By Paul

I have been reading recently about the myths and legends of the Blackfeet Peoples of Northern Montana and Southern Alberta.  Their stories are not too unlike those of other plains’ peoples, the Crow, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho, especially centering around a reverence for the sky gods.  It’s not hard to see why these people would be so reverential toward the sky.  If you visit these parts of the country, vast horizons extend unobstructed for seemingly endless miles.  And it is not for nothing that even today Montana is called Big Sky Country. 

I am not a trained anthropologist, or even an historian, and so make no claims at being an expert.  As such, my interests are very much those of a layman.  Still, for a long time now I have taken every opportunity to learn and read about traditional American Indian religion and spirituality.  I know, for example, that all of the Plans’ Peoples held ceremonials honoring the Sun, with special festivities occurring each summer in the form of what is commonly referred to today as the Sun Dance.  However, for the Blackfeet at least, dancing is probably the least important part of the ceremony, which lasts for several days, and even the early Europeans who visited and witnessed what was going on called it the Medicine Lodge, rather than the Sun Dance.  The term medicine was not used in the sense that we use it today, that is, as having reference to physical healing through pills and doctors and hospitals.  Instead, medicine was the term early Europeans used to make reference to things which were beyond the ken of everyday life experience, and which in Indian cosmology meant spiritual power.  The Blackfeet themselves call the ceremonial “O-Kan,” a term which seems to have lost its meaning in the mists of history.  However, it appears to be related to other words which connect to the concept of “vision sleep,” a kind of power-dreaming whereby gifted or chosen individuals make contact with spiritual entities that are far beyond the experience of most of us in the ordinary course of our daily lives.  Or, another way of thinking about it is that these visions were ways of enlightening a person’s life, infusing the transcendent into the imminent, and making even everyday acts into something sacred.

Virtually all American Indian cultures understood this in one form or another, and still do, even though many modern Indians also profess a belief in one or another of the various forms of Christianity (depending on which missionaries forced their ways into the history of the people).  I won’t attempt here even the briefest recap of the sad and shameful history of how Europeans, and later on Americans, lied to, stole from, and decimated Indian peoples and their cultures, their religions, their languages, and their ways of life.  That story is too well known.  My interest for the moment is more in what the results have been for all of us, Indians and non-Indians alike.

We know that poverty, lack of educational opportunity, joblessness, and alcoholism are all appallingly endemic on many reservations.  Even so, some Indians escape the cycle and go on to excel in any number of areas of modern life.  It is not all sadness and despair, although there is plenty of that to go around, too.   But in the historical process of so-called assimilation, one of the things which has been most unfortunately lost, as I see it, is that very world view which so many Indian peoples had (and some still have), and which most non-Indians have little or no understanding of.  What I am talking about is the “medicine power” of traditional Indian religions to profoundly connect with and deeply appreciate the natural world around us.  Such religious experience is able to perceive the power of Spirit in all of nature, not just the Sun and his Night-Light wife (i.e. the moon) and their Morning Star son, as in the old Blackfeet legend, but in everything.  This includes animals and insects of every conceivable kind, as well as all of the “standing peoples” such as trees and other plants, and even those things which most of us today might consider inanimate, rivers and streams and lakes and waterfalls, rocks and mountains, the very earth itself.  In my experience, Christianity has entirely lost this ability, if in fact it ever had it.  

I sometimes find myself wondering what America, both North and South, would be like today, if the Europeans hadn’t been so aggressive and so able and willing to wield the power of their new-found technology.  How would American Indian societies have evolved?  Surely, they would have grown and developed in their own unique ways as their histories unfolded, if left undecimated and unobstructed by European aggression.  They would have developed their own kinds of technologies, and they would have changed and evolved in ways which are hard for us now to even imagine.  Would they, for example, have kept that connectivity with the natural world which was the hallmark of so many of their traditional world views?  It goes without saying that this is now nothing but speculation.  Still, my own fantasy, or maybe it’s just my hope, is that they would have found some un-Europeanized way of evolving into the world of the 21st century, which would have honored, or at least not destroyed, so much of the natural world, as we modern Euro-Americans have done. 

On a related topic, I read in another place, too, not long ago that one of the curious, or disastrous, things (depending on your point of view) about human evolution is that it all happened with such lightening speed.  By way of contrast, the various species of ants, that other great social creature, evolved slowly over multiple millions of years.  As such, other species evolved along with the ants, and were able to find ways of coping with the immense strength they displayed, given their ability to organize and to get uncountable numbers of individuals to act as a single unit.  It was for this reason that ants never took over entire ecosystems, precisely because others found ways of defending themselves, and eventually of living in a kind of balanced harmony with them and their unique power.  Not so for human beings.  Only some 250, 000 years ago we were still climbing in trees and doing what we could to escape ground-based predators.  Then, about that time, we began to think about evolving into what we have become today.  But 250,000 years is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms; less than that in geological ways of thinking.  Imagine, then, the surprise and alarm of all the other species of life on earth when these “very smart monkeys” (as Stephen Hawking has called us) began rapidly taking everything over.  Now, today, there are seven billion of us and counting, and we have infiltrated every conceivable corner of the planet, no matter how remote or inhospitable. 

Would Indians have done a better job of it, had they been able to make a go of things on their own in North and South America, minus the meddling and the decimation of European powers?  Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to that question.   What we do know, and I don’t see how anyone can question this, is that generally speaking we modern humans of the 21st century haven’t done such a bang up job of it.  Yes, of course, there are a lot of things we have done are right, including advances in modern medicine, and the ever-increasing ability of more and more peoples of the globe to choose their own governments.  Still, billions live in poverty, and we continue to make babies at a rate which the world ultimately cannot possibly sustain.  In the meantime, we are destroying the very planet on which we live, with all of its beauty, mystery, and power.  And yet our religions urge us to make yet more babies, merely because someone in a book compiled long ago told an ancient herding people that it was best to increase and multiply.  It may have made sense to them at that time, but who can argue that it makes any real sense for us today?

Humans are smart, but not always wise.  We are inquisitive, but not always respectful.  We are strong, but do not always know how to use and temper the strength that we have.  I suppose it’s possible that Indians might have messed things up royally, as well, had they been given half a chance.  After all, not so long ago the Aztecs were using obsidian knives to rip the still beating hearts out of captured enemies as a sacrifice to the gods, all because these same gods required blood in order to renew and replenish the earth.  Surely, that does not bode well for any people.  But then the Europeans, too, and soon the Americans, were enslaving whole other groups of people, not to appease the gods, but in order to slake their thirst for power and their insatiable greed for “things.”  Neither does this bode particularly well for a people. 

Our all-too-rapid evolution has been equally miraculous and disastrous, both for ourselves and for the world around us.  Will we be able to overcome what my friend and co-blog author, Kevin, calls our technological adolescence?  That very much remains to be seen. 

For the moment, at least, there are still many things we can learn from the Blackfeet, and from many peoples, which could make a difference.  But that will depend on whether or not we are able to overcome our immense hubris and our absolute surety that we are always right.  How humans ever got that trait is something of a mystery to me, but I guess it must have somehow been evolutionarily useful.  Let is hope we can overcome the limitations of that very evolution, or maybe it’s more like evolving even more quickly than we have in the past, in order to become a species that is both smarter and more humble.  If we don’t, may the Sun, the Moon, and all the gods help us, and may we – and the earth – be spared the consequences of our own foolishness, and the pride that comes before the fall.


By Paul

I don’t know about you, but it just seems to me to be getting harder and harder to return to the city after spending time in some of the most unique country on the planet.  That’s been my experience anyway.  My partner, Andy, and I recently spent almost two weeks in the Northern Rockies, visiting Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming, and then driving yet farther north up almost to the Canadian border, and staying in Montana’s Glacier National Park. 

As with so many things that transcend the ordinary limits of human experience, all our attempts at superlatives soon enough begin sounding trite and humdrum when it comes to describing such places.  To say “the most beautiful” really tells us nothing; neither does “the most spectacular,” or “the biggest” or “the highest,” or even “the most forested,” whatever that means.  These are places which you simply have to visit and experience on your own in order to fully understand the magic, the mystery, and the wonder of them.

We were lucky to go in early June.  My fear is that by July and August even such otherwise pristine locations might begin to feel cramped and encroached upon due to larger and larger numbers of visitors.  Early June, though, still feels like springtime (which it is, technically, of course, although that has become less and less pronounced in these days of global warming).  Almost the whole time we were there, Glacier National Park was chilly and moody and dark and rainy, with mists rising off of Lake McDonald and clinging in miniature cloud formations to the surrounding peaks, as if the clouds, like us, were reluctant to make their depart from such power and enchantment.   

It is a place filled with the magic of trees.  Old growth Western Red Cedars, for example, once grew almost as big and imposing as California Redwoods.  And there are a few examples still left here and there, which hearken back to those bygone days.  In a mature forest, which hasn’t been ravaged by fire, or by humans, there is an enormous mixture of types of trees, everything from Rocky Mountain Junipers, to Douglas Fir, to Engelman Spruce, to Lodgepole Pine, to the Mountain Hemlock, my personal favorite.  I cannot articulate why this is so, except to say that the reasons seem to be hidden in the silent depths of my unconscious mind, where words fail and feeling, emotion, and symbol reign unchallenged.  There are also many Western Larch trees, the only conifers that lose their leaves (i.e. needles) in the winter.  All these plants, these creatures really, these living beings, stand in places which they have carved out for themselves over the years in that endless struggle which is natural to the forest.  Saplings cling to whatever ground is available, struggling to spread their limbs and catch some of the life-giving rays of the sun, while their elders do their best to monopolize the light for themselves in their own attempts to go on living and growing.  Older, sicker trees lean and grow brittle.  They weaken and fall in storms, leaving open space in the canopy, which the quicker and more nimble species rush to occupy. 

The forest is a world of its own.  The trees provide cover and a living place for countless animals who make their homes there.  We, ourselves, saw many examples of moose, deer, and elk, and were even privileged to see a female moose soon after she had given birth to her young.  But Glacier Park is, in a sense, a bifurcated place.  It is neatly divided into two: the western and the eastern slopes of the Rockies.  We stayed in the western part, which I have referred to above, with its brooding temperate rain forests.  But the eastern slopes have their how unique quality, too.  Less wet, and therefore less densely forested, they are nonetheless home to many tree and animal peoples.  Although we were not fortunate enough to see them, there are mountain goats and bighorn sheep on the higher slopes.  And the wind!  The wind blows in everlastingly off the prairie.  Trees are bent and oddly shaped by the constant buffeting, and in early June it is cold on these slopes, as we found when we unsuccessfully bundled up against a wind chill factor that must have hovered in the twenties. 

This is the place, too, which the Blackfeet Nation now calls home.  The reservation pushes up against these slopes, and extends down onto the plane of the prairies.  There is a wonderful little museum in the town of Browning, Montana, not far from the park, which honors the traditional culture of the Plains Indians.  There are examples there of shirts and dresses and moccasins and other items of clothing and everyday use, each decorated according to the traditions and tastes of the various tribes which called the Great Plains their home.  The Blackfeet, of course, are represented, but so too are the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho, the Crow, the Shoshone, the Gros Ventres, as well as the Kiowa, Comanche, and Pawnee.  And we were fortunate enough to get to talk with the featured artists of the museum the day we visited, an amazingly engaging and funny man by the name of Ernest Marceau.  We bought one of his drawings of two Blackfeet chiefs on horseback, and he generously insisted on giving us another drawing, entitled “Trance,” which he had been working on when we enter the room where he was sitting. 

We stayed in this country as long as we dared, fearing, I think, that even one day longer and we would have decided never to leave again.  I remember thinking at some point afterwards that for the longest time we had not seen a newspaper, or heard a television or radio broadcast about the news of the country or the world.  Nor did it surprise me, either, to realize at just about the same time that I hadn’t missed it at all.  In fact, what I felt when we did once again tune in to the news was an ever-deepening disinterest in what was happening “out there.”  This seemed especially to be true when it came to politics, and to the political wars in this country between left and right.  As much as I consider myself a liberal, even a progressive, I found myself having little patience when it came to listening to the latest skirmish in these political battles.  I discovered that I was completely unable to work up any head of steam when it came to the latest Tea Party craziness about Pres. Obama not having been born in this country, or about the most recent polling numbers, or even about the fluctuations of the stock market.  I’m not saying that I won’t at some point get back into a place where these things will likely matter to me to some extent.  But for the moment, even now more than a week after we’ve returned, it’s hard for me to make myself listen to the news.  I will not say that it seems inconsequential; that would not be accurate, neither would it be fair, because in the end some things do matter, and some things really do affect people’s lives and the world at large. 

But I think it’s going to take some time for me to fully reenter that world, by which I mean our everyday flux of politics and money and concerns over who says what, and who wins or loses.  For the moment, at least in my mind, I’m still happy to be living amidst the dark, rainy forests, the sweet-smelling conifers that grow beside Lake McDonald, which stand and fall according to different rules and which have concerns all their own.  What would happen if Andy and I were ever to move there, and to live permanently in such a place?  Would I give up all interest in politics and world affairs and become a something of a modern hermit?  If that were the case, I guess I can think of a lot worse things to be.

To be sure, the city has its benefits and its own sort of beauty, and I’ll get to the point once again where I can appreciate all that.  But for now, I find that I love to lose myself wandering amidst the cool greenness of those forests, or feeling the buffeting of those bracing winds coming in off the high plains.  In my mind’s eye, I see myself next to a tall slender hemlock, standing alone near a rushing stream, quiet, immobile, content just to be there and not to ask why.

STOP FRACKING! GRAB THE GAVEL! Support Angela and Save the Susquehanna!

by Kevin

My environmental activist friends Jerry Lee Miller and Michelle Johnsen told me about how the young organic farmer Angela Nitchman stood up at a recent SRBC — Susquehanna River Basin Commission — meeting, yelled and grabbed their gavel out of desperation because they were voting to turn over millions of gallons of Susquehanna River water daily to the fracking industry. They will then pump the contaminated water deep into the Earth, polluting our ground water and farm lands. So I drew the poster above to help raise $1,600 for Angela’s defense fund. I went to the website just now and contributed a little money. It’s easy to do. Please donate what you can at and read the story of Angela’s bravery in Jerry’s, Michelle’s and Angela’s own words below. Thanks!


Dear Kevin & Robert

Angela Nitchman is a brave and good young woman. She sang a song at our open mic about 3 months ago; a song of gratitude for all that she’d been given. Yet Angela is actually in great need right now for standing up to the powerful on behalf of the Earth and the people and the Susquehanna River!
I’m asking you to join me in financially contributing to Angela Nitchman’s defense fund. Below is an explanation of Angela’s situation written by Michelle Johnsen. I’ll just say that I know and respect Angela for many reasons, having gotten to know her through Transition Lancaster and Occupy Lancaster. In her early 20s, Angela has both deep conviction and a willingness to work for what she believes in. She’s what I call a ‘front liner’.
Angela and the other concerned citizens who traveled to Wilkes Barre for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission meeting last December  unleashed something! When they stood up to the commission’s unconscionable blanket approval of water withdrawals from the Susquehanna, they derailed the process just enough. The subsequent rescheduling of the SRBC meeting to hear more public testimony bought us several months to organize resistance. Who knows what we will yet accomplish as a result?
As you may know, I’ve been traveling to Jersey Shore PA (near  Williamsport) where 30 plus families of Riverdale Mobile Home Park were evicted from their homes  as a direct result of the SRBC’s decisions. What’s happening there is tragic and outrageous on one level! Cruel and unjust! However, we have witnessed victories for a few of the residents (so far) which would not have been possible without the organizing efforts and the front line stand taken  by many of the citizens who were with Angela at Wilkes Barre. These front line activists are putting their bodies on the line. This is the depth of commitment it takes to win anything against overwhelming odds!
Even small victories stoke up the fires of motivation and provide the courage to keep  going while also giving us something to build upon. I plan to continue working with the Save Riverdale movement because it’s right and because I see much hope in it. I believe this movement would not be what it is without the ‘Wilkes Barre Uprising’.
Angela has been charged with a crime for picking up the SRBC gavel! I think we should all get ourselves a gavel to symbolize power to the people in this monumental fight we’re now in!  (I’m going out today to look for a gavel:-)  Why not?)
CAN YOU HELP ME HELP ANGELA? $25 would be GREAT! $50 would be twice as GREAT!! Thank you so much for caring! ( Contribute at )
Yours in solidarity,
Jerry Lee Miller
STATEMENT OF EXPLANATION BY MICHELLE JOHNSEN (local activist and friend of Angela)
 Our friend and sister is in need of help!! Angela is an organic farmer from Lancaster, PA, whose love and respect for sustainable agriculture is matched only by her fierce spirit for protecting our environment, ecosystems, and in particular our beautiful rivers and waterways. This July, Angela will be on trial for disrupting a Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) meeting in December, and for removing the SRBC gavel from a table. Her legal fees have been estimated at $1,500, and we’re going to do everything we can to raise this money.
MANY of us here in Lancaster and across the globe (including Angela!) are passionately opposed to hydraulic fracturing of the earth’s Marcellus Shale for natural gas, or “fracking”. The gavel represents the power the SRBC yields over us and the Susquehanna River. At the meeting in question, the panel unanimously granted the fracking/natural gas drilling industry’s requests for new water withdrawals, despite the fact that 100% of the commentors were there to speak out against fracking. This means that MILLIONS of gallons of water PER DAY will be withdrawn from our beautiful river, our lifeblood, and will never be returned to the actual water cycle! The toxic waste water is then injected many miles below the earth’s surface, contaminating both soil and drinking water, harming both humans and wildlife. This toxic mix includes known cancer-causing chemical byproduct, benzene, among others. Fracking also contaminates the air we breathe and affects our already unstable climate. The protesters in attendance tried to explain that water, not natural gas, is essential to the survival of our species, but the SRBC chose to ignore them.
Angela feels her removal of the gavel was an act of desperation, a political, albeit feeble, gesture. In her own words, “As an organic farmer, I know firsthand how each of us depends on the health of our land and water for survival. I spoke up at this SRBC meeting, yes, I YELLED at the meeting, because I am under attack. My homeland is under attack. Our environment, our ecosystem, is being destroyed before our eyes. Because of this, it is not ‘unreasonable’ for me to react the way I did. What would be unreasonable would be for me to sit back and watch my livelihood disappear, watch as our water quality becomes non-existent. To be silent would be insane.”

Let’s put people over profits and take the power out of the gavel folks! Please consider a donation toward helping a wonderful community member, devoted local activist, and beautiful spirited human being. Angela stood up in the face of injustice and said NO YOU WILL NOT CONTINUE TO HARM THIS EARTH. She did what people often wish they could do- put herself on the line to protect this river and this earth, because fracking is WRONG and HARMFUL. This money will go solely toward legal defense for Angela, even if the entire amount is not raised. (CONTRIBUTE at: )

This campaign is important to more people than just Angela. Fracking effects us ALL, and as we speak there are plans for a natural gas pipeline that would pass through parts of Lancaster County. This will cut through and destroy parts of PA’s dwindling forestry and cross the path of smaller waterways and streams, which will cause many of these to dry up and disappear. WE have to protect PA and all of earth from fracking!
Sometimes it is hard for those of us who are deeply concerned about preserving the Earth as a livable environment for future generations to know what to do about energy. We need some kind of energy to pursue our lives, and even some forms of wind and solar energy kill birds and turtles and affect the stability and peace of Nature. But hydraulic fracturing as a technique for extracting natural gas is a clear violation against our future well-being.
I spoke with a recently retired PA Environmental Protection Agency official who said that fracking sets off flashing red lights and screaming alarms for many of his colleagues and it never would have been approved during his tenure. It threatens our drinking water supply and soil. These are fundamental elements of nature that we must have to survive. The massive natural gas pipeline of which Michelle wrote above was recently installed less than a mile from Robert’s and my 12 acres here deep in the woods, crossing over our stream and cutting a huge barren gash — an environmental wildlife barrier — through these forests for miles and miles. Let’s stop hydraulic fracturing — the violent and poisonous extraction of natural gas from the Earth. Let’s save the water and soil for drinking and growing food. Let’s look at the least harmful alternatives for our future energy needs, and let’s protect the Earth.
To contribute to Angela’s defense fund go to — Thanks!


By Paul 

I realize I’m a little late with this, inasmuch as Father’s Day is now passed.  My excuse is that we’ve been away on vacation for a time, and I have just now gotten the chance to sit down and write.

I have been thinking quite a bit about Father’s Day, though, and my own father.  He and I had a difficult, even contentious, relationship, as brief as it was.  He died at the early age of 47, and I had, in fact, already left home to join the monastery some 6 or 7 years earlier at the age of 14.  Still, those first 14 years were memorable and formative ones, to say the very least. 

I always felt it was fair to say that my father was a brilliant man, even though all he had was a high school education.  In fact, I might even say that he was cursed with brilliance.  That far-reaching and highly inquisitive mind  may have became something of a stalled car in the circumstances of his life.  He married young, as seemed to be the custom in those years of the late 30’s/early 40’s.  He was 20, and my mother was 18.  Soon after that, he was called away to war, where he served in the Navy aboard a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic.  I never once heard him speak of the war years, but they must have been eventful and eye-opening for a poor Irish-American kid from an upstate New York family. 

Once the war was over, he returned to a factory job in the small town of Watervliet, where he and my mother lived, and where we grew up, just north of Albany.  It was a real ethnic enclave in those years, where the Irish and the Italians and the Polish and the Ukrainians, and a few others, mingled freely, if not always amicably.  He and my mother began having children even before the war ended, and he got a job immediately upon return in a local factory where they made sandpaper.  He worked there almost until the day he died.  In fact, he was working the very day he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.  He survived for a couple of more days, but the end came pretty swiftly.  These are the bare bones of his life. Not much, it would seem, for someone who, I claim anyway, had such a brilliant mind.  But I guess he did what he felt he had to do.

In the meantime, though, it was clear to me that he was not happy.  And he was particularly not happy with me.  I may never know exactly why, but for whatever reason, he seemed to take a particular dislike to me, and I felt the back of his hand more times than I care to remember.  Even worse than anything physical, though, was his harsh language, the anger and even the hatred (or so it seemed) with which he usually addressed me.  Much of it can be summed up by his having told me again and again in my youth: “Why the hell don’t you go play in traffic!”  I always felt as though this was a particularly low blow, since play is such a natural and creative thing for any child, and to take that innate ebullience of children and to turn it into a thing of danger and even of death seemed to epitomized much about our relationship. 

I’ve tried over the years since his death, now going on almost 50 years, to understand what happened, what took place, what could have caused this rift between us.  In the end, I have to say that I just do not know, particularly since his treatment of my siblings was different, and much kinder.  It’s of course been a factor in making me who I am today, both for better and for worse.  But I have done what I could to come to terms with it and to make it all somehow work for me as an adult. 

The odd thing is that I think we were a lot alike.  I always felt as though I got my love of “things intellectual” from him.  He was a great reader.  He would spend his evenings sitting at the kitchen table, reading anything he could get his hands on, books, newspapers, magazines, whatever honored the written word, all the while drinking his 5 quarts of Ballentine ale, which he consumed every night.  Even after we got a television set in the late 50’s he never watched it.  He thought it idiotic and a complete waste of anybody’s time.  And on Sunday afternoons, the local radio station played classical music, which he dearly loved.  One of the few things he ever shared with me about himself was that he wished he’d been able to become a conductor of classical music.  I can still remember him sitting there in the kitchen “conducting” as they played Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart.  And God help any of us kids if we made a sound during that time.  This was his moment, when he could for a few minutes forget what a trap his life had become, when he could forget that he worked in a factory and ran a machine that glued sand to paper, and could instead soar in the exquisite, rarefied, and ethereal world of great music. 

Yes, I got my love of books and of classical music, and of all things having to do with the mind, from this man.  I loved him very much, and wanted him to love me, too.  It could be that he did, in his own way, although I suppose I may never know that for sure.  He did seem to think it a good thing when I left home and entered the monastery, as much as he was himself what was called at that time a “lapsed Catholic” (to the shame and utter condemnation of my Irish grandmother, his mother).  But even then, I thought, maybe he was just glad to be rid of me. 

Fathers are funny beings.  I think we always wind up wanting more from them than they are ever capable of delivering.  In my case, I’ve come to accept that mine did the best he could, as poor as that so often was.  I still wish all good things for him, and hope that some day, in another world where perhaps we are both better able to know who we truly are, we will come together in a way that heals and completes our relationship.  If that is a real thing, I look forward to it, even long for it.  If it is a fantasy, it’s one at least that I find some comfort in.

For the moment, it would seem that there’s not much more I can do than to say to him, and wish for him, a Happy Father’s Day – even if, God help us both, it is maybe now a little late.


By Paul

My partner, Andy, tells me I’m hypersensitive to noise.  And he may well be right.  But what does that even mean?  Just the other day, for example, I was home on a lovely Saturday afternoon.  The temperatures were in the mid-sixties and there was a refreshing breeze blowing.  Naturally, who wouldn’t want to have all of the windows open?

Andy was working, and I was going about my routine chores, some writing, some household tasks like laundry, and a little bit of reading (The New York Review of Books, in this case).  Suddenly, I began to hear the percussive thump-thump-bang of two teenage boys in the alley beside our house throwing the basketball at the hoop some brilliant person had attached to the back of a garage.  I have to say that they didn’t even seem to be all that accomplished at it, by the way, because they missed a lot more shots than they made.  At any rate, that then started the dog barking in the yard next door to them.  Not that it ever takes much to get this creature started.  Andy blames the dog; I blame the people who own the dog, who clearly don’t take care of him.  One way or another, his barking sometimes goes on and on, and no amount of neighborly – or not-so-neighborly – complaining on our part has had any long lasting effect.  Next came the guy behind us, who appears to choose Saturdays as his preferred day to operate some kind of giant drilling device (I still can’t figure out what it’s for).  Then there was the small, but irritating, electric saw of the neighbor on our other side, the helicopters that every so often land on the roof of the hospital down the street from us, to say nothing of the sirens from the ambulances, the chorus of lawn mowers and leaf blowers, the jets (as well as the small planes) that appear to prefer the airspace directly over our heads more than any other place one the globe, and you begin to get an audio picture of our neighborhood of a Saturday afternoon.

Andy and I have talked more than once about selling our house and moving – or at least I have – but the problem, as he regularly (and correctly) points out is, wherever you go there are no guarantees.  And ain’t that the truth, as they say?

But am I the only one who finds this sort of thing, I won’t say just annoying, but sometimes almost downright intolerable?  Am I asking, or wishing, for too much to want some actual silence around me?  Maybe so.

We are a society, indeed a world, saturated with noise of every conceivable kind. Virtually every machine humans have made emits a greater or lesser degree of noise pollution, from cars to trucks, to motorcycles, to airplanes, to radios, to televisions, to musical instruments (especially of the amplified variety), to cell phones etc.  The world is chock full of beeps and roars and thuds and shouts and clangs and rumbles and thunks and clunks and crashes.  But am I wrong to say that most people don’t even seem to notice, that they have become inured to it all?  And of course who can blame anyone for that degree of self-defense?  I just wish I were more proficient at it, but the pandemonium of it all just seems to get to me, and a repetitive, percussive sound (like that of an endlessly dribbled basketball, or the interminable barking of a dog, or the constant thump-thump of a drum) can about drive me over the edge.   

You may be thinking that it’s just a factor of age.  And there does seem to be some sort of direct correlation between age and a person’s ability to tolerate the noisy messiness of the world.  But I actually think I’ve pretty much always been like this.  I really wish I were more proficient at blocking it all out, as some people seem to be able to do.  What I long for, I guess, is the day when we can sell our house in the city and move to a more rural place, surrounded by trees and space enough so that we can’t see – or hear – any neighbors.  I’m not anti-social exactly, I don’t think, but I just want people to go quietly about their business! 

But maybe that’s asking for too much on planet Earth.  Even nature, so called, can be grating and discordant .  Take for example the fact that a pair of nesting crows has recently moved into the big tree behind our house.  I’m not sure if you’re familiar with crows, I mean up close and personal, but their raucous call – caw, caw, caw! – can be most annoying.  Still, I’ll take crows any day to the sound of balls bouncing, machines drilling, televisions playing too loudly, phones beeping and chirping, planes roaring overhead, sirens screaming, or music blaring out of somebody’s car or back window. 

It could be that I just spent too much time in a monastery when I was young and still forming my personality.  Maybe, in so doing, I somehow neglected to acquire the skills, and the shields, needed to face the 21st century. Silence?  Who cares?  Well, I do, but sad to say there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot I can do to bring it about.


By Paul

Last week, something took place in space – in near earth orbit, to be precise – that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.  That event had to do with the docking of Space X’s Dragon rocket at the International Space Station.  Why was this considered so revolutionary?  Why was such a fuss made of it in all the media?  I believe it was because it represents the handing over of the dream of space exploration to private hands.

Prior to this event, virtually all attempts to reach out to the worlds beyond our planet were initiated, funded, and set in motion either by a government or by a group of governments.  Now, for the first time, it was in the hands of one man and his crew of scientists and engineers.

There is, of course, some precedent for this.  During the so-called Age of Discovery here on earth, when Europeans were sending ships to all parts of the globe, such organizations as the British and the Dutch East India Companies either explored on their own, or were contracted to do so by their respective governments.  This is not so different from what happened just last week, inasmuch as Space X was given some $400 million by NASA to send its rocket up.

But the crux of the question, to my mind, really is not so much who pays, as it is who will eventually “own space.”  I say this because I believe that men like Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Space X, have it in mind to exploit as well as to explore.  Not that anyone should be surprised that this might be the case.  After all, governments have always done the same thing, too, as the native inhabitants of Africa, North and South America, and Oceania all found out – to their grave detriment. 

And in the case which we are discussing here, it seems clear that Musk is not really all that interested in the simple delivery of goods to the Space Station.  He does not wish to become the owner of the first inter-orbital trucking company.  No, indeed!  He has made it clear that his sights are set much higher, or at least farther off.  Musk, in fact, is making for Mars.

He believes that it is possible in his lifetime to establish a human colony on the Red Planet.  And a good friend of mine, who happens to be a respected aerospace engineer with a lot of experience with rockets, tells me that the technology to do so for all intents and purposes already exists.  It is mostly a matter of will power, determination, and of course – as always – money. 

So, what happens when Elon Musk gets his wish?  Science fiction scenarios spring immediately to mind.  The earth suffocates, for example, in its own greed, ignorance, and detritus, and all that’s left of the human race are those who have escaped the (formerly) Blue Planet for the Red One.  Or, to imagine another, Earth continues to limp along, with the quality of life for its people growing worse and worse as the years go by and things get warmer and warmer.  Meanwhile, a country – or perhaps a group of vigilantes, if governments have already disintegrated – attack the Mars base and try to take over in hopes of leading a better life there.  Too far fetched?  OK, let’s just say then that both Earth and Mars go on to sustain human life, but that life begins to change on Mars, so far from its point of origin.  This is what happens, after all, on isolated islands in the middle of the ocean right now, according to Darwinian laws of evolution and natural selection.  On Mars, for example, it is almost certain that humans will grow much taller and probably lankier because the weaker gravity there allows for and even fosters such growth.  And if this one physical change happens, who knows how humans will change otherwise, mentally or socially, sociologically, psychologically, emotionally, governmentally, or even perhaps spiritually, in such a different environment?  And we human beings do not have such a great history of well tolerating difference.  Could we imagine someday a war between Earth-Humans and Martian-Humans, because either thought the other to be somehow unnatural and unfit?  It does not seem so far fetched to me.

So, who gets to make decisions about how future colonies on Mars will be formed and governed?  Personally, I would rather put my money many times over on some kind of democratic processes, however flawed, rather than on the Elon Musks of the world – or of Mars, I guess!  But there is no guarantee of that, now that governments seem poised to hand over space exploration to him and his ilk. 

Fortunately, I suppose, I am already too old to have to worry about this for myself, or for anyone close to me.  But babies born in 2012 will probably get to weigh in on such questions when they’re old enough to run the show.  What will they decide ?  What will their values be?  Will a human-inhabited Mars eventually come to look anything like Mother Earth?  We’ll have to wait and see.  All I can say for the moment, I guess, is that it’s lucky for Mars that it has no indigenous inhabitants to exploit or kill off, no animals to push into extinction, and not even much of an atmosphere to pollute – at least not yet!


By Paul

I am no fan of drugs.  Of any kind.  I have seen too many lives ruined, or at least terribly disrupted in the ugliest sort of way, by alcohol to think very highly of that one, just as one example.  However, I am not now, nor have I ever been, in favor of its abolition.  I don’t think that tobacco ought to be outlawed, either, as much has I abhor the damages it causes in countless people (and as much as I can’t stand the smell of it!).  But, let’s face it, these are the easy ones I’m talking about here.  Virtually no one today wants to see governments take these drugs on, and they are definitely drugs, no question about it.

But what about the big guys, or at least the bigger guys?  It’s clear that the US Federal government is not ready, at least not for now anyway, to consider any approach other than the so-called War on Drugs.  And that, in spite of the fact that this is widely acknowledged to be a failed and even a destructive model.

Let’s take marijuana, just as an example of what is often referred to (incorrectly, in my view) as a “gateway drug.”  Does anyone really even believe that anymore?  Here in California, medical marijuana has been legal for several years, and if anyone thinks that many, possibly even most, people use it for glaucoma or to control pain, then they’re probably ready to buy a certain famous bridge, too, that spans the bay between San Francisco and Marin and which just celebrated its 75th birthday.  I have several friends who smoke marijuana, either on a fairly regular, or at least on an occasional, basis, and have done so for many years, and from anything I can tell they are not the worse for it.  Nor do I expect that they will “graduate” to cocaine or methamphetamines any time soon, or any other higher echelon drug.   That does not mean that some other person, let’s say an unstable and impressionable teenager, might not follow such a path.  But this would surely be possible whether marijuana were legal or not.   And no one, so far as I know, even the most pro-marijuana advocate, seems to be suggesting a   carte blanche usage for all ages of potential consumers.  Just as no sane person does so in regard to alcohol or tobacco.

It seems to me that the criminalization of drugs has caused far more harm than any good it may ever have done.  This is true not only in terms of the consumers of the drugs themselves, but equally, or even more so perhaps, for those communities, and whole countries, that have gotten in the way of ever increasingly violent drug cartels and other deliverers of the products in question.  This is why the leaders of several countries of both Central and South America approached President Obama at the most recent meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS).  They dared to suggest to an American president that drugs ought to be either fully, or at least partially, legalized.  This in itself was something amazing, but US reporters in attendance thought it more relevant to concentrate on the sleazy story of Secret Service men cavorting with Columbian prostitutes.  Yes, indeed, what a shock, that men in law enforcement might be interested in paid sex, outside the bonds of holy matrimony!  To my mind, this is on about the same level as a “dog bites man” kind of story.  But it kept us occupied for several days, and drowned out the more interesting and far more relevant story about Latin American leaders finally standing up to a sitting US head of state.  I won’t say that it didn’t occur to me that some at least in the Obama Administration may have been secretly and very privately delighted that a few of these Secret Service guys let their libidos run amok.  I’m not suggesting, mind you, that it was planned out in any conscious way, but surely no good could come from American voters hearing too much about talk of legalization of drugs at a conference attended by the president in the months leading up to what will definitely be a close-fought election. 

So, is full legalization of drugs of all kinds the answer?  I have to admit that I’m enough of a worrier to say that I’m not sure.  I just don’t know.  I very much doubt if anyone really knows.  And if not complete legalization, then what kind of legalization, if any?  What I can say for sure at least is that I see no purpose whatsoever in the continued criminalization of marijuana.  Naturally, the same, or similar, restrictions would have to be fully in place regarding age limitations and prohibition while driving as currently apply to alcohol.  Neither am I naïve enough to believe that no harm could ever come from such legalization, just as is the case with both alcohol and tobacco.  But, in my view, the potential benefits for the many far outweigh any possible harm that might arise for the few.  Here are just a few such benefits:  1) a major disruption to drug cartel violence and the enormous amounts of money that drive that violence; 2) creation of a tax windfall to governments at all levels at a time when any new infusion of revenues is desperately needed; 3) the ending of the arrest and incarceration of countless numbers of people, mostly young ones, for possession and use, in reality a so-called crime of no greater consequence than that of having a martini before dinner.  These are but three of the benefits that would come from the decriminalization of marijuana, and many others could no doubt be added to the growing list.

So, why not just try this one thing, if people (including myself, frankly) are skittish about a wider and more precipitous legalization of all drugs? And even though most experts agree that there is little doubt drug addiction is mainly a public health problem, and it becomes a criminal problem only because we make it one.  At very least it ought to be clear that the War on Marijuana has not worked and that it is both destructive and counter-productive.  So, if we cannot immediately declare a full truce and cessation of hostilities on ALL drugs, let us be smart enough to assert for all to hear that at least this one battle is no longer worth fighting.