Tuesday, December 15, 2009

For the Love of Wisdom

December 15, 2009

The derivation of the word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek words meaning ‘love’, ‘philo’, and wisdom, ‘sopho’; ‘philosophos’ in Greek, means ‘lover of wisdom’. So, when I finally landed in the philosophy department at Penn State, I was determined to find some actual wisdom...whatever that might be . And, I succeeded beyond my most fervent hopes in doing that, but, not before I had to learn that much of what comprises academic philosophy is tantamount to a frolic through the weeds of abstruse and arcane, but solidly logical, thinking.

As I made my way through the ‘dead Germans’, I knew that I had found a chem-free sleeping aid. I marveled at how a page, or even a particularly labyrinthine sentence could be so utterly boring that it knocked me right out. I would re-read such a passage, again and again, still not clear on exactly how this dense-packed thought train would ever be applied to actual living. But, I wasn’t there to play their game by their rules. I was a Vietnam-era veteran, with a wife and a child, and my intent was that college was to be something inspiring, that it would be a time for discovery and for opening up parts of myself that had long lain neglected, dormant or as yet unexamined. I was in no mood to suffer high-falutin bull-slingers. Fortunately, I took a course from Dr. Ernst Hans Freund, a professor emeritus who was approaching retirement but was teaching Phil 3, entry level ethics. Looking back, I believe he enjoyed encountering new students, who had not yet taken on the pretensions of ‘higher learning’.

When the course was over, I approached Dr. Freund and explained that my intent was not to become a philosopher and acquire the depth of intellectual knowledge that this implied, but that I was in search of practical wisdom that I could use for the rest of my life. He was a gentle soul, had studied under Martin Heidegger in Freiburg, been arrested and thrown in a concentration camp (Sachsenhausen) briefly and then fled Germany before the war. He was vastly over-qualified to be teaching me, and I have no doubt that he never considered that before he took me under his wing. ‘Ernst Freund’ translates as ‘Serious Friend’, by the way.

For the remaining two years of my degree, I took individual study with Dr. Freund and I wrote a paper a week, about 450 pages in all. I would go to his tiny office at the Phil department, sit and listen as he read my paper paragraph by paragraph and we would discuss it. That was it. But, it was enough, more than enough, and I consider it the jewel of my entire academic career. We talked of ‘right and wrong’, of selfishness and selflessness, idealism and practical matters. He met me where I was, and instead of imparting wisdom, he gave me the tools to recognize it when I encountered it. He taught me to fish.

And, he taught me to love wisdom. What is wisdom? Here is the dictionary meaning: “the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.” But, take away the verbiage, and what remains is the simple and oh so elegant knowledge of right and wrong that is embedded in every living soul from birth. We know it when we encounter it.

And our challenge in these times is to remain true to that quiet voice that comes from deep within, in the face of all the noise and blather made by the ever growing mob of nattering nabobs out there.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tyger, tyger, burning bright...

December 14, 2009

As the full extent of Tiger Woods’ extra-marital, extra-ordinary, extra-HOLY COW, Batman, activities slowly emerges, it is becoming apparent that he wasn’t just having an affair here and there….he was on track to replace Don Juan, Rudolph Valentino, and any other famous sexual conquistadors you may think of as the G.O.A.T. of that particular form of pursuit. He has already been touted as the ‘Greatest of All Time’ in his primary sport of golf. Now it seems he is—uh, er…was—on track to notch up similar levels of achievement as a philanderer. Every time a story breaks about another woman, my wife wonders aloud, “How did he have the time and the energy?” I’m not altogether positive that there isn’t some grudging admiration in her tone.

In my own way, I am given to trying to understand the ethical mindset that would allow him to lead such an amazingly dichotomous lifestyle. On the one hand, he’s been the squeaky clean, All-American athlete, one whose slumps and triumphs we have followed with joy and sadness. Could he really come back from seven strokes out? Could anybody really make the green from behind all those trees? Tiger could and he made miraculous shots seem routine. He had achieved the status of ‘culture hero’ in many respects. We watched him all the way from early boyhood as he progressively mastered the game of golf. We worried that his father may have been too stern a task-master, even a little draconian, as he fostered talent of a mythic level in this instantly likeable boy. I even recall that his very first drive as a PGA pro went 318 yards….a distance that most of us will only ever dream of hitting a golf-ball. And, I am not really what you might call a ‘golfer’, merely a fan.

And now, each day seems to bring more stories of his apparently unquenchable thirst for the companionship of beautiful women…of the easy kind. Truthfully, I have lost count; I’m not sure even the media has kept up with the cascade of women that poured through Tiger’s life. But, a number of them are stepping forward, saying, “I felt I needed to defend myself. I am not a tramp, a slut or a (insert favorite ‘ho’ pejorative here).” Do any of them know how stupid this sounds? The only people that haven’t seen images of Tiger parading his beautiful Swedish wife and their kids are members of a lost tribe in the Amazon. “He told me that his marriage was on hold”. Puhleeze!!! Tiger, only you could pull that one off! I’m waiting for one of these women—and there will be more—to say, “Hey, it was TIGER WOODS!!! I decided to take a shot. Sure, I knew he was married. Why would I care?” How refreshing that would be.

But, the real question I keep asking myself is: how did he arrange his thinking and feeling internally to allow him to practice hypocrisy on such a world-class level? He was living the life of a sexual Batman, fercrissakes. As the story develops, we are hearing that he had some of his ‘trusted associates’ do the complex arranging that was required to, for instance, make sure that Cori Rist landed in an adjoining room in a luxury hotel during a stop on the tour. They bought the tickets, made the reservations, took care of all the details as Tiger concentrated on hitting that little white ball. When the putting and driving were done for the day, Tiger went to work. As the world’s highest paid athlete and with his charming smile it was way too easy to shine his light on a pretty woman and get her in the chorus line. So, he became not merely adept at this, he applied enough talent and focus that it became prodigious, something to look upon with awe…..right up until you consider the massive hypocrisy and deception that was an integral part of the whole deal.

If he was still single, nobody would care. If he was the whoremaster of the PGA and the whole world, nobody would care, except to admiringly report on how rutting season was progressing for him. But, no, he wanted it all: a beautiful and intelligent wife, a set of perfect kids, a stable home…the whole package. And, this man was raised to believe, as a matter of course, that he COULD have it all. I believe one of the reasons he is so good at his chosen game is because he knows that if he focuses his raptor-like gaze on something, most all of the time, he can make it happen. It almost seems like he can will that 60 footer into the hole. Apparently, he discovered somewhere along the way that this technique applied to more than just putting.

The term ‘spoiled’ doesn’t really describe a mind-set that is so completely focused on performing a given action and seeing a desired result. I swing the club, and the ball goes exactly where I want it to. Pressto! I do it so well that I am the highest paid athlete in the world. Eventually, living a life with this kind of feedback has got to go to your head, not just as an over-inflated sense of self, ego, but as a belief system, one that constantly reinforces the feedback loop: I want, I get. Inherent in that belief is the firm knowledge: I deserve. And what on God’s green earth has ever given him any reason to doubt that?
Add to that being surrounded by a school of remoras who are all being nourished by his stunning success, who will do anything to support it, and you have a perfect storm of elements that all point towards the ultimate belief: “I can do anything I want to….because I am me.” Tiger was going about building a de facto HAREM. He knew that his almost unquenchable appetite for sex was never going to be sated by a quiet and demure mother of his children. But, why should that mean he couldn’t have a Family Ties home life? So, with the help and support of his sycophants, he very stealthily and intently, went about setting up what amounted to a dual existence: happy daddy and husband, and world-class satyr.

And, the biggest question of all: did he know what he was doing was wrong? In a society where getting what you want at any cost has become the battle cry…..probably he feels that he was just living out his desires. Does he regret it? Like so many white-collar robber barons and errant politicians….it is most likely that what he regrets, is that he got caught with his pants around his ankles.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire in thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art?
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand, and what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Poem by Wm. Blake

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Killing Hope...

December 8, 2009

Hope Witsell was a 13 year-old girl from Florida. She is the second young female to kill herself because she sent a ‘sext’ message and it ‘went viral’. She was infatuated with a boy her age and sent him a suggestive image of herself…and one way or another it was intercepted and ended up being out there on the world-wild-web. But, as tragic as her death is, and that of Jessica Logan, an 18 year-old in Ohio that preceded it…the real story that most Americans have paid little attention to is that the peers of both of these vibrant young people, turned on them like a pack of wild dogs. They were attacked by people who didn’t even know them except in passing and it became a relentless savage hounding that culminated in both of them feeling their young lives were ruined and that death was the only escape.

Hope’s mother found her hanging in her bedroom. She had become so desperate to escape the predations of her fellow students that she just couldn’t face another day of being called a ‘slut’, and a ‘whore’. The whispers, pointing, titters and name-calling by girls whom she had never even spoken with had become what amounts to an all out assault. When I heard this, I had to stop and wonder what in the world would cause someone to become so vicious, so unrelentingly nasty and cruel.

There are multiple factors that contributed, of course. For starters, there is the phenomenon of ‘piling on’. It seems very much like the behavior of sharks when blood is in the water. During a so-called ‘feeding frenzy’, sharks are lunging and snapping at the apparent food source, but, if one is accidentally bitten as this is happening, the others will turn on it and it suddenly becomes a target too, and is as doomed as the original object of the attack. During the Holocaust behavior of this sort was widespread in places like Lithuania, the Ukraine, and many other eastern European countries. Not content that the Nazi death squads were targeting the Jews, locals joined right in and persecuted their neighbors and townspeople as if they had never known them.

The truth is, Hope and Jessica were murdered. From an ethical viewpoint, there is no other conclusion one can draw. Yes, they both took their own lives, but there is no doubt that they would both be alive today had they not been the targets of the vicious onslaught by people who shared the same classes and schools. There will be no charges filed. Nobody will be held accountable…at least not by the Florida or Ohio judicial systems…and their memories will fade except in the minds of their friends and families who loved them. But, these two unnecessary and unwarranted deaths should stand as canaries in our social coal-mine. This is what life in a society where Honor is dying looks like. The attackers in both cases will probably comfort themselves by various forms of smugness and self-satisfied false piety. “Well, she never should have sent that picture.” Blah, blah, blah.

The predators in these cases apparently felt that it was just fine to act in ways that led to the deaths of fellow students. Where do you suppose they acquired the moral standard that considers this to be acceptable? Were they instructed by their parents: “Okay, you know what to do if any of your peers gets out of line, right?” I doubt it. Did they put together this bizarre code of conduct from watching television, playing computer games, looking around society at large. Nah. It wasn’t really a code at all, it was the ABSENCE of one.

They acted out the Lord of the Flies scenario: kids left to their own devices will revert to a savage level of societal conduct. I once knew a psychiatrist—one of the few sane ones I have met—Temple Burling, a professor at Cornell, who said this: “Kids need to be brought into the folds of a family and society and civilized. Otherwise, they will never learn how to be members of society and remain in a wild state.”

Parents are leaving the ‘civilizing’ process to others, as they put all of their energy into just getting the roof and sustenance needs met. And nobody is really conveying the basic principles of what it means to be a civil citizen in a civilized society.


Adventures with Unca Sam

December 8, 2009

A while back, a good friend reminded me that I was now old enough to get back some of the dough that I paid into Social Security all those years. So, I boogied on down to my nearest Soc.Sec. office to begin the application process. I should have been suspicious when I arrived there and found the clerks all ensconced behind heavy plate-glass windows and the waiting area overseen by an armed guard. What? They’re under attack here too?

No. They just know that the way they deal with people on a daily basis has the effect of infuriating a certain percentage of them. I was about to learn why. First, I had to jump over the hurdles imposed by the fact that my first name was legally changed in the early 90s. After decades of using my Sufi name, Murad, and still having my birth name on my legal documents, cards etc., I finally decided to make it all simpler. I never really liked my given name anyway: Frederick, aka Freddy, Fred, Fast Freddy, Freddy the Flash…the last two being nick-names derived from being a speedy hockey skater…not a sexual deviant, thank you.

I had a copy of the court-issued document. I also had an expired passport in each of the two versions of my first name…with my mug staring out like a deer on a freeway. The earliest passport had a much younger and friskier looking dude…with a full head of hair. Maybe that’s what threw the clerk for a loop.

Two trips down there later….and after providing everything short of a DNA sample, including evidence of my military service, my birth in Philadelphia, the home of American independence, and anything else I could think of…the clerk finally shoved a form under the bullet-proof glass and said, “Look this over and tell me if there are any errors.” Her tone was a mixture of boredom and mild annoyance. As I scanned down, my eyes immediately came to rest on “mother’s name”, and me dear old mum’s first name was, “Hannutia”, when it should have been “Hannita”. I slid the paper back under the glass and pointed this out. Her response was, “I can’t change that without proof.”

I was just a little stunned. First of all, why would I want to lie about my mother’s first name? I mean, what would be gained? Second of all, it was dawning on me that this apparent error on the part of some clerk who was as bored and incompetent as the one in front of me…could become permanent. I looked at her, and suddenly I became aware that the armed guard had slowly come up behind me. I turned my head and he looked at me askance, then said, “We’re not gonna have a problem here, are we?” I recalled reading the notice prominently posted on the nearby wall that any bad behavior in this office constituted a federal felony offense. I looked at him, and just shook my head.

At this point, I was debating my options. I asked what she needed to have as ‘proof’, and, completely straight-faced, she answered, “A birth certificate.” Since my mother was born in Chicago in 1919, and died in Florida in 1996, it seemed unlikely I would get a copy of that anytime soon.

Should I begin a discussion of how ridiculous the entire matter was? Seemed like a bad idea, given the big dude now stationed just over my shoulder, his hand resting oh so nonchalantly on the butt of his pistol. But, suddenly I was imagining myself telling the bored face staring through the glass, “Oh, yes, just a sec. I think I have her birth certificate with me. Let me just PULL IT OUT OF MY ASS!!!” At that moment, thankfully, my sane-self projected an image on the inside of my forehead…. of me….pinned on the floor being handcuffed. Better instincts prevailed.

I stepped back from the window, smiled and said, “You know what? My mother has been in her grave for over ten years now. I don’t think she’ll really care that your form is wrong. Just leave it as it is.” And the dull-face looked down and put a mark on the paper signifying that it was all good.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Light Trap

December 6, 2009

I promised you that I would share the painting that derived from the photograph of the farm in the last rays of the setting sun. Rather than paint the entire scene, I homed in on the buildings because they really were what I was primarily responding to as I stood out there watching the light change. I particularly liked the way the light ‘smeared’ across the side of the house section with the many windows and two doors. There is a big apple tree just out of the frame that caused the shadows in that section. But, the real challenge and enjoyment—for me—was the way the light bounced off the main house and lit the wall at right angles to it. It seems like a ‘light trap’ designed just to show off how light bounces around and becomes ever more fetching as it does.

FYI: there is no white anywhere in this piece. All the light tones are variations of yellow or tan. The blues are still not rendered correctly in this photo of a painting of a photo....but, I will keep trying to get it right. The tonal scheme completely bamboozled the white-balance in my camera.

I decided to simplify the composition by leaving out some elements that seemed to distract from the 'light show'. It's very easy to let a painting become so rich in detail that it feels cluttered and overdone. Simple is good.

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