Eighty-six

I enjoyed reading a blog post by an old friend, Michael Lewis. Michael and I met around 1989 on a listserve dedicated to Edward Abbey. Michael was well versed in Ed’s ideas and works. I was a new comer, searching for answers to many questions in life. I’d become deeply interested in the natural world and in environmentalism, having instinctively come to the conclusion something was badly wrong with human society.

Abbey was one of the first people to write about the effect of growth capitalism on the natural world. He’s well known for both his fiction and non-fiction, but I more closely connected with his essays. That’s where he connected all the dots and hit the proverbial nail on the head. Basically, capitalistic growth, the need for constant growth, is our core problem. Capitalism’s ruthless commodification of life, its constant opening of new markets, non-stop development and the use of increasing amounts of fossil fuels is the problem that must be addressed. But that’s not happening. What is happening is the production and shipment of more Amazon boxes, more planes, more deforestation and more recently, increased mining of rare earth metals to produce electric cars.

Never is there any serious discussion about using less. Driving less. Fewer trips by plane. Reducing the amount of cheap plastic shit we buy from China and insisting it hit our door step within two days. Instead, our hubris is leading us down another dangerous path, one where we falsely hope technology will save us. Well, as Michael used to say, “There’s no free lunch. Mother Nature always bats last.” And another Lewis favorite, “‘Twas ever thus.”

I’m very pessimistic about our chances. I believe we’ve allowed climate change to go too far, and we can’t stop it, because most people don’t even understand the problem, much less know how to solve it. The notion that capitalist growth is the core issue is confined to a small set of academics and writers and their followers. They bravely wrote the truth, caring more about truth and finding solutions than making a best seller list. Anything that challenges growth capitalism is met with an immediate and forceful obloquy. You’re a commie. A Marxist. You hate America. People cannot imagine or tolerate the behavioral changes that are necessary for humans to survive on earth. And they certainly can’t handle the thought that their portfolios may need to take a hit.

What to do? Joel Kovel put forth some brilliant ideas in his work, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? It’s a well thought out framework for eco-socialism, where the economic system is bound and ultimately regulated by the laws of the natural world. A “steady state” economy where we live within limits. But Kovel’s ideas where so remote and not fully understandable by the masses. He was 100% right, but in order for that system to work, you’d have to have a fair number of powerful politicos to bring those ideas into the mainstream, make it easy to understand and then enact policies to make it possible. The only way to get anything done in America is via codification into law, because it’s the codification of law that makes everything, including wealth building, possible.

But Kovel was always suspicious about working within the system, and truth be told, those ideas are a bridge too far for Americans. Which makes me believe the only hope for meaningful change is via collapse, so Americans (and others) are forced to change. That’s not something I like to say, because it will involve untold human suffering. No one wants that, but I believe we’re like drug addicts and only a near death experience can force us to change.

All addiction programs begin with a simple premise. First, you have to admit there’s a problem. Only then can you begin to heal.

Eighty-Five

Fred had hoped to return home early from the party. He had to teach Sunday School the next morning and had not yet pressed his shirt. But that night, Judith had other ideas. She’d had enough of being good. Always being on time. Being gracious and dutiful. And she didn’t give a damn about what Barbara and the Bridge Club thought. She was seduced by the possibility of scandal, and Fred was powerless to stop it.

Eighty-Four

I never realized I had so much in common with Leo Tolstoy until I read “A Confession,” which details his journey through spirituality, science, philosophy and despair. The main difference between us is that he’s a legendary writer, one of the greatest in human history, and I’m an unknown blogger. Pretty big difference, but that’s not the point here.

We both had an early journey through Christianity but later came to reject it. Then we had professional lives where we were nearly entirely devoted to our families and securing the best life for them possible, but simultaneously feeling guilty that we had so many blessings while others suffered.

Then came the period of outright despair, where we both came to the conclusion there was no meaning in life, and that all that awaited us was annihilation. We searched for answers to life’s meaning in science and philosophy, found none and seriously contemplated suicide as a way to escape the despair. We both found that life had become “impossible,” and that the only viable solution was just to “hang on” before finally coming to a new conclusion about the existence of god.

That is, a metaphysical interpretation in which god can be defined as the connectedness of all things. Our atoms and molecules moving into different forms of existence but continuing on for eternity. And perhaps there is some cosmic form of intelligence and order we’re unaware of or have yet to fully describe or understand.

I’m willing to go a little further than Tolstoy and say there are some scientific and rational proofs for this notion of “god.” The first is The Principle of Sufficient Reason is one and basically states that every effect has a cause and nothing that exists in the physical world can be the cause of its own existence. Every cause of a given effect requires a cause and every subsequent cause requires a cause. If this becomes an infinite series, then nothing could have come into existence. There must be an uncaused cause that does not need a cause. This first cause can therefore begin the sequence of causes. This is god. 

The there’s the Golden Ratio, which is seen throughout nature, art and architecture and finally, the Law of Thermodynamics. It seems to me there is tremendous order in the universe, so much so that it could not have come across by pure chance. I believe there is something there. But what?

I still attend church, semi-regularly, but identify more closely with paganism and pantheistic beliefs, as the best evidence I’ve ever seen for a god is in the natural world, not some man made cathedral. I need this belief in order to not fall completely into despair. Like Tolstoy, it keeps my hand away from the gun. Or in his case, a nearby rope that could easily be slung over a beam in his house.

I hope for a goddess. Would gladly serve a goddess.

Skol.

Eighty-three

I spent two days in New Orleans this week for business, topped off by a fun dinner with my son and daughter-in-law. It’s an old romantic city, steeped in French culture and influences, known worldwide for its food and festive spirit. Its neighborhoods are walkable and feel European in that there’s a sensible mix of residential and retail businesses that make the communities walkable. It’s how cities should be built. As a person that loves all things French, New Orleans suits me well.

But like Memphis, my home town, there’s vast poverty, hopelessness and crime. It’s a city that has known more than its share of pain, yet an esprit de corps amongst its people always rises to the top. Despite its setbacks, people are proud of their city and love to live there.

Climate change and the erosion of its wetlands are bringing unique challenges to south Louisiana and its people. So is rising income inequity and the long term forecast is not promising. I have a personal stake in the outcome, as I’m now joined to Louisiana via the marriage of my son to a wonderful Louisiana lady and her sweet family who are residents. My business interests are largely located in Louisiana.

When I was at the lowest point of my career, people in Louisiana literally saved me and gave me new life. I feel as much camaraderie and kinship with the people of Louisiana as with my home state of Tennessee. Perhaps more.

On Wednesday, I took the time to visit St. Louis cathedral on Jackson Square. It was quiet and cool in the church, a magnificent building adorned with statues, including one of my favorite saint, Joan of Arc. Sitting in the pew, I pulled down the kneeler and decided to pray. I prayed for all of my family members, each by name and always including the pets. All of my extended family, the nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters and cousins. For my business partners and all of our co-workers. For friends that have meant so much to me over the years. I prayed for strength and for wisdom so I could be a better leader. To be more generous and kind and not be so quick to anger and judgement. I prayed for the ability to deal with my shortcomings which are many.

Is God there? Is anyone listening? No one truly knows the answer to that question, but it’s difficult to comprehend the complexity of the universe coming together by chance. I’m exploring ideas that support this, scientific, philosophical and mathematical. It’s a long shot for my limited intellect, but it at least helps keep the mind sharp. But even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter. Prayer is a form of meditation, and it’s good to sit or kneel quietly and say the names of the people you love and to contemplate your hopes for them.

Au revoir New Orleans. Que Dieu source de la paix, soit avec vous. Amen. (Goodbye, New Orleans. The God of peace be with you.)

Eighty-two

I haven’t been here in a few months. I was mostly focused on a creative writing course at UCLA that was, in my view, a complete failure. I wrote a few new pieces, reworked some older ones and left the class completely unmotivated.

I drifted around for a few weeks bored out of my mind. A close friend moved away, a non-profit I founded collapsed, and I found myself struggling to connect with other friends. All first world problems of course.

Then something strange happened. I started attending Mass again. Yes, Catholic Mass. It’s strange, because I’d left the church in disgust twenty years ago and had become mostly agnostic and Taoist in my world views. But something was missing. Community maybe, or maybe I was just bored.

But I was always fascinated by the iconography and symbolism in the church. The saints, the prayers, Mary, confessionals. Mafia. The old buildings held a particular allure. I could never go back to believing a dead Jew rose from the grave and ascended into heaven, but I did enjoy the communal aspects of faith. The history, old buildings with creaky wooden floors. Children’s choirs.

I rediscovered prayer as a meditative experience. I enjoyed being on the kneeler and saying the names of the people I loved and cared about. It made me feel somehow more deeply connected to them. I call it vibing.

Not so sure about going to confession, though. You’re supposed to go at least once a year, but after reading a listing of the sins in the Roman Missal, I think it might take a year to confess everything. Plus, I’m not sure I’m sorry for much of it. Maybe I should do it just to see if the priest faints.

Eighty-one

I believe this image, as well as the video, is likely to become one of the most powerful and iconic images in American history. It’s so profound and there are so many layers.

On January 6, the foundations of our nation, a nation founded by and long dominated by whites, was under attack by a largely white crowd. Then we have this solitary black man, Eugene Goodman, standing alone against a violent white mob, protecting a nation that for so many decades enslaved and marginalized his people. He was brave and about fifty times smarter than the mob. Goodman was certainly not the only one that acted with honor that day. There were officers of varied backgrounds that bravely stood against the insanity of January 6, but Goodman is the one that truly saved lives in the Senate and is the subject of the most profound image of that day.

But this is nothing new. Black troops fought bravely to defend our nation throughout the Civil War and in all of our wars. At Milliken’s Bend during the siege of Vicksburg, black troops were engaged in vicious hand to hand combat and drove back a larger Confederate force from Texas. They were new recruits that were poorly trained and armed, but the defeated Confederate commander noted that while many of the white Yankee troops ran, the black troops stood and fought.

The battle changed how the Union viewed its use of black troops and black troops went on to further prove their mettle at Port Hudson, Fort Wagner and in many other battles during the Civil war.

Fast forward to our un-civil war of 2021, and once again, it’s a black man helping save our nation from itself.

I honestly don’t know how black Americans have so much grace, forgiveness and goodness in their hearts after being treated so poorly for so long. Many will likely attribute this to their faith in God, and I have to say, to possess such grace, strength and goodness after enduring so much at our hands is truly the face of God.

Eighty

The nation was overwhelmed with emotion yesterday. Many Americans shed tears. Others may have felt rage and disgust. I saw it as a day of stark contrasts, particularly in language. The language of the last four years and the language of yesterday. The horror we felt on January 6, and the hope we felt on January 20.

I felt a notable contrast between Joe Biden and the poet Amanda Gorman. Their language was very similar, but I saw a sharp contrast in how Joe represents our political past and in how Amanda represents our political future.

Joe is the right person for this moment. I didn’t initially support Joe, but I came to believe he was the perfect person for the challenges we now face. I felt the nation needed experience and calm. A steady, guiding hand and someone that unquestionably puts country before self. In his dark suit and coat, he addressed our nation as a senior statesman with reassuring words of unity and resolve. Resolve to help us come together and to address a biological crisis that has ruined the lives of so many Americans.

He said everything that needed to be said.

And then we were blessed by the presence of Amanda Gorman. As I watched the television, I saw this lovely young lady dressed brightly in yellow, her amazing face illuminated by the noon sun. From her mouth came words acknowledging our pain and our challenges, but also reassuring words of strength and of hope. Her truthful, poetic words made clear the path our people must take. She was the brightest light on that stage and represents the best of our nation.

Both Joe and Amanda showed how much words matter.

In some ways, Joe represents our nation’s complicated past. Let’s face it. We’ve been a nation literally ruled by white, wealthy men. Not all were bad men. Some were decent men that tried to make our country more inclusive and fair. Some clearly were not and brought pain and suffering to many of our people. Joe represents the best of the past and is now the perfect man to one day hand the baton to the new generation of Americans. The future is Kamala and Amanda. A diverse, inclusive future where anyone can rise to the top.

As a student of history, I’ve learned that change typically comes slowly, but it does come. Often, it feels like just one person is building the Great Wall of China and has to run all the way back to the start for each and every brick. It takes forever, wears us down and sometimes seems impossible. Then again, change is not about building walls; it’s about taking them down.

Yesterday, one remaining wall fell. More are to come.

Peace

Seventy-eight

Photo: The Washington Post

Hitler retreated into the Führerbunker in January 1945, joined by his few remaining loyalists, including Martin Bormann, Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels. Most of the others had fled in an effort to save themselves, many of which dumped their uniforms and donned the clothing of average German citizens. Himmler, the second most powerful man in the Reich, attempted to negotiate a surrender with the Allies and was ordered arrested by Hitler. He escaped in disguise, only to be captured by the Allies and later kill himself with cyanide.

It was a pathetic denouement for the most destructive regime in human history.

Trump retreated into his own bunker on January 6. As with Hitler, his final days are now spent in virtual isolation, suffering from mental illness, paranoia and unable to lead a nation in extreme crisis. Hitler was singularly responsible for Germany’s suffering, and Trump is responsible for ours. He is singularly responsible for the events on January 6 and for the abject failure of our Coronavirus response which has lead to nearly 400,000 deaths. Now his friends and supporters are abandoning him, just like Hitler’s inner-circle in 1945. They’re a despicable group of people that aided a criminal for four years and helped plunge our nation into chaos and death. No different than rats leaving a sinking ship.

It’s a pathetic denouement to the worst Presidency in American history.

Hitler finally put a gun to his head and ended his life. His remaining loyalists took poison, including the entire Goebbels family, including their children. Trump is likely to keep dodging and evading, slipping off to his gaudy mansion, at least until the FBI shows up and arrests him. He may be forced out of office early, as the wheels are moving quickly toward impeachment. This is an important event, because it will put everyone in Congress on record as to where they stand with regards to the attempted coup. Are they loyal to the country and to the Constitution or are they traitors? Hawley, Cruz, Gaetz and dozens of others are likely to remain unrepentant and willing to go down in flames with their demonic leader. They’ll forever be on record as traitors against our nation and our principles.

I hope my conservative friends will not stand with them and come to the same logical conclusion many other conservatives have reached. There’s no grey area here. You are either a loyal American, or you stand with traitors and turncoats.

Which will it be?

Seventy-seven

Fall evokes my deepest passions. I love the first cool day when you can bring your sweaters out. When the leaves begin to coat the walkways. The anticipation of Halloween. College football and campuses filled with bright young minds full of hope and ideas.

I love college campuses during the fall, especially old campuses like Sewanee with its gothic stone walls set in a canopy of trees burning gold, orange and red. A hopeless romantic, I imagine a younger self walking across campus to a stately library filled with old volumes, arched doorways and creaky wood floors. I’m reading a leather bound works of Coleridge or Goethe when I catch the eye of a pretty girl in a wool sweater with dark tossed hair. I plot my opening line and visualize our torrid love affair.

We visited Alex at Vanderbilt during a recent fall. As we walked the paths through campus, my mind drifted back to when I was his age. I wished I could do it again. I became a little sad considering how quickly my time had passed, but also felt great joy knowing I had such a fine son making now his own memories. He was our last to graduate from college and finish post graduate studies. Now I have to hang on long enough to take another fall walk with my grandson and hopefully, a granddaughter.

Come soon, fall. We are waiting.

Sewanee, The University of the South