Caffeine Routine (Morning Notes To Self)

The coffee is kept in the pickle jar; that’s all you must recall. 

(Where are the pickles kept? In the fridge, of course. Why would you be worried about pickles at this hour of morning?)

As I was saying – your job is to move the coffee from the pickle jar to the French press without further catastrophe. I’m saying “further” because there has likely been at least one catastrophe already today. Not necessarily yours – it could have been an “other people” catastrophe – but why tempt fate? Never let catastrophe know you haven’t recently seen its face. 

Now, assuming catastrophe has been successfully let out (be sure to let the cat in first – not at the same time) – pour boiling water over the coffee. You should have already set on the water to boil in order to arrive at this stage – of course I mentioned it. You just forgot. Well, put the kettle on, we’ll wait. 

No, you can’t have ramen for breakfast. Not even with an egg in it. 

No, you don’t want oatmeal for breakfast. Too wholesome – what kind of day can you expect once you’ve started it off with oatmeal? 

Cheese grits – that’s the best breakfast. With an egg on it. And jalapenos, and hot sauce, and lots of coffee. Infinite refills, diner-style, and the coffee must be in a diner mug, unbreakable and infinite as the coffee. 

No, you don’t have time to make cheese grits. What do you think this is, a diner? 

Catch the kettle before it wakes the roommates. Pour the coffee into a mug. Be sure to place the mug on the counter first. Do check the inside of your selected mug prior to filling it with coffee; in this way we avoid a repeat of the “Cricket Incident.” 

Coffee and thoughts of breakfast – that should keep you going until lunch. 

The roommates are asking where the cat came from, they haven’t seen this one around before. How should I know? Ask the cat, that’s its business. What do you mean we don’t have a cat? We do now.

Here There Be Dragons

Here, there be dragons. 

If I sit in the common room – my preferred workspace – I can hear activities from all of my roommates’ rooms. (It’s better than Netflix, what can I say.) Lately, the apartment has reverberated to the sound of growling, roaring, blasts of flame and other special attacks. One roommate is deeply engaged in World of Warcraft; another, Old School RuneScape. The third roommate has a cat. The cat has, so far, produced slightly more growling and roaring, but slightly fewer blasts of flame, than the two games.

This flurry of constant activity dates to the start of shelter-in-place. Since mid-March, the roommates have been locked in battle with beasts great and small. (The cat appears to battle dust motes, but it has a win streak that surpasses the humans’.)

Every once in a while, they stumble forth from their rooms. 

Mumbling into their headset microphones, they ravage the kitchen for keyboard-safe munchies. I hear the fridge, the microwave, the recyclable bin (in that order), and then a mad dash back to their lairs. (The cat is the exception; once it has made it to the common room it has no interest in returning to confinement.)

Every once in a while the roommates’ paths intersect. There is a moment of flurried panic as they realize they are trapped in the kitchen with another creature. This is followed by a few seconds of calculation. They gauge who is closest to the fridge and how much time remains on the microwave cycle. They eyeball the front door, and wonder if they have time to take out the recyclables or pick up the mail rather than stand in a rectangular box with another human. They evaluate their chances of remaining camouflaged against the cupboards if they hold – very – still – oh, darn it, he’s already seen me. 

It’s not that they dislike each other. During other epochs, they have happily interracted. 

It’s that they currently can’t afford distraction. They have their missions, their quests, their agendas. They have found purpose. They have found what gives their life meaning. Compared to the eternal urge of the hero’s quest, small talk barely signifies. 

When one has faced dragons, there are no more small things to talk about.

Misunderstood Words

For twelve years, I had a violin teacher who also happened to be a Scientologist. He was an excellent violinist and a very good teacher. He mostly focused on teaching me violin, but every once in a while a repeated mistake in my playing would be too good to ignore. He would pounce on it and insist we discover what the problem was. 

He was convinced there were exactly three barriers to learning. These barriers were:  a “misunderstood word”, a “lack of mass”, or “too steep a gradient.” 1

In terms of my musical malpractices, it frequently emerged that the symbol I had confidently denoted a B-flat was, in fact, a C-sharp. (Or some such error. My ability to read music was and is…limited.) 

This, I was told, was the musician’s equivalent of a “misunderstood word” – a word which one uses frequently, but (in a twist on illiteracy) fails to understand. 

The idea of “misunderstood word” stuck with me. It is a useful expression of an observable phenomenon: people often fail to understand the definitions of a word even after using it many times. They simply absorb what “everyone knows” through a sort of cultural osmosis, until one day they come across a use of the word that doesn’t match up with what they imagined “everyone knew” – and in that instant, their ability to understand things they’ve built on that word comes crashing down. 

Where am I going with this? To find a dictionary…haha. Um. Lest you wander off, let me tell you where I am going with this. Are you familiar with the term “alternative facts”?

Great. How about “fake news”? 

Ahhh, excellent. 

Let’s set aside the issue of “wilful ignorance and manipulation” for a moment, because I’m still not sure I understand that concept. Let’s just look at the idea of “fact.” 

It’s a word we are exposed to from the moment we enter school (if not before). We are exposed to it in the context of the scholastic: “Children, you must learn your math facts. 2+2=4.” We are exposed to it conversationally: “I am furious at him, and that’s a fact!” We are exposed to it persuasively: “The facts are on my side.” 

As a matter of fact – the amount of “fact” we are exposed to far exceeds the amount of information anyone in their right mind is ready to examine and verify.

I don’t think all of those people are trying to mislead. (Well, not all of them. Probably. By the way, did you see where I put my tinfoil hat?) I think they just use the word “fact” in a way that is a little…non-factual. The word “fact” is a wonderful example of a “misunderstood word” magnified to the societal level. 

Now, what do I mean by that? 

People typically use the word “fact” when discussing one of five different things. 

Fact: a claim that can be checked, verified, replicated; a claim for which overwhelmingly conclusive evidence exists. 

Claim: A theory for which either no conclusive evidence has been produced, or for which evidence has yet to be evaluated and verified.

Value: An socially-validated experience of “truth” which may not be demonstrably true. 

Experience: the subjective understanding of a factual event or series of events.

Opinion: A subjective expression of a mix of claims, values, experiences, and social influences. 

When you say, “Person A killed Person B,” that is a claim, until conclusive evidence is presented and evaluated. 

(A “claim” can be true, false, or unproven; a “fact” is, as a condition of fact-hood, always and necessarily true. If new evidence later disproves the fact, it ceases to be a fact.)

When you say, “The act of killing produces death,” that is a fact2. It can be medically verified. 

When you say, “It is wrong to kill,” you are not stating a fact. You are stating a value3

When you say, “This event is a terrible tragedy,” you are sharing your experience of the event.

And when I say “People typically use the word ‘fact’ to mean one of five things,” I am expressing an opinion. 

I mention this because most news stories are a mix of all five of the above. The problem is that they are sometimes not clearly differentiated. They are sometimes presented as all “fact,” or at least not clearly presented as claim, value, experience, and/or opinion. Any of the four are worthy of discussion, but they must be understood for what they are and they must not be confused with fact. 

This lack of differentiation creates the opportunity for ideas like “fake news” and “alternative facts” to gain traction – because these ideas contain a very small grain of truth. They give voice to the latent recognition that what is presented under the label of “fact” is sometimes not a fact. The problem is not with the presentation of verified facts; the problem is with the incorrect labeling of things which are not facts as facts. 

Now, I am very late to this party. A lot of other people have already discussed the implications of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” These discussions are usually conducted along ideological, moral, or logical lines. Today, I am simply interested in exploring them as symptomatic of a “misunderstood word” problem surrounding “fact. 

The first issue is that – by leaving the definition of “fact” up for grabs – we allow the implication that evidence is completely arbitrary. And arbitrary evidence is antithetical to justice. The institution of law (upon which the legitimacy of most democratic governments at least claims to exist) requires an evidence-based, fact-based justice system. You cannot have both arbitrary “facts” and a legitimate claim to govern in a democracy. A true democracy must be based on fact.

The second problem is that these labels devalue actual discussions of complexity. They devalue, as a knee-jerk response, the critical re-examination and clarification of the information that is regularly presented to us. If you have criticism of a news source, you are yourself suspect of laundering “alternative facts.” But the act of re-examining positions in light of new evidence (key word: evidence) is an excellent response. 

It is crucial to an intelligent society – and a democracy (whichever comes first). The key is that this re-examination has reasonable grounds for its existence; that it seeks to evaluate facts based on genuine evidence; that it is transparent about its methods, assumptions, and logic; and that it does not attempt to disingenuously steer the social narrative prior to reaching a conclusion. 

While we’re on the topic – because today’s “news” is so often linked to the events of “yesterday:” the above five definitions are also critical in understanding and discussing history. 

There is a factual history. It is a singular, verifiable narrative, because – in this universe, as far as we know – only one reality can exist at any given time, and it’s opportunity cost is all the other possible realities. 

There are also experiential histories. These are narratives of personal or group experience of the outcomes or effects of the factual history. 

Both are crucial to our understanding of past actions and present choices. Neither should be devalued in favor of the other. Both must be acknowledged for what they are. And their distinctions must be clearly appreciated. 

To illustrate – let’s consider World War II. The war is a fact; it has verifiable dates, events, and actors. These dates, events, and actors were the same regardless of what faction you represented. 

However, the events of World War II were experienced in widely divergent ways by different groups or factions. In an experiential sense, a farm girl in Illinois and a Japanese naval officer did not experience the same war. 

They were affected by the same factual events, to varying degrees and distances. But they felt the impact of those events from different contexts. Their responses arose from their subjective experience of an objective reality. And in order to effectively understand how individuals and societies interacted with each other in the decades following the war, we must take into account both fact and experience. 

Finally, there are claims and opinions. A historian can have an opinion, and based on that opinion can make a claim that a war was fought in this or that place, for this or that reason. It is, however, not a fact until contemporary evidence supports the claim. Sometimes the phrase “generally accepted” will be used – and this indicates a claim that has no contradictory evidence and seems very likely, based on the body of contextual knowledge – but also does not (and may never) have any specifically conclusive evidence. 

Well, this is a lot to sum up. If any of you brave readers are still around, you’re made of strong stuff indeed. 

In recognition of your bravery, I’ll end quickly. We live in a complex society. In order to support this society, our language must support nuance. We must actively use our language to support nuance and complexity. 

I’d say “that’s a fact” – but in fact – that’s an… opinion. 

1 It is not my purpose to delve into the workings of his system of belief. Neither am i endorsing or marketing any of the aspects of Scientology, or its many for- or non-profit affiliates.

2 There are facts for which specifications of time or place are necessary. These specifications must always be clearly and consistently acknowledged. For example: it is true to say that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States in 1945 – but it is not factual. A strictly factual statement would be that he was president until his death on April 12th, 1945. In this way, you prevent the listener’s assumption – based upon a true statement, remember! – that FDR was president in October of 1945.

3 You are stating a strongly-held belief that the act of killing is a negative moral position. Your value may be based on logic – “killing leads to breakdown of the relationships necessary for social functions and thus to unstable societies” – but there is no piece of evidence that can definitively prove “wrong.” You can’t prove the morality of an action, you can only evaluate the action based on agreed-upon conventions or, perhaps, upon your personal understanding of empathy.

Sense of Place: Northside News

Throughout my high school years, I was fortunate to outsource much of the business of broadening my world.

By this I mean I took many, many walks. There were a few destinations that always reset my mind, gave me hope in a larger world full of opportunities. They were places that contained some glimpse of a life I wanted to be a part of. 

Sometimes it was as simple as the color of a house or the glow of a mica-shaded light in a window. Sometimes it was a yard with hibiscuses in bloom, or a peony bush. It was a park, a vegetable stand; a mechanics shed, a health-food store. For about a year, one of these places was a little newsstand (now defunct) called Northside News. 

The place shared a doorway and a smell with the next-door cafe. The smell was not unpleasant – just pervasive: smoke, fresh bread and hot grease. Everything in Northside News smelled of it, including the books and papers for sale. After a minute inside, you smelled of it too.

I found three irresistible draws inside Northside News. 

The first was the periodicals. They did not have the typical supermarket selection. There were a few glossies – I believe Sports Illustrated and Popular Mechanics made the cut – but generally speaking, they specialized in niche, imported, or otherwise hard-to-find publications.

The ones I was interested in were mostly European. They were printed on heavy, non-gloss paper; either all black-and-white photography, or richly colored illustrations. They only came out two or four times a year, and they were expensive, at $20-$30 an issue. 

Alongside the attractions of beautiful illustration and concept-heavy editorials – mostly in languages I couldn’t read – these publications had another draw. They made no pretense of observing American PG standards. They were as close to smut as I had any hopes of getting without having access to some of the more niche publications kept behind the counter. Whoever picked Northside News’s stock had good taste. 

The second item of interest was half-hidden at the very back of the store. It was a bookshelf. It was one of those rickety wooden types that, in defiance of both capitalism and the law of cause and effect, has somehow never been new. It looked like it was either rescued from the curb or the dumpster. 

The bookshelf’s contents were, appropriately, also rescues: second hand books that were mostly end-of-term castoffs from Butler University’s liberal arts majors. Judging by the unusual concentration of works by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok, at least one of the students had taken a course on Jewish literature. Works by Singer were my particular prize – The Manor; Shosha; Short Friday and Other Stories

These books were a special part of my introduction to the fantastical. They did not draw from tropes of science fiction or “fantasy” as a genre. Rather, their power arose from equal parts mysticism and the grotesque. They revolved around the irony of conscience in an arbitrary world – a place where either God or the Universe is so distinct from humanity as to remain forever unknowable. 

With the exception of Jonathan Swift and some of Mark Twain’s short stories, I am not familiar with another author so successfully ironic. My high school self didn’t know how to express what was going on in these stories, but the imagery and atmosphere was so rich that it nonetheless was a powerful lesson in ambiguity, complexity – understanding how a thing could be two or more ways at once. My religious instruction, while not dogmatic, had not acknowledged the necessity of ambiguity. 

There are some faith traditions which thrive on ambiguity. Buddhism is an obvious example; from what I understand, it is predicated upon the idea of “now” rather than “someday.” Closer to my own religious lineage, Celtic Christianity is also heavily associated with the idea of “mystery” – the miraculous union of apparently-opposing aspects through the state of divinity. 

For any faith to survive, it must come to grips with ambiguity. Otherwise it devolves into apathy or fanaticism. You can ignore ambiguity, you can try to avoid it – but the only way forward is through it. Repeatedly. 

Sex and intellectual growth also require the ability to wrestle with complexity. You can be this and that, you can think this and that; there will always remain the things you haven’t experienced, haven’t thought of; and yet! Somewhere in the midst of all of this neural activity is a creature called “human.”  This lively entropy is completely alien to the cause-and-effect, reward-and-punishment system of morality (read: evaluation and decision-making) most of us absorb as children. 

After all of the above – you could say ambiguity was the third draw of Northside News. The place was seedy, yet safe enough for a high schooler to enter. It was adult, neighborhood, safe, weird, risque, familiar and an agent of change. It was some sort of edge. It was a faultline in my world of knowledge. It caused upheaval, but it was also inevitable and new – the old story of innocence, impulse, information, and exploration. 

Sometimes, when I open a book, I can still smell the place. 

Coffee With Cardamom

Some days I want change. Today is such a day. 

My world, right now, is rather limited. So, too, is my ability to affect change. That is why I just dropped three crushed cardamom pods in my coffee press and called it “a change.” 

It’s a tiny thing, this break in routine. But right now the act of making coffee is the closest I have to any daily ritual. If a ritual is understood to be an action repeated with intent, then there is also significance in the act of introducing anomaly to the pattern. 

This is, of course, an imaginary construct against powerlessness. It is the ridiculous yet visceral urge towards irreconcilable opposites. It is the wish for the world to be different

I want change, yes – and peace and creation and healing and the chaos of rebirth and destruction. I am selflessly greedy; I want none of this struggle to be necessary. I want the ideal of Spaceship Earth. I want people, as a species, to have fulfilled lives doing whatever they do best, without impinging on anyone else’s ability to do the same. (I’m not going to say “I want everyone to be happy” because, frankly, I suspect there are people who just wouldn’t be happy with that.) 

Somewhere, if you catch Probability on a very good day – there’s a version of our universe in which, each time there is a chance for strife – it misses. 

Each time we are faced with the opportunity to do harm, we don’t. We dodge each trap of choice, while retaining free will. 

In this thought-experiment, there is no divine intervention which keeps choice or chance on track. This is no Paradise, no Nirvana. This is a place of human decision. So the word for it is: Utopia.

Now, for a bookshelf detour. There is a book called The Power of Myth1; it is a conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers on why, and how, we need the mythic. I have recently acquired a copy, after brushing against references to this work off and on over the last decade. 

One constantly recurring theme is the idea of the price of life. Campbell goes beyond simply discussing the old duality of life and death to suggest that the act of life requires an act of death – an act of killing. This is framed as the necessity of eating (animal or vegetable, both involve an organism’s death). Yes, that escalated quickly. 

In Campbell’s own words:

Life is, in its very essence and character, a terrible mystery – this whole business of living by killing and eating. But it is a childish attitude to say no to life with all its pain, to say that this is something that should not have been….Only death is no trouble.” (emphasis mine)

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

It appears my thought experiment has just been called “childish” by one of the twentieth century’s best-known thinkers on comparative mythology. 

I can’t even say he’s wrong. It’s a demonstrable fact: life survives only at the cost of other life2.

Campbell continues to say that he thinks the world is perfect the way it is – there is nothing he would change.

“…People ask me, ‘Do you have optimism about the world?’ And I say, ‘Yes, it’s great just the way it is. And you are not going to fix it up. Nobody has ever made it any better. It is never going to be any better. This is it, so take it or leave it. You are not going to correct or improve it.’”

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

When life and killing are intrinsically linked, you can’t exactly go around playing Caped Crusader. (Well, capes haven’t really been in since The Incredibles, but you get the picture). 

There’s not that much to argue against a person who will simply respond that you haven’t evolved the higher understanding necessary to agree with them. That aside (“questionable scholarship aside”) – Campbell’s words bother me because they heavily imply that what humans need isn’t an ideal of Utopia; humans just need better rituals to navigate the business of killing things. (Periodically he also mourns the fact that modern societies have no rituals.)

I think Campbell fails to distinguish between necessity and gratuitousness. 

If you find you can do less harm – do so. That is the greatest act of change possible. If you can exist in such a way that lessens suffering, both individual and cumulative – do so. And look for ways to continue to do so. Globally it may be a lost cause. You can’t control anyone else’s actions. But you can try to lessen harm in whatever is placed in front of you, each day. 

Campbell doesn’t have a lot to say about my thought experiment anyway because he’s already said there is nothing he would change. 

Here is my unsubstantiated suspicion: Campbell could afford to say there was nothing he would change because, as far as these things go, he was at the top of the pyramid. He was educated (Dartmouth and Columbia), financially stable, a tenured professor. He had many safety nets against the rougher side of change. He had many insulations against precisely the cycle of desperate necessity he described as inevitable. Poverty and powerlessness were not his lot.

The rest of us dream of a changed world. The rest of us construct Utopias in our heads, and look for small ways to sneak glimpses into the everyday. 

There are plenty of times in life when imperfection must be accepted, acknowledged, embraced, or celebrated. Imperfection has its own lessons for us, and I spend a lot of time reflecting on imperfection. 

But the act of reflecting on “perfection” – even if we can’t agree on what it is or how to get there – also holds lessons. This act of imagining Utopia? It’s powerful stuff. It is an action I repeat with intent: a ritual, if you will, performed as often as I can get away with it. The understanding that I will always fail to create it for others does not release me from the drive to use it as the template for anything I do create – even if it is as simple as a single chance to “do no harm.”

Good grief, that cardamom coffee3 is good stuff. I wonder what else I can find to throw in there tomorrow? 

1The Power of Myth is a complex book, and it’s ideas – for better or worse – have shaped a lot of modern cultural production. Here, I have pulled at one small thread of many. My caution? Campbell is often viewed as some sort of Messianic figure, and I think that is precisely a view he seeks to bolster. The book should be understood as a heavily subjective interpretation at best – Campell cherrypicks sources and versions of myths, and he constantly draws from other fields – in which he has no in-depth knowledge – to back up his subjective claims. Having said all of that, if you are at all interested in narrative or symbolism or philosophy or the weirdness people get up to when they’re trying to make sense of themselves and the world – I think the book is a very worthwhile read. 

2 Of course, he’s ignoring plants and single-celled organisms who form chlorophyll from solar energy. But he would likely argue that soil is formed by decomposed life.

3 Upon coffee-enlightened reflection, I’ve now backed myself into a corner labeled “hypocrite.” Neither coffee nor cardamom are, strictly speaking, necessary. So in this act of consumption of once-living plants, I am back to square one. Dammit, I need better rituals for this sort of thing…

The Secret Miracle

Child, love, stranger – 
Voice in the window, the hall;
This fractal fate, this chance in time
To know and be known.

One of us or any of us,
Any of us or none at all,
Is beginning to end – each second
Comes softly
The secret miracle.

Each instant offers the chance to be a different version of yourself. What might that new self teach you?

Social Distancing

My dear, I can’t stay. 
You have a disease, I’m afraid – 
Income less than 20K
Per year. After bills paid, 
None at all! 
A fatal flaw. 

My dear, cover your mouth!
You shouldn’t shout
Where I can hear – I read about
A plan to route
Your problem – 

My dear, take this mask – 
It pains me to see
Your poverty. 
Kindly cover your need, 
Lest you infect me
With charity.

I’m deeply concerned over the urban society that will emerge once we “re-open.”

Social distancing – while a necessary response to an airborne contagion – has a socioeconomic component as well.

Anyone who can afford to move away from dense population centers, or otherwise stratify their existence, will do so. Anyone who can’t afford to move or avoid public transit or work from home will be – not to put too fine a point on it – screwed.

They’ll be stigmatized for a while, while society’s attention holds. Long-term, they’ll just be neglected and ignored, until the situation becomes so bad it’s declared a “blight” and a “public health crisis” and the whole thing is bulldozed. Literally and metaphorically.

Here, then, is our challenge: to maintain the physical rationale of non-contagion, while understanding that there is no meaningful separation between any of us when faced with mortality.

I would rather base a plea for caring on shared life – but life is easy to ignore. People do it all the time. Death is not so easy to ignore. So she carries the message.

Here is the antidote to apathy and apartness. Let Death, in one of her guises, tap you on the shoulder every now and then. Listen when she says: “The Life of one is the Life of many, the problems of one are the problems of all. My child, my loved one – as I seek you, seek compassion.”