June 26, 2013

Fifty Years

A friend of mine used to say the long-distance trucker never travels the same road twice. He also liked Kurt Vonnegut's quote about strange travel suggestions being dancing lessons from God. I think a 50th high school reunion amply qualifies under both injunctions. Maybe we should be wary about repeating history, but at the same time we shouldn't be afraid to face the future ... or the past.

Fifty years is a lot of water under the bridge. That's how long it had been since I had seen most of the folks in that room. Facebook helped some of us become reacquainted in the months leading up to the reunion, but for the most part, it was what sales people refer to as a cold call ... you just show up and hope for the best.

I was prepared for just about anything. What I found were a lot of people who were very comfortable to be around. Comfortable. That would be the word I would use to describe both the evening and my classmates. Like opening an old book you used to love as a kid and starting to re-read it and finding it brings you just as much pleasure as it did when you were first read it. At the same time, you see things you missed the first time around, new layers of meaning, new pleasures from young words re-read with old eyes.

I told someone before the reunion that the overarching memory of my classmates was that they were nice kids. That impression remains unchanged fifty years down the road. Sure, we've all had our labors and sorrows, but we seem to have held steady in the prop wash of some pretty turbulent times. That says something about each person, but it also says something about the legacy we shared from growing up during simpler times in a small town that cared about its kids and about its schools.

Ultimately, reunions are about more than the people who attend them. They are about a time and a place when we were young and very much a work in progress. Walking the ground, seeing the changes that time has wrought, remembering the old dreams, you discover that the ultimate reunion is with yourself. You look across time, comparing the person you've become to the person you thought you would be. Both are reflected in the looking glass, neither perhaps quite as the other expected it would be.

The tension eases with the welcoming smiles and warm embraces of old friends you didn't even remember you had from fifty years back. Like the song from Cheers, everybody knows your name and they are glad you came. The Germans have a word for it -- gemütlichkeit -- which conveys a communal sense of belonging and acceptance. Now, I have a word for it, too: reunion.

June 17, 2013

Golf Lessons


This weekend was Father's Day, which is also the traditional weekend for the U.S. Open, one of golf's four major tournaments. This is a perfect match because my love of golf is but one of the many things I learned from my father.

Our practice range was the half-acre field behind the house on Beechwood Street. This would have been in the early 1960s. There was 120 or so yards of open ground, perfect for practicing with a pitching wedge or a 9-iron. After dinner, he would grab a couple of clubs and maybe six golf balls, which we would hit back and forth the length of the field ... or not, depending on who was doing the hitting.

At that time of day, we often found ourselves sharing the field with bats looking for an evening repast. My father would point them out and then throw a golf ball into the air. We would watch them swoop down and then just as quickly veer away, seeming to instantly realize that this wasn't what they were looking for. One of many moving parts of the natural world that I first saw through his eyes.

I was left-handed; golf clubs in those days were almost entirely right-handed. Custom clubs were out of the question. It was play right-handed or not play at all. I bowed to the inevitable and learned to play right-handed, a choice which, surprisingly enough, seemed natural right from the start. That was maybe my first lesson learned, that you can do more than you think you can.

Next was the swing itself. I won't bore you with mechanics, but I will say that my father had a very natural swing. It didn't hurt that he had spent decades hammering nails, resulting in hands and wrists of exceptional strength. He would take a pitching wedge and send it effortlessly on its way 100 yards down-range. I would swing with all my might and maybe get 50 yards if I was lucky. And don't even ask about direction.

After a wayward shot I might try to shift the blame to the club, pointing out this or that perceived imperfection on the club face. My father would take the club from my hand, set it behind a golf ball, and send it flying upwards in a beautiful right to left arc to its appointed resting place at the other end of the field. Then he would turn to me and say something like, "I don't think it's the club." As a carpenter and cabinet-maker, my father well understood the meaning of the phrase, "It's the poor workman who blames his tools."

He also taught me that it wasn't so much about how far you could hit the ball with a particular club. Sure, he could hit any given club much farther than I could, but the secret was in knowing your distance for each club and then picking the right club for the right distance. The goal was to perform consistently time after time. If I could do that, I could compete with anyone. Later in life, I translated this into my own definition of consistency: show up every day and do a workmanlike job, even on the bad days.

A lot of parenting occurs by proximity. We see what our parents do day in and day out, and we absorb it, whether we want to or not. My father never spent much time lecturing me. His lessons were from the doing of a thing. Going to work every day, rain or shine. Loving music, even if that meant listening to Lawrence Welk. Showing me the proper way to saw a piece of wood. Teaching me the basics of the golf swing. Being honest in all things big and small. Treating people as equals. Appreciating the natural world.

The legacy from him is still growing in that I continue to learn about him and from him. But maybe the the most important thing my father did is what he didn't do. He didn't try to remake me into his own image. Instead, he let me be who I am while he stayed who he was. What more can you do for a child than let them grow into themselves? The irony is that I find myself to be more like him than I would have imagined. At least I hope so.

June 13, 2013

Of Elephants and Children


For several centuries, folks ate in what was called service à la française, or service in the French style. All the food for all the courses would be arranged on a table, and guests would simply take what portions they desired of each. Think of all those banquet scenes set in medieval castles, where boisterous noblemen quaff tankards of ale while reaching for enormous cuts of beef from the center of the table and you pretty much get the idea.

Over time, this evolved into what we think of today as the buffet, mostly to solve the one big problem with service à la française, namely keeping all the various foods at the correct temperature throughout the meal. In  the 1830s, a more refined solution was introduced into the salons of Paris by the Russian ambassador, Prince Alexander Kurakin. He preferred to have each course served in sequence, an innovation that was quickly labeled service à la russse. This rapidly gained favor in Paris and spread to England. It remains the dominant style in the Western world.

One consequence of this change in dining styles was the need for a much greater variety of knives, forks, and spoons, as well as other specialized implements to accompany each course. Suddenly, no fine dining experience was complete without lemon knives, sweet meat forks, marrow spoons, ham bone holders, cucumber snips, grape saws, or bon bon tongs. Handles for these dining implements -- a service for twelve required up to 96 spoons -- created an enormous demand for ivory, the most desirable source. One company maintained an annual stock of 26 tons of high-grade ivory to meet demand. That's about 1900 elephants worth of tusks. (England alone imported 500 tons of ivory per year in the late 19th Century. You do the math.)

So there you have it. In order to consume lavish feasts, thousands of elephants had to die. But we are better than that now, right? Most civilized people react in horror at the very idea of killing elephants for any reason, let alone to make toothpicks or knife handles. But we are somehow able to live with the idea that children spend 12 to 14 hours a day sewing our clothes for about 6 1/2/ cents an hour. We are able to live with unsafe factories that collapse or ignite in massive fires, like the one that killed 112 garment workers in Bangladesh working for about $2 a day.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no better than the next guy. I wear the same clothes made in Asian factories that most of us do. The answer isn't to stop buying from those countries, thereby plunging already desperate people into utter destitution. I don't want to trade child labor for child prostitution. I do want to see better working conditions and better safety laws and better pay.

Of course, the United States has been through this already. Thanks to organized labor -- yes, those awful unions conservatives love to hate -- the abuses of the sweatshops eventually ended. Workplaces got safer, working conditions improved, and pay got better. But like water, greed seeks its own level. First it was the movement of industry to southern states with strong anti-union laws and weak environmental laws. Then someone figured out that the whole world was one big sweatshop ready for exploitation. The scramble for cheap Asian labor began. When it comes to the glories of capitalism, you might call that the elephant in the room.

June 7, 2013

Rain

It's been raining all day. It still is when I finally go to bed. My wife loves the sound of rain. Says it soothes her as she tries to get to sleep. Me, not so much. I tend to worry about what damage the water might be doing from leaks or flooding. Then there's the whole monsoon thing, long stretches of heavy rain, hour after hour, day after day.

I lie in bed trying to get to sleep. The steady drum beat of rain on the roof rattles around in my head, a loose cannon banging into neurons, triggering random associations. The musty smell of canvas from the tent I slept in for a year creeps out from my brain and into my nostrils. For some reason I flash on Doc, the company medic. Yes, we called him Doc. Among other things, he dispensed amphetamines to keep us awake at night when we had guard duty. You'd be out there at 3:30 in the morning, eyes open and senses alert in an unnatural sort of wakefulness, things that aren't there catching the corner of your eye under a full moon that bathes the landscape in a false light.

During the rainy season we all got fungi. Doc treated them with some sort of dilute acid. Yeah, that burned. They don't really go away, though. They just blend in with the crowd of parasites and bacteria inside us and make themselves right at home. A few years later, they let you know they smuggled a ride home. Surprise! Like when they tell you not to give blood for several years because you might have malaria floating around in your bloodstream.

I get out of bed and go downstairs, trying to break the rhythm of my thoughts, but the past isn't done with me yet. Memories are a lot like malaria. They lie dormant for months or years, then all of a sudden you are running a fever. Hard to say what triggers it. Maybe it's because I borrowed this book from the library today, a collection of short stories written by vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. I was too tired to read it tonight, but I'm anxious to get into it. I can tell from the titles of the stories that it will be familiar territory: Tips for a Smooth Transition, Play the Game, The New Me.

I've come to understand that no matter what you did, no matter what war you fought in, the worst of it doesn't come until you are back home and you realize that things have changed, that you have changed, that coming home isn't possible because the home you remember, the person who remembers it ... they are gone with the wind. Worse yet, you realize that the war followed you home, stuck inside your head. If you are lucky, like me, the roar recedes and you live a relatively normal life. If not, then the roar inside your head builds, like the rain pounding on a roof, drowning everything else out. The silent rain, the secret rain.

Back to bed. I toss and turn and doze on and off. I jump out of a dream and roll over to look at the clock. 12:08 a.m. A new day. A lyric from an Eagle's song emerges from the background music of the rain: It's another tequila sunrise, this old world still looks the same, another frame.

June 5, 2013

Bradley Manning

I went into the Bradley Manning case -- he is the young soldier accused of leaking a massive amount of diplomatic cables and Army reports to a group called Wikileaks -- thinking it was black and white. After reading up on it, I decided that perhaps this was not quite as clear-cut as I had thought, or maybe hoped, it would be. Don't get me wrong. He's guilty as hell. Manning will serve time, but I hope it isn't life in prison. How did I get there from here?

Let's start with the fact that this guy should never have been in the military, let alone given a job where he had pretty much unrestrained access to Top Secret materials. Coming out of a bad Basic Training experience during which Manning was teased and bullied, Manning's superiors wrote that he could be "a risk to himself and possibly others". While he was still in training as an intelligence analyst, Manning was reprimanded for posting a YouTube video bragging about his access to classified materials. Hello! So let's take that guy and and send him to Iraq where he can spend "14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months" looking at classified material. And they say military intelligence is an oxymoron.

On top of that, the Army seems to be engaging in over-kill. Manning has already confessed to 10 counts of misusing classified material. Not satisfied with that, Manning is being charged with aiding the enemy, a charge that comes with a life sentence. The charge is based on the discovery that Osama bin Laden personally requested a copy of the materials coming out of Wikileaks. Some might think that Wikileaks should be the ones to be held accountable, but the prosecution argues that it makes no difference who actually leaked the materials to the public, Manning is responsible because he was the source. Well, yeah, but consideration could have been given to the fact that the kid was a mess, the Army knew he was a mess, and they still put him in a position where he could do incredible damage.

We used to say, "War is hell, but combat's a motherfucker." To which I would add, "and occupation is a soul-killer." Manning -- a ''ferociously smart, computer-addicted and psychologically fraught" kid who had "humanist" stamped on his dog tags -- was plunged into a nightmarish world populated by the inevitable percentage of cover-your-ass officers and morally-eroded soldiers who had long ago lost sight of whatever sense of mission and purpose their might have been to the Iraq War. For months on end, he read reports and saw videos that documented indifference to collateral damage and willful attempts to cover up the worst of the abuses under the veil of military secrecy. He was right to be shocked and appalled. Anyone should have been. Revulsion hardened into resolution, and Manning vowed to "do something to make a difference in this world."

Does that mean he should have done what he did? Not in my book. If you sign up to be part of a war that everyone knows is a mess, you have to accept moral responsibility for that choice. If you sign an oath pledging your secrecy, you need to honor that oath. If you see things you don't like -- and God knows, Manning saw more than his share of the terrible things that happen in a war -- do something about it, but do so in a legal way. At the very least, be smart about it. Don't do something that will land you in jail. Get out, file FOIA requests based on what you know, became a background source, write a book, get the story out. But don't just take hundreds of thousands of documents and throw them out there for everyone to peruse and then claim that you never meant to hurt anyone. How could you possibly know?

I said earlier that the government was perhaps engaging in over-kill in its pursuit of more serious charges against Manning. But it could also be argued that the government is playing a long game here, using Manning to catch a much bigger fish -- Julian Assange, the mastermind behind Wikileaks. The government prosecutors may use Manning's trial to lay the basis for charges that Assange actively assisted Manning in deciding which files to leak and that Assange gave Manning advice on how to access secure databases without getting caught. Assange is currently in hiding at the Ecaudorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of assaulting two women. Assange rightfully worries that once in Sweden he will be extradited to the United States to face charges.

It's hard to know what to make of all this. On one level, I feel bad for Manning. He was a kid who probably should have been washed out of the Army during Basic Training and who almost certainly should never have been allowed to complete training as an intelligence analyst. On the other hand, you have to be accountable for what you do. When you sign an oath, that should mean something. On the third hand, the war in Iraq is inevitably on trial here as an unindicted co-conspirator. It is hard to separate the cause from the effect.

For a lot of people that's what this is really all about, a chance to find a symbol for all the anger and disappointment so many of us feel about this war. Bradly Manning has become that symbol. For me, he was a symbol of broken trust. For others, he was a whistle-blowing truth teller. Lost in the shuffle was his personal struggle to come to terms with himself and with the things he encountered in Iraq.

Maybe Manning's biggest mistake was in thinking that we the people were somehow being duped and that he could wake us up to what was happening in Iraq with his shocking revelations. The sad truth is that we knew or could easily find out what was going on but chose to turn a blind eye to it. In that sense, we are all part of the Bradley Manning story.

June 4, 2013

Convergence

I first got into climate change because I felt my kids and their kids faced a dangerous new set of conditions that would profoundly change their world. I wanted to warn them, to get them thinking about it. Well, I think it's safe to say that we are all thinking a bit more about climate change. But there are other changes coming at us fast, changes as equally profound as climate change, changes for which we are equally unprepared.

Let me ask you this. We are all over the genetic modification of food. Governments have responded to public concerns with regulations designed to control the ways in which companies pursue this technology. Yet we allow totally new life forms to be assembled using Lego-like blocks of DNA you can buy on the Internet, all virtually without regulation. Does than make sense to you?

Well, it's going on right now. Synthetic biology is a process whereby standardized DNA parts --thousands of which exist already as bio-bricks -- are cut and pasted together according to your specifications. You send the DNA sequence to a company, they assemble it, using sugar  as a raw material, freeze-dry the result, and ship it to your door. What could be simpler?

While all this is going on, other scientists are busily blurring the boundary between men and machines. We are becoming more integrated with our technology, and machines are acquiring the characteristics of living things. Futurists call this sort of thing convergence, a blurring of boundaries between things that used to be quite separate.

The other night, 60 Minutes had a piece on brain implants that would allow a person to think about moving a robotic arm and the robotic arm would respond to the thought. I would call that the ultimate convergence. And if we can do that today, think what will be possible within the lifetime of your children.

What could go wrong? Well, I can think of a couple of things right of the top of my head. Take the last innovation. Development was sponsored by the Department of Defense, to provide new hope to soldiers who have suffered devastating injuries. Who could argue with that? But, this is the military we are talking about. Who's to say they won't take it a step further and develop drone soldiers who can be directed by thoughts from humans sitting in a room in the Pentagon? And once we figure it out, the rest of the world won't be far behind.

What else? Biobricks are essentially being crowd-sourced. Anyone can build the damn things. Suppose some hacktivist, worried about the hazards posed by synthetic biology, decides to teach us a lesson by using biobricks to build something horrible, as an object lesson in what can go wrong. You think that won't happen? What's to stop someone from trying other than the promise of the biobrick manufacturers to do their best to not let it happen? Truth be told, I worry just as much about the things done in the name of good as I do the acts of evil men. Both types are indifferent in their own way to the consequences their actions will have.

Or maybe something jumps the tracks because well, shit just happens. Think of evolution as another word for unintended consequences. Not content to let evolutionary change sort things out over hundreds or thousands or even millions of years, we are churning out new combinations of living organisms and technology every other day. Nature makes lots of mistakes. You think we won't?

It's not like we can stop any of this. Like climate change, we are long past the point of avoidance. The kids have a new toy, and they are bound and determined to play with it. All we can do is adapt to the coming new world. That process begins with education and awareness. Call me crazy or obsessed, but I talk to my kids about this stuff all the time. They are seeing for themselves that what seemed like wild speculation just a few years ago is already yesterday's news.

The ethical dilemmas are well known. Many thoughtful people have been raising caution flags for years. But no one is paying much attention, just like no one was really paying all that much attention to climate change until the weather got undeniably crazy and people began connecting the dots on their own. Despite that, nothing much has been done on the governmental level to deal with what most folks now see as as increasingly urgent problem.

The only thing we have going for us is that climate changes over very long time spans. This is not the case with synthetic biology and man-machine convergence issues. Moore's Law is more relevant here, the idea that technology jumps every couple of years. Given the complete indifference of government and the general lack of awareness on the part of the public, it seems like we have little choice but to go along for the ride.

I leave you with this thought, courtesy of The Grateful Dead:
Trouble with you is the trouble with me,
Got two good eyes but you still don't see.