TEACHING AND LEARNING: WHO TEACHES WHAT TO WHOM?

By Paul M. Lewis

When I was a young man in my early to mid 20’s, I spent four years teaching in a high school in rural upstate New York. There were a number of things I found interesting about the experience, and a few that were annoying, but overall it was a surprisingly positive experience. I say surprisingly because I had taken the job mostly to get a deferment from the draft. This was in the late 1960’s, and the country was enmeshed in the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Like many people my age, although by no means all, I was very much against the war. So, once I returned from graduate school in France, where I’d gone on scholarship directly after getting my bachelor’s degree, I knew I had to face the music of the military draft. The deferment they gave at the time for teaching came in very handy. My other option, I’d often thought, was to flee to Canada. And what a different life that would have led to. To an extent no doubt, maybe even if half-subconsciously, I’d planned out in advance the possibility of teaching, because I had managed to get a credential during my last year as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Albany, just before leaving for France.

But, as teaching high school was not really my first choice of a career, I’ll admit I began with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. In my defense, I was only 23 years old, and what does anyone know at that age? While in France, I had perfected my ability to speak the language pretty well, having gone there initially with a good grounding in grammar and literature. Once there, I learned how people in the street really spoke. I learned, for example, that a “cigarette,” which I smoked at the time (Gauloises, s’il vous plaît), was called “une clope,” and “un franc,” the monetary unit then in use (this was decades before the Euro) was more commonly referred to as“une balle.” I also delved into what I thought of as the intricacies of Existentialist philosophy, and considered myself something of a philosopher-poet. Neither of which, as it turned out, I was.

As cringe-worthy as it may be to admit today, I thought of myself as somehow above the crowd when it came to these rural high school teachers. The locale was Lebanon Springs, New York, located in the lovely Berkshires, just a few miles from the Massachusetts border over the mountain from Pittsfield. If a person has any degree of self-awareness or openness, one of the things you soon begin to realize is just how dumb you can be. And I found this out soon enough about myself. If that sounds like too harsh a judgment on a twenty-something year old, maybe the least that can be said is that I discovered just how inexperienced I was in life, particularly when it came to people who actually did something expertly, many of whom had been doing it for a long time, some even before I was born.

That was the first thing that came to light in Lebanon Springs: I saw that the men and women who taught English there, or Social Studies, or Math, or Science were of the highest caliber. They were, by and large, smart, engaged, hardworking, funny, and creative; they cared deeply about their students and about the craft of teaching. And in spite of all, they treated me well, with kindness, courtesy and good grace. There were the occasional yahoos, and here maybe my prejudices further show themselves, gym teachers mostly, who couldn’t distinguish anguish from absurdity (I’m back to Existentialism again), or a Monet from a Manet. But even they, I saw, did their best every day for their students and helped those who most needed it. In four years, I never heard one teacher speak disparagingly of their students; no one ever called them stupid, or fools, or worse. Okay, sometimes they said they were lazy; and some, in fact, were lazy. Just as you can find in pretty much any grouping of a thousand or so human beings anywhere on earth.

As a new teacher, people often asked me if I had any trouble with classroom discipline. As a matter of fact, I did not. But then, this was a rural community and, so far as I knew at the time, recreational drugs were pretty much nonexistent. I’m sure some of the students drank, but that was probably the extent of their substance abuse. I was also working weekends and summers at a local reform school for teenage boys, and I’d learned a few things about how to manage groups of teenagers. Most of the time, it was pretty simple. I decided I would treat my students respectfully, as if they were adults, and intelligent ones at that, and I expected them to act as such; and somehow that seemed to work.

But even at the high school where I taught there were a few outliers. There are always a few, the wise guys who like to mouth off. As odd as it may seem, they were usually my favorites. I liked the bad-boy energy (almost never were they girls), the spirit of rebelliousness, and the intelligence and insight into the bizarreness and absurdity of the world that came with it. These were the ones who were forever asking what the French word for “a seal” was. How they had ever heard in the first place, I don’t think I ever found out, but somebody had told them that the marine mammal we call a seal was, in French, called “un phoque.” And anyone who has even a passing familiarity with French phonetics knows that the pronunciation of this word sounds almost identical with the English word “fuck.” So, this was great hilarity, although by the hundred and fiftieth time I was asked, I will admit to feeling a little bored by it all. Usually I would just stare blankly at them, shake my head, and walk away. For the most part, though, students were in my language classes—French and Spanish—because their fathers had told them that they needed it if they ever had any hope of getting into college. No one, or virtually none, had any real interest. But I had come to expect that, and doing so became just another part of teaching the class.

I liked all of my students. If that sounds like an exaggeration, it’s not; I actually did. They were good kids, and I did my best to teach them something about another culture, another way of being in the world, if not (lastingly anyway) another language. And some seemed to like me, too. One of them, Tommy C., I taught for three years, and it occurred to me he might have had a little bit of crush on me. Not that I ever responded in kind, except—as much as I could—to be kind to him. Or, I don’t know, maybe he just saw me as a father figure, or an older brother. Curiously, it turned out that our birthdays were on the same day, November 2nd, seven or eight years apart. Somehow, he always contrived to secretly pass me a bottle of Courvoisier cognac on or around that date, as a gift. I probably should never have taken it, and no doubt could have gotten in a lot of trouble for having done so, but he seemed so pleased about it, so delighted with doing so that I always took it. How a sixteen year old could have gotten hold of it in the first place, I never asked.

If I were teaching today, I would never accept such a gift. Maybe it was a measure of my own immaturity and insecurity at the time that I did so. Nothing more ever came of it. He never referred to it later, never appeared to expect anything in return; nor did I reciprocate with better grades, or any sort of special attention. He was already an excellent student anyway, so from that point of view there was no need to. But I sometimes think of him, and wonder what became of him, what he did with his life, and if he is happy.

I hope he is, as I hope all of my former students may have gone on to lead useful and fulfilling lives. Chances of that are slim, of course. How often does that happen with any group of people? More likely, some succeeded, some managed to get by, while others struggled, doing what they could to overcome one failure after another. That is, after all, the way of the world, isn’t it?

What I learned in the four years I taught high school has stayed with me all my life; and what I learned from my teaching colleagues may have been even more important. As Walt Whitman says in the preface to his great poem, Leaves of Grass: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy…” Later, he continues, “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” and “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” Isn’t Whitman saying that learning from life is the best kind of learning? How else do we attain anything of real, lasting importance?

A couple of years after I left my job as a high school teacher, I was astounded to receive an invitation from the senior class to be the speaker at their graduation. With gratitude, some reluctance, and a large dose of humility, I accepted. My first partner—lover is the word we used in those days—and I had been living in Brigantine, New Jersey. As ill luck would have it, soon after accepting the invitation he and I decided to split up. I will admit to having been devastated about it all and wanted to withdraw from giving the commencement speech. But, in the end, I soldiered on and went ahead with it: and he came with me. I have no idea now what I said to these students, but the energy in the room did me a lot of good. I remembered that I was liked, if maybe not loved, and that I could like—and love, if I chose—in return. It was the last time I saw these young men and women, but not the last time I have thought about them. There is no doubt in my mind that they were my teachers, as much as I was theirs, and for that I will always be grateful.

SUMMER AND ALL

By Paul M. Lewis

Summer is both a time of year and a state of mind. I suppose the same could be said about every season, but somehow summer seems to loom larger, brighter, more luminous. It surprised me when I first heard that Midsummer was—and still is—celebrated on June 24th . In traditionally Christian countries, this is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, sometimes called St. John’s Day. I was surprised because on or about June 21st is, scientifically speaking, the day of the Summer Solstice, its official beginning. I suppose the explanation is that, in most countries of the northern hemisphere, heading toward the end of the month of June feels like we’ve been at it for a while, as if we’ve more or less reached the middle.

When I was a boy, living in the all-Catholic-all-the-time enclave of an old industrial town of upstate New York, June was a glorious month. The first leafing out of the trees and the spring flowers were long gone. That was the job mostly of late April and early May, the Month of Mary, when we crowned the statue of the Blessed Mother with lilacs and lilies of the valley. By June, everything that grew and blossomed was at its height, and yet the leaves were still new and clean, of an ebullient verdure that made you think the world could not be a better place to live in. At last, school was finally out, and even the nuns appeared to be in a happier mood. They waved us good-bye at the classroom door, and we ran out into the wild world, free at last to explore what and when and wherever our hearts led us. It never occurred to us then that they too may have been hugely relieved to be rid of us, although from my seventy-one year old perspective today I am sure that was true. What nuns did in the summertime I never found out, but perhaps just being away from screaming children was vacation enough.

Even my parents were in a better mood. Summer was a time when we were free of the terrible burden that came with heating the house during the freezing months of winter, bills we could never somehow afford. In summer, money seemed a little less tight. And although my mother still worked—always a great sorrow to me, because I wanted her at home with us—she seemed to walk with a lighter step. As much as she could not buy the lovely clothes she probably wanted, nonetheless she always had an excellent sense of style. She liked looking good, and I always thought her especially beautiful in the flowery, light-colored dresses of summer. On the other hand, my father never dressed in anything but the same work pants and white tee shirts, sitting at home of an evening at the kitchen table after work, drinking glass after glass of Ballantine Ale. Even on his annual, single week of vacation, this is what he did, as going away on a vacation was never even dreamed of in my house. Such a thing was reserved for the houses of the rich, or so we believed. My older brother would play baseball with his buddies, while my younger sister drew hopscotch designs on the sidewalks, skipping and singing rhymes, and I and my friends would ride our bikes to the nether reaches of the city, where we were forbidden to go. Or we would build forts in a local vacant lot, filled with sumac and other trees that needed no tending to and that thrived in poor soil, but which represented jungles and forests, exotic realms of the imagination existing far, far away from where we lived our everyday lives.

Midsummer, in this sense, was a hopeful time of new beginnings. The world had miraculously come round fresh once again after the long gray winter, filled with freezing nights and snowy days, or the half-forgotten ice that turned into the dirty slush of late March and early April. We rejoiced in the heady scent of the roses, carnations and the bachelor buttons that filled people’s gardens. At night, the family would sit on the back porch, listening to the silence (no one watched television in the summer in those years, or no one we knew; that was a diversion saved only for the cold months); and we children seemed entertained enough by chasing after fireflies and enclosing them in glass jars (cruelly so, as I now think). Later, we would lie in bed, sweating in the humid air, hoping for a breeze to come through the window, or for the blessings of thunder and lightning and a great downpour of rain to cool things off. Yet, in spite of the heat and discomfort, we rejoiced in remembering the next morning was not a school day; nor did we have to face the dreaded, unmerciful Sisters of Mercy.

But by the middle of August, something had begun to change. Although we could never pinpoint exactly when that happened, suddenly we realized that the leaves were starting to look dusty, a little bedraggled, as if they had given their best and were beginning to feel the effort. The warm nights had begun to cloy and take their toll, and secretly we longed for the cooler temperatures of the coming autumn. The 15th of August was for us, in those years, that day of days, when we knew the idle moments of summer were coming to an end. Midsummer was long gone, that beginning of endless excess, at least if the very definition of excess could be doing nothing at all. The Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary had arrived, seemingly as a warning. And as if to underline and reinforce the warning, this was a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church. That meant it was a day when we were required to attend mass, on pain of mortal sin. Of course, the nuns, too, were there (where had they gone all summer?), and once again we glimpsed, for the first time since the beginning of our halcyon days of freedom, those harsh representatives of discipline, control, authority, strictness, and the punishing regimen of school, class schedules and homework. In other words, what we saw before us was, in essence, the loss of freedom, descending into what Walt Whitman called “the life that exhibits itself,”—against which he railed in Leaves of Grass.

Why does all this come back to me, now that I am gray of hair and long retired from a life of work? I no longer need to care about the assignments Sister Clotilda gave us that I feared I did not know how to complete. Sister Jacinta no longer towers over me, ruler in hand, nor does Sister Barbara quote her favorite phrase to me: “the empty barrel makes the most noise.” My parents, too, are long gone, coming up on fifty years for my father, and forty-five for my mother. My brother, too, is dead, and my sister has her own physical problems. It has been decades, lifetimes it seems, since I felt I obliged to attend mass.

But summer itself still marches on, unconcerned. Here in Southern California, mid-August feels like the real Midsummer. It’s ninety degrees outside, and even September—or on into October—looms large and heat filled. And yet, I remember those far off days of childhood as if they were last week, when we ran and played and biked and explored a world of endless surprises and magical mystery.

Nowadays, I roam elsewhere, traveling the world, as I have done in the past and hope to continue doing. Yet, there is also another kind of travel that I have learned, an interior kind, one that roams the great universe. To quote Whitman again, from the “Calamus” section of his great poem:

 

“In paths untrodden,

In the growth by margins of pond waters…

Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world,

Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,

No longer abash’d—for in this secluded spot I can

respond as I would not dare elsewhere,

Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself,

yet contains all the rest.”

“Yet contains all the rest.” This is the secret of the Leaves of Grass, after all, that the leaves are, themselves, all there is. Another way to say it is the whole universe is contained in every atom, in every subatomic particle. As it is in every summer, and each autumn and winter, every radiant, verdant spring. In the eternity of the moment, it is always Midsummer, or any other time of our choosing. One moment expands to fill all time, and every day is a Holy Day—though one, thankfully, with no obligation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GRIEVING AND GROWING POTATOES

potatoes IMG_5212

by Kevin L Miller

Dad died six weeks ago. I had been with him and Mom three days every week until his last, and then it was every day. Somehow I still managed to plant my garden in April and May, because I had already prepared the 16 big raised beds with amended soil last summer. But as the needs of my 88 and 91-year-old mother and father increased, there was no time for the garden. And when Dad died, it was time to plan and execute a huge memorial service over a period of a month. He was an ordained minister, educator, dean, vice president, and university and seminary president in our little subculture, The Church of the Brethren. He was well known and highly respected. More importantly, he was a saint – a deeply good, humble, generous man – and everyone loved him. Over many decades, thousands looked to him as their mentor, role model, and friend. So did I, especially during these final years, when he was so accessible and open. I am doing my best to help my poor mother cope with her bewilderment and grief. Three weeks from today would have been their 69th wedding anniversary. They knew each other for over 70 years and were devoted to one another. Dad utterly worshipped my mom, and she was born to be adored. It was and is my privilege and honor to serve them as they come to the end of their lives on earth.

Sadly, some things just aren’t getting done. The wild berries on our 12 acres in the woods were not picked this year — at least, not by us — and the weeds took over my garden. I ventured into that jungle just a week ago to see if anything could be salvaged. There may yet be hope of some yield of okra, heirloom tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. Maybe a turnip or two. And I still have lettuce. But so many other crops failed due to neglect, bugs and weeds, and the garden is generally in tatters.

I myself have been feeling at loose ends lately. Now that Dad is gone and the big memorial service and luncheon are over, what’s next? The answer is obvious: I promised Dad during the final moments of his life that I would take very good care of Mother, just before she arrived at his bedside to stroke his cheek and tell him how much she loved him, as he took his last two breaths and left us. He waited for her… and he is waiting now. Mother is relatively functional, but needs lots of help anyway, because her memory is disappearing quickly, and she has serious medical conditions, tons of medications, and weekly doctors’ appointments to be managed. We play Scrabble and Boggle when we can, and she almost always beats me resoundingly. She was a school teacher and an editor of children’s text books. The creeping dementia has not yet taken hold in her language centers, but she cannot remember her best friends’ names or her two stays in the hospital last summer, or who came to visit yesterday. I serve as her memory now.

But sometimes I wonder what comes after this intense period of getting to know both of my parents so much better than ever before. It continues to be a profoundly valuable education. I had already discovered that when one spends time with high souls who are approaching death, the veil between the two world becomes thinner and eventually almost transparent. Sometimes the curtain is drawn back and allowed to flutter in the cosmic breeze for just an instant. Then, occasionally, it is possible to catch a glimpse of Heaven. There were holy moments like that with my father, and I’m sure there will be with my mother as well. But I ask myself, after all of that is over, what will I do with the rest of my life? Then I’m embarrassed by the question, because all is well. I’ve had a productive career. I am happy and content. The world may be collapsing around us, but nothing is amiss for me. Surely, it’s not so much about WHAT one does with one’s life as HOW one does it. Still, there is a feeling of potential… some impending destiny or assignment or adventure just around the corner. I’m having visions of paintings again. Maybe that’s it.

The first time I visited my overgrown garden, I noticed that my once lush 4 x 10 ft potato bed was completely devoid of greens where there had been a thick cover of them just weeks before. I assumed insects or animals must have destroyed all the potatoes. Then it rained hard a few times, and I spied some round tops of potatoes sticking up through the bare soil. So this morning I went into the garden with my three potato spades and began excavating. Two and a half hours later I had a very respectable box of potatoes ranging from smaller than a penny to baking size. Whereas I had recently assumed the potato patch was a total loss, I was fascinated to discover that a lot of the potatoes were growing much deeper than I had thought. I settled into the dirt and really began enjoying my search for hidden treasure. I noticed that some of the best and biggest potatoes were pressed up against the walls of the raised bed, as if they wanted to challenge the boundaries of the potato universe to expand their own individual identities. I couldn’t help thinking what a fine metaphor this potato bed was for life and the development of consciousness in general. I had thought that nothing was happening in the potato patch while I attended to more pressing duties, privileges and honors — taking care of my beloved parents. But it turns out that potatoes of many different sizes and types were growing there secretly, unseen beneath the surface, all along.

So, I’ve decided not to worry about what comes next. I’m happy in the present moment, doing what I am doing now, and isn’t that what matters? While I was sitting in the dirt digging out those potatoes in the sun, I was convinced that no other activity could possibly be more satisfying or fulfilling than finding potatoes in the ground. I could have done that for the rest of my life. And perhaps I will. But maybe… just possibly… some of those more mysterious potatoes growing deep under the surface and pressed up against the walls of their world… some of those unruly potatoes might contain surprises. In fact, if the past is any kind of template, they almost certainly will. But if not, I’ll be happy just digging in the dirt. After all, I realized after two and a half hours of hard labor had yielded $15 worth of produce, that it was not the potatoes I needed… It was that invaluable time in the dirt.

 

 

A TIME TO LOOK BACK, A TIME TO LOOK FORWARD

By Paul M. Lewis

Fifty years ago this month, I had just left the monastery where I’d lived as a monk for the previous seven years. I was twenty-one years old, struggling to find myself in a world that was as totally unfamiliar to me as the inside of a silent monastery is to most people who have never lived there. This “outside world,” as we called it and as I even then thought of it, was loud and overbearing, seemingly both uncontrolled and uncontrollable. If I had landed on an alien moon, or a planet somewhere on the far off edges of the galaxy, I am not sure I would have found it all that much less strange or intimidating. To me, this new world was exotic, incomprehensible, and in conflict with everything I had come to think of and rely on as familiar and stabilizing.

It had been my choice to leave. I knew I could no longer remain locked behind monastic gates, not with the kind of desires I had. As a young gay man, my hormones were roiling and boiling, but as a monk, I had kept my vows, reined in those sometimes almost overwhelming impulses into a kind of control (the “white-knuckle” kind, as people in AA say) and had refrained from all carnal contact with other monks. Much later, I learned that many other young monastics had not, but I took the vows I had pronounced as sacred promises and followed them to the letter. My plan, as bizarre as it may seem to anyone now, was to leave, begin dating girls, which would magically cure me of otherwise unwanted desires, and then eventually rejoin the monastery once more after I had become “normal” again. There is hardly any need to say that this did not happen, could not have happened, and for that I am now more grateful than I can probably ever express.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that during this first year on the outside, that first summer in particular, I was in a kind of constant state of trauma. I flew home—for the first time on my own—from Washington, DC, where the monastery was located, to upstate New York, where my mother and brother lived. But I stayed there for only a few weeks, as I had applied for and been accepted into an NDEA (National Defense Education Act) scholarship, as a future teacher of French. The eight-week immersion course (all day, everyday, only French was to be spoken) was located at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Twenty-five people from all over the United States had been accepted and formed our group. The fact that probably two-thirds were women, while not exactly a surprise, nonetheless still came as a kind of existential shock to me. Up until that point, I had never in my life spent so much time with young women my own age, and I found it both terrifying and enlightening. It was the beginning of a long learning curve for me, during which I slowly came to realize, and to enormously appreciate, the fact that the female sensibility was different from that of men, and that women have marvelous, even almost magical insights to offer.

Even so, dating women—as I had promised myself I would do—was not easy. I had no notion of what to expect, nor what they might expect from me, or how to respond if, in fact, they wanted something I could not provide. I dated Martha first, and found myself liking her very much, though only as a friend, even going so far as to visit her in her family home on Cape Cod. Later on, I dated Bea, perhaps because she looked kind of boyish, but I found her unsettlingly aggressive, to the point almost of making me want to flee. And when it became clear that I was supposed to be kissing her, but did not, even now all these years later I cringe to remember her saying to me: “What? Do I have spinach in my teeth, or something?” As much as it is a useless and futile exercise to regret anything in life, I have to say that I am nevertheless extremely sorry for what I put them through. I know I did my best, but they were both fine women, good human beings, and they deserved better than I was able to give. No doubt, they have gone on to have happy and fulfilled lives; or so it is my hope anyway.

At the same time, I was struggling at least as much with my faith. More and more, I began to realize that I could no longer believe in a rigid, overly doctrinaire, and uncompassionate Church, one that had once been the mainstay of not just my spiritual life, but of my psychological and emotional life as well. This bedrock of what I had felt to be my identity was rapidly beginning to shatter. Everything I knew or was familiar with had begun to flow away, until soon it became a river in flood stage, a torrent that carried with it whatever had previously seemed solid and stable. I was drifting with nothing to cling to. I did not want to confide in my mother, as she had troubles enough of her own, mourning the passing of her husband, my father. And my brother was a young straight man, who spent his time in the local bars with his factory working buddies. I felt I hardly knew him.

But as difficult as all this was, and as lost as I felt, I also realized at some level that it was the beginning of a new and exciting life, something I had never before envisioned for myself. The particular Catholic religious order I had been a member of was made up of teaching brothers. As such, while a monk, I’d also been a student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Upon leaving, I had one year left to go before getting my bachelor’s degree in French Literature, and I did so at the State University of New York at Albany.

I could not rely on my mother for money, as she had none, and so while finishing my last year at university, I also worked every night, and all day Saturday. The job I got was in a local reform school for teenage boys, working in the recreation department. Obviously, institutional settings somehow attracted me, as much as this one represented what might be thought of as the darker version of a monastic environment. But regimens, schedules, and organized, bureaucratic settings, even institutional food and set and stable mealtimes clearly represented my comfort level. And somehow, I instinctively knew how to empathize and interact with boys who felt bereft and alone, even if they did put on a tough and sometimes off-putting front.

That first year on the outside is one I will never forget. It taught me that I could face what had once seemed frightening and even unbearable to me with a degree of courage and resilience. That said, it was still a long time before I began to feel even minimally adequate, the beginnings of an ability to take care of myself in a world that often felt alien, hostile, and simply inexplicable. Sometimes the smallest task would throw me, a thing that I knew I should know how to do, but did not. The first time I had to make a doctor’s appointment, for example, I remember thinking: “How exactly do you do that?” Until I made myself take this on, I had no clue that it was as simple as calling and scheduling one at a convenient time. That was the degree of my inexperience in the world. Virtually every day was an occasion to learn something new, to be frightened and utterly perplexed, and then slowly to come to see how I was supposed to conduct myself. I didn’t always like what I saw, or even understand it, but ultimately I decided that this was how to make my way toward a hoped-for adulthood, a sense of maturity, from the Latin maturus—as I knew—meaning “ripe.”

The curious thing is that I feel as though I am still learning, all these years later. When does one reach maturity? When are we fully ready to adequately face the unknown, the continuing, ever-changing challenges of life? Perhaps only when we leave this world. As the ripened fruit falls, so ends our struggle to grapple with life. Everything that I have faced and found, the summonses, the dares, the provocations, as well as the prizes, the great rewards that come to fill our hearts and minds, all have been worth the effort. This is the comfort that comes with seeing things from an older perspective.

So, I have learned something in these fifty years. And if it is not as much as I could or should have, at least I do know this: Nothing in life goes to waste. Everything we experience contributes to who we are, to our understanding of our rightful and fitting place in a sometimes wild and unpredictable, but always—ironically—a perfect, and beautifully ordered world.

COSMIC MYSTERIES AND OUR NEED TO KNOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Watching Stephen Hawking’s “Genius” series on PBS recently has reminded me what fascinating topics theoretical physicists study. They specialize in asking such big questions as “Where did the universe come from?” and “Is there a center to the universe?” And while it’s true that there has always been a degree of contention in regard to how these questions are answered, there is at least general consensus on the Big Bang itself, that is, the very beginning of the universe. That term may be a bit misleading, however, in that physicists do not believe it to have been an actual explosion. In fact, the term Big Bang was coined as a kind of put down of the theory by an early doubter. Instead of an explosion, it was probably more of an almost inconceivably rapid expansion, followed immediately by what is called “an inflation,” indicative of the fact that the infant universe moved rapidly outward, expanding in all directions. And the universe continues to expand even now, 13.7 billion years after the initial expansion. No less a figure than Einstein, himself, long doubted the idea of an expanding universe, but even he finally came to accept it, due to the patient observations of another renowned scientist, the great astronomer Edwin Hubble.

How did the Big Bang come about in the first place? Where was it located? And doesn’t it make sense to think of it as having somehow occurred in what might be thought of as the center of the universe? These are all legitimate questions to ask. The answer to the first, that of how the Big Bang came about, is very simple: no one knows. In that sense, it becomes, at least for now and in the absence of further scientific break throughs, more or less a philosophical or a theological question, although naturally scientists do continue to explore it. Regarding the query having to do with the Big Bang being in the center of the universe, the problem it raises becomes a question of logic. To think in locational terms assumes there was some “place” to be. However, there could have been no place for the universe to begin in until there actually was a universe. In other words, how could there have been a physical place, before there was such thing as space to be in? This also means another way to think of it is that everywhere is the center of the universe.

Before the Big Bang, nothing at all existed. It’s extremely difficult for us to conceive of nothingness. Language itself begins to break down, but it’s clear that nothing cannot be “a thing.” The definition of nothing is “no thing,” a complete non-existence of whatever can be perceived by our senses. How can we imagine what this might be like? Some might suggest we can envision it in terms of outer space being a vacuum, that is, of it “containing nothing,” again, as if nothing could somehow be contained. But even that is not the case, since physicists now understand that space is actually filled with Dark Matter. And as much as Dark Matter is unperceivable, it is known to comprise some 80% of all of the matter in the universe. On the other hand, normal matter that can be seen (i.e. asteroids, comets, stars, planets, galaxies, cosmic gas, as well as you and I and all the creatures of the earth and on any of the other planets) therefore accounts only for about a fifth of the known universe.

Theoretical physics routinely deals with imponderables. It works at the edges, at the border between science and philosophy/theology, between what can be known empirically and what can be inferred, or imagined, or intuited. Take another question that physicists are currently studying, that of the multiverse. The idea is that there may be many universes aside from the one we live in. Some even suggest that evidence points to there possibly being an infinite number of these universes, all existing in parallel form. In part, this originates from studies done by the German physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger is one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics, which studies the mysterious workings of the micro world of atoms and subatomic particles. He posited that a quantum state is the sum, or the “superposition,” of all possible states, hypothesizing in his famous “cat experiment” that an imagined feline in a box could be both dead and alive, and that we simply point to one or the other state as a kind of convenience, a sort of book-keeping device, only knowing if it is one or the other when the box is opened and it is observed. Additionally, according to another famous student of the field, Werner Heisenberg, quantum particles can exist in multiple locations simultaneously. This is referred to as his Uncertainty Principle, whereby the location of a subatomic particle can be calculated, but not its speed; or the speed can be calculated, but not its location. Some subatomic particles even appear to spring automatically, if fleetingly, into existence from nothing. All this happens at the tiniest—the quantum—level.

At the macro level, on the other hand, String Theory has to do with the workings of gravity and the vastness of the universe, and may ultimately help explain both Dark Matter and Dark Energy (the latter being the mysterious force that is thought to drive the expansion of the universe). The holy grail of modern physics is to come up with a theory that would adequately explain the universe using both the laws of Quantum Mechanics and those of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which deals with the macro universe. So far, unfortunately, no genius physicist has yet been able to explain this so-called Grand Unification Theory.

As for the multiverse, speculation on that question has not yet risen to the level of an actual theory. In fact, it is useful to remember exactly what is meant, in scientific terms, by the word theory. What it is not, and what many non-scientists believe it to be since this is how the word is used in everyday speech, is a kind of guess—as in, “your theory (of whatever) is as good as mine.” Instead, scientifically, a theory is a system of ideas meant to explain something, based on principles independent of the thing being explained. Thus, we speak of the Theory of Evolution—which is not a guess at all, but a hypothesis that has been tested and retested over the years, and proven itself to be true beyond any reasonable doubt. This is also the case with Quantum Mechanics, whereas String Theory (admittedly, confusingly) has not yet been fully accepted by the scientific community as a whole.

So, we see from merely a short sketch that there are myriad puzzles, inconsistencies, and mysteries in the universe. Any number of others could be added, such as the inexplicable nature of Black Holes, and other singularities like the Big Bang itself. How the two are alike, or not alike, is as yet unknown. And what happens to Space-Time, when it enters into a Black Hole, if even light itself cannot escape its super gravitational pull? Does intelligent life exist on other planets? How did self-reflective consciousness come about? And what exactly is antimatter, which was created at the time of the Big Bang? In principle, when antimatter comes into contact with matter, the latter is annihilated. So, how do we exist? One possible explanation is because there is one extra particle of matter for every billion particles of anti-matter. And is this a matter of luck, or something more mysterious, more mindful?

Which ultimately brings us to the question of God, or if you prefer, some ultimately unknowable Universal Intelligence. How does he—or she, or it—fit into the picture? Does he exist? My own theory, to use the everyday vernacular form of the word, is that he does, and the way toward understanding him lies within, in private, not out there in the practices of organized religion. As Einstein once famously said: “Teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests.”

To be sure, science can help point the way, by examining the mysteries of the universe that we somehow have an innate longing to comprehend. Even if we never get there by using the scientific method, or generally through the normal processes of the human mind, at least we know we are trying to elucidate these ultimate questions. And if, as I believe, there is a Mystery Beyond All Mystery, one we will never fully plumb with our ordinary minds, then I should think such a Divine Being would really be pleased with the efforts of his clever, curious and ever-striving creatures.

HOW TO WIN THE 2016 ELECTION – Don’t Repeat the Nevada Democratic Convention Debacle!

by Kevin L Miller

It’s a gorgeous May in South Central PA, where I have been truly enjoying the preparation and planting of my 16 large raised vegetable beds, while reading and listening with increasing alarm to reports of the sudden split of the Democratic Party into two factions, following the disastrous Nevada State Democratic Convention on Saturday, May 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. Yesterday I planted a lot more tomatoes, okra, zucchini, melons and eggplant on our acreage that is closer to our Trump-loving neighbors here in the woods. Then I devoted yet another hour to reviewing many different videos of the Nevada Democratic Convention debacle. Google “Nevada Democratic Convention videos” and look at any of them that are not edited by conservative organizations. The footage has gone viral and leaves no doubt that the establishment Democrats in Nevada royally screwed the Bernie Sanders constituency.

The result is that the emerging division between Bernie’s Social-Democrats and Hillary’s Centrist-Democrats has suddenly deepened and polarized, so that hundreds of thousands of Bernie’s supporters are now shouting “Hillary NEVER! Bernie FOREVER!” They will NOT vote for Hillary now, and this puts the nation and the world in peril of a Trump presidency, which would be, quite simply, the beginning of the apocalypse. How did we get to this sorry state? The Democratic Party establishment lacked the imagination to recognize and embrace the mushrooming revolutionary movement within their ranks. Instead, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz and the establishment, dug in their heels, lectured and scolded the Sanders campaign and supporters, and ultimately misused all their rules in an attempt to silence and subdue the Social-Democrats. This is not the way to heal wounds and achieve reconciliation.

All it took was one filmed and well-documented State Democratic Convention (it happened to be Nevada) to inflame and enrage the Social-Democrats, and the party split in half — or nearly so. At this point, the division may be 3/5 Centrist-Democrats vs 2/5 Social-Democrats. Of course, that split would be enough to cause Democrats to lose the election to Donald Trump, and the schism will likely become closer to 50/50 as the election season rolls on, especially after the impending spectacle of the Philadelphia Democratic Convention which promises to be cataclysmic.

To be clear, no one can condone the behavior of either faction at the recent Nevada Democratic Convention. All reasonable people certainly condemn the implied death threat phone calls made by a few extreme Sanders supporters to Democratic officials, and deplore the fist fights that reportedly may have broken out on the floor of the convention. Violence is never the answer. Never!.. BUT… after watching the videos of the abusive antics of Chairwoman Roberta Lange on the floor of the convention, and reading the accounts of the repeated massacre of Robert’s Rules of Order and the convention’s own rules, any rational person has to understand the rage and profound frustration of the Social-Democrats at that event, and the subsequent bitterness.

In Nevada, the Democratic establishment met secretly, without consulting the Social-Democrats, and changed the rules before the convention. They brought the rules change to the floor for a “Yea or Nay” vote, before a quorum was present. On the videos, when the Nays clearly had it, the very shrill chairwoman, Roberta Lange, nevertheless gave it to the Yeas. When a standing vote count was properly called for, she refused. When a point of order was called, she ignored it. When one of the Social-Democrats politely petitioned the chair for the time to read their minority report, the chair denied them that right, after also ignoring their petitions. Then a slate of 64 contested Sanders delegates was rejected, against the screams of the crowd. And finally, the chair, discarded Robert’s Rules of Order, moved abruptly to adjourn amidst the roar of NAY, and did so, slamming the gavel down on the podium and storming off the stage, which was protected by a line of gray-uniformed big burly armed police who looked for all the world like the Gestapo. The screaming crowd was instructed to leave immediately. These videos have to be seen to be believed. The Democratic establishment’s behavior was completely outrageous, out of line, and undemocratic. While no one can condone any threats or violence perpetrated by the Sanders supporters, anyone who reviews the videos and written factual accounts will completely understand the frustration and rage of the Social-Democrats.

One video records Barbara Boxer’s presentation to the convention. A personal note here: I’ve always adored Barbara Boxer. She looks wonderful, by the way — never better — and her hair and outfit at the Nevada convention were magnificent. She now adds a beautiful, magnetic presence to her obviously superior intelligence and substantive professionalism. I can’t help speculating that she may be positioning herself for a VP nomination. But her approach to the raging convention after Roberta Lange and convention officials had already enraged the Sanders constituency, was NOT cool: “I’m a Hillary supporter. We have the votes! We have victory! Yay!… (loud booing from the crowd) Keep on booing, and boo yourselves out of this election!” It gives me NO pleasure to report this, because I have always been an enthusiastic Boxer supporter. I attended one of her fund raisers at a wealthy private home in southern CA many years ago and met her and bought one of her T-shirts, which I wore proudly for many years. I have very recently mentioned her name several times as one of my personal choices for VP. But she handled this very badly. Basic psychology tells us that such an approach is not the way to win friends and influence people. And it is emblematic of how far the Hillary-supporting Democratic establishment has to go to get to a place where they can reconcile with the Bernie Sanders people. This is NOT good! This approach is exactly the way to hand the election to Trump and kick off the apocalypse. “Yay!…” as Boxer would say.

What is fascinating about our current election is that in the three remaining candidates we have the whole political spectrum. On the extreme right is the fascist authoritarian tyrant Donald Trump. On the far left is the Social-Democrat Bernie Sanders. And smack dab in the middle is the Centrist-Democrat, Hillary Clinton. At this moment no one has any idea who is going to win the general election, because it now appears that all three of these figures are going to remain on the public stage right through the November election, although one of them, probably Bernie Sanders, will not be an official candidate. He is going to get very close to the Democratic nomination, and his supporters will say that he would have won it, if the Democratic primary system had not been rigged and the many super-delegates, pre-selected and pre-committed by the Democratic Party establishment, precisely to prevent an insurgent like Sanders from succeeding. It is likely that Senator Sanders will continue campaigning for a grass-roots political revolution right through the election, in order to keep pulling Hillary Clinton to the left and win in principle if not in fact. The louder her supporters demand that Bernie leave the stage, the larger his crowds will grow.

So, how does anyone WIN this election? Well… If the factional rancor continues as it is developing now, all Trump will have to do to win is sit back and laugh while the Democratic Party splits in half. Democrats have to hope and pray that it is not too late for the Democratic establishment to make nice and offer concessions to the Social-Democrats, or all of us are going to suffer the terminal illness of a Trump presidency. First of all, people like Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer and Debbie Wassermann-Shultz, true liberals in the Democratic establishment, need to STOP lecturing and scolding Bernie’s campaign and his supporters and address them with the respect and deference due a huge constituency within their party, rather than treating them like naughty children who are being disrespectful to their parents’ authority. You can’t reconcile with somebody by berating them.

Then, frankly, the Hillary Clinton campaign needs to co-opt Bernie’s revolution and take away any reason for his supporters to resist them. The Democratic establishment should remove Debbie Wasserman-Shultz from the equation, because she has become a lightning rod in this conflict. They need to reign in the authoritarian voices within their ranks, and they need to change the rules around super-delegates, allowing them to be apportioned according to the popular vote, rather than committed in advance — in many cases long before Bernie ever declared his candidacy. Then Hillary needs to simply adopt Bernie’s playbook, lock, stock and barrel, exactly the way her husband Bill did with all of his opponents to win elections. He proved it works! Finally, after adopting all of Bernie’s positions, Hillary needs to offer him the VP slot on the ticket, whether he takes it or not. If these things were to happen, Bernie and his supporters could declare victory, and Hillary would win the election and send Trump back to his gilded Manhattan cage. There is still hope, if the Democratic establishment can grow the balls and imagination required to to embrace Bernie’s revolution.

But, let’s face it… That’s not likely to happen. It’s not human nature. And although Bill Clinton is probably a highly respected voice within his wife’s campaign, I doubt that she or her operatives have what it takes to see that they need to do exactly what he did to win elections, and steal all the thunder from the opponents by co-opting their messages and swallowing them whole. No… the rule of the day is dogmatic polarization, whereas Bill Clinton’s co-opting tactics require vision that goes far beyond compromise. It is very likely that the Democratic establishment will circle the wagons and become even more authoritarian and abusive with the existing rules, in the mode of the chair of the Nevada Democratic Convention. This will enrage and drive the Social-Democrats even farther away from the established Democratic Party and any hope of supporting Hillary in the general election. The Philadelphia Democratic Convention will now inherit the once-predicted fate of the Cleveland Republican Convention, and become an absolute madhouse of rage and conflict. The Democratic Party will emerge badly damaged and split. And Trump is likely to win the election. The END!

P.S.: By the way… I have not changed my mind. I voted for Bernie in the PA primary, and I am still supporting him and his positions. But if Hillary, or Daffy Duck, or a fence post, wins the Democratic nomination and remains the strongest alternative to Trump in the polls, then I will vote for that alternative that has at least some chance of defeating Trump and averting utter global disaster. But there is now some slight possibility that even if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, she may not emerge by election day as the strongest candidate against Trump. Anything can happen now. A Trump presidency would be an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. and the world. The Democratic Party establishment must step back and get real about the heroic surgery they will now have to perform if they are to heal the gaping wounds within the progressive electorate body, and win this election.

 

HIGHWAY OR TRAIN, INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP: WHAT’S THE AMERICAN WAY?

By Paul M. Lewis

Not long ago, my partner and I were driving to Northern Arizona from our home in Southern California. We go each month to visit with my partner’s mother, who is in hospice care at a nursing home there. It’s usually at least an eight and a half hour drive each way, longer if somebody was texting, or chatting on the cell phone, or otherwise distracted, and so has caused an accident.

For the most part, we try to work it out so as to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic on the freeways, leaving early enough to give ourselves some breathing room. We also tend to take the northern route, heading up Interstate 15 to Barstow, and then taking I-40 east until it meets Arizona state route 89. Taking the I-10 east instead might cut off a few miles, but the 40 is so much more beautiful. It goes through the magnificent Mojave Desert National Preserve in California, and once you’re in Arizona you pass through an enchanting forest of juniper trees.

When there’s a problem on the roads, it’s always in the LA megalopolis. For us, getting to Barstow entails taking the 405 to the 22 to the 55 to the 91 to the 15. Anyone who drives the LA freeways knows what I’m talking about, and for those unfamiliar with these routes, it’s maybe enough to say that they can be torturous. One of the worst places is the intersection of the 91 and the 15, near the Inland Empire town of Corona. That’s because so many people have moved to the southern part of Riverside County, where housing at least once was a lot cheaper, in search of the American dream: a house with 3 or 4 bedrooms, living room, dining room and family room, plus a yard out back with grass where the kids can play and the dog can romp. If you’re lucky, or rich enough, maybe you even have a swimming pool, to boot.

For years, that intersection narrowed down to one lane, and traffic backed up accordingly. On a dark winter’s morning, driving east on the 91 and approaching the 15, you could see a gargantuan necklace of headlights, as cars awaited their turn to get onto the westbound 91. Nowadays, Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) is in the midst of a monster construction project there, involving a multiple lane overpass.

Which is what got me to thinking. The last time we came through there, we were on our way home, and so it was the middle of the afternoon. The behemoth hulk of the half-built overpass was plainly visible, hanging in midair, as workers and machines scrambled over the area following their appointed tasks, ones not necessarily apparent to us passersby. Still, progress was clearly being made, or I guess that’s what it’s called. At least, you could see that more of the road had been completed than when we started our regular treks to Arizona, something like eight months ago.

And no doubt, the folks who use those freeways everyday, commuting back and forth to jobs nearer the coast from communities like Riverside, or Lake Elsinore, or Murrieta, or even as far south as Temecula, will be overjoyed once the work is done. My guess is that things will be better for them, at least for maybe a year or two, until the traffic catches up with the improvements—as it always does—and we’re back once again looking at what will then be a double, or even a triple-line, necklace of headlights.

The Caltrans budget for the current 2015-16 year is 10.5 billion dollars, an almost 2 billion dollar, or 11.9%, increase over that of the previous year. Even though this represents less than 10% of the state’s overall budget of about $113 billion, it is still a lot of money. Though some might say even that’s not enough. After all, without our freeways, how would people get to work, how would goods and services be moved, how would anyone get anywhere, for any reason? But remember this, too, that the ten billion plus dollars spent by the state on Caltrans this year represents only a tiny fraction of the amount spent over the years on the building of this kind of infrastructure. In other words, that ten billion is the cost for maintenance, and some isolated construction projects, on a system that basically already exists.

What has occurred to me many times, as we drive through that interchange between the 91 and the 15—or any other you may care to name—is why did we never invest the same monumental sums of money into rail connections? In my freeway-smog addled mind’s eye, I imagine my partner and me, for example, sitting comfortably in a bullet train, heading east out of downtown Los Angeles straight to Phoenix. Then, after relaxing for a short wait in a beautifully appointed train station there, we would take another line north from Phoenix to Prescott (our final destination); or, if it had to go to Flagstaff first, then from there on a smaller branch line down to Prescott. This same kind of convenient train travel could of course be reproduced in all fifty states. But that is not what we have. What trains are available are hardly convenient. Years ago, we took a train trip from Los Angeles to Seattle. It was supposed to leave LA at noon, and arrive in Seattle at 8:00 PM the following evening. Instead, it left at 4:00 PM and arrived at 3:00 o’clock in the morning two days later. Does that instill confidence in getting from place to place on time, to say nothing of comfortably? This huge delay happened mostly because there is, for the most part, only one train track between these two major west coast cities, and freight trains often take the right-of-way. It’s not supposed to be like that, but the freight carriers far prefer to pay the relative pittance of a fine for not giving way to a passenger train, and so slowing down their own operations.

If the government—and of course the people who elect their representatives—made train travel a priority, we could have made that same journey in a matter of hours, not days. Just as Europeans do on their trains, or the Japanese, or nowadays even the Chinese. The travel time, for example, between Paris and Marseille—a journey of approximately 775 miles—takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes on the TGV (train à grande vitesse, France’s version of the bullet train). You leave from central Paris and arrive in central Marseille. No need to bother with highways, airports, or parking, or sitting in traffic. You can read, chat with your fellow passengers, or just sit and look out the window. And all this for about 25 euros, just over $28 US dollars, according to the current exchange rate. Is that what it costs to actually operate these state-of-the-art trains? Probably not, but the government is willing to subsidize the cost, and so are the French people. By contrast, the distance between Los Angeles and Phoenix is about 365 miles. The Amtrak ticket costs $100 more than the ticket between Paris and Marseille, and it is estimated that the trip will take over 10 hours. In other words, it would cost 4 times as much, and take more than 3 times as long, for my partner and me to go half the distance. And we would still have to either rent a car in Phoenix to get to Prescott (a two hour drive), or get ourselves to the airport there to pick up the shuttle van.

Why would we ever do that? Indeed, why would anyone take a train in the United States, when travel by car is so much faster, cheaper, and more convenient? The answer obviously is almost no one. But what is behind these questions may be more interesting. One estimate of the cost of building the interstate system is that it takes approximately $1 million for every mile of highway built. Using that estimate, and multiplying it by the almost 48,000 miles of interstate highways we have in this country, we come to the mind-blowing total of approximately $48,000,000,000. To put it in words, because most of us are not used to seeing that many zeros after any number, that is forty-eight trillion dollars. Naturally, the money was spent to build these roads over the course of many decades. Still, by way of comparison, the entire US GDP, the Gross Domestic Product (i.e., the cost of all goods and services produced in the country in a given year) is projected to be just under $18 trillion dollars for 2016.

I learned a long time ago, working for many years at universities, that budgeting is always a matter of deciding on priorities. When my boss told me I could not hire an adviser I thought we needed, but I learned later that another office was able to, it was clear that that other office had a higher priority in the hierarchy of what was considered important at the university. Each of us does the same thing with our own household budgets. New car? Well, maybe not this year. Maybe it’s best to get the roof fixed, or pay down that outrageous credit card bill.

Although admittedly far more complex, the basic principle is the same when it comes to countries. Money is ultimately put where you, the taxpayer (via your representatives), want it to go. And Americans want their cars, and their highways. We want to be able to go out our front door, jump into our automobile, and hit the open road. Or that’s the fantasy, at least. We’re rugged individualists; we want independence, free choice; we want to go where we want, when we want, and to be able to stop whenever it’s convenient. Leave the trains—those giant conveyor belts of groups of people—to the socialists in Europe, or the communists in China. So, don’t look for a diminishing of car travel any time soon in this country. California has been attempting to build a bullet train between LA and San Francisco for several years now, but with all of the court challenges against it, the project has just barely begun. And even if and when it is completed, it will be required to run without state subsidy.

In the end, we get what we pay for. Americans have always wanted what we think of as our freedom of movement: the car in the garage ready to whisk us off whenever we choose either to work, or to school, or to an enchanting land of adventure. But along with this comes packed freeways, bumper-to-bumper traffic, huge costs, and polluted skies. If that is what we want, then that’s what we’ve got. And if anybody prefers a nice train ride, swift, clean, reliable and cheap, well, they’d just better take a trip to Paris to find it.