnessing the lives and values of more privileged white males. For five years, I was a professional event photographer, during which time I went to fraternity and sorority parties for a living. I worked very closely with these types of campus social groups and became intimately involved with members and their out-of-classroom activities. The whole scene fascinated me so much that, years later, as a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education Administration, I wrote a doctoral dissertation describing the socialization process of a college fraternity. I spent three years doing fieldwork and, in my report, explicitly described the recruitment and indoctrination of new members. During this time, for example, I attended social events held for high-school seniors where fraternity members presented a number of skits, meant to both entertain and inform newcomers about fraternity life.

Here is how I described one of those occasions, lifted directly from my dissertation (Indiana University, 1995, pp. 58-59).

The skits were apparently a takeoff on “Saturday Night Live,” and initially reminded me of the kinds of things we used to do at Boy Scout camp on occasion: just good-clean-all-male fun. That first impression did not persist for very long, however.

On this particular night, there were about eight or ten skits altogether. During one of them, two members, portraying “cool” fraternity guys, talked between themselves about what being in a fraternity is like. For example, one asked the other what happened after the party the other night, with the reply, “Hey, I got laid, sucked and fucked. It’s a given!”

During the skit, women were consistently referred to as “bitches,” and were usually yelled at with an order to do something to perform some act. It was explained that “two vocabulary words fraternity men must know the meaning of” are “leave” and “cram” and each was explained and used in an appropriate context. “Leave” was illustrated in a number of shouted sentences such as “BITCH, LEAVE YOUR CLOTHES OVER THERE!” and “BITCH, YOU BETTER LEAVE, I CAN HEAR YOUR BOYFRIEND HONKING OUTSIDE.” “Cram” was used in the context of “CRAM MY DICK INTO HER PUSSY.” Much laughter accompanied almost every line of the skit. It appeared that everyone in the room thought all of this to be quite funny. I tried to pay particular attention to the few women in the room, since the material seemed to be so patently offensive. They, however, were laughing along with all the guys as best as I could tell. (Note: a few sorority women had been invited and were present to serve food and to do some cleaning up.)

During the time of the 2016 campaign when people around the world were reacting to Trump’s use of the word “pussy,” the claim was that “no one talks like this.” We heard from many, “I don’t talk like this, and I don’t know anyone who does. This doesn’t happen in my locker room.” And the women said, indignantly, “I can assure you that my husband (brother, son, boyfriend) doesn’t use language like this.”

I am here to confidently contradict such claims. I’m sorry to report: yes, men do talk like this. If others, like me, have long outgrown it, then they certainly have heard other males use this language and likely have, at one time or another in their life, engaged in similar behavior themselves. Of course, this is largely behind-closed-doors talk in today’s world. But, on the other hand, listen to any woman who has walked by a big-city construction site, and ask her about the male language and behavior she’s encountered. Not so enlightened after all, are we?

Donald Trump, wearing his red baseball cap with the silly slogan, and his man-of-the-people language, was saying to many American men and women out there, “I am one of you. I know who you are.” And, by example, “It’s OK to hate. It’s OK to disparage women. It’s OK to be racist. It’s OK to beat up people.” And, finally, “There are no rules of decorum any more. Political correctness is dead.”

“Vote for me,” he pleaded.

And vote we did; enough of us in the right states to give him the win.

So here’s where I end up: “Oh, shit. What the fuck do we do now?”

Soundtrack Suggestion

Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’
Im sittin’ here, just contemplatin’

I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation

Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation

And marches alone can’t bring integration

When human respect is disintegratin’
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend

Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

(“Eve of Destruction” – Barry McGuire)