Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Exposing Myself

My husband, Arthur Hancock, has just published his memoir, entitled Exposing Myself: A Life of Sex and Truth. Arthur has had an amazing life, filled with unusual adventures. It's available in both print and Kindle versions. The book chronicles his two main obsessions, sex and the pursuit of meaning:

What happens when a twenty-eight year old man, whose primary interests are sex, nonconformity, and playing music, stumbles upon the meaning of life? On a rainy day in northern California, he abruptly discovers just how superficial his perception of the world really is. His subsequent quest to understand this life-changing experience, to seek truth over lies and love over lust, is reported here in uninhibited detail. Graphic sex, a plausible metaphysics, and a 21st Century psychology that spells the end of shame, blame and arrogance.
From chapter one:
I was like my namesake, Arthur the King, staggering back from the great stone with Excalibur freed in his hand and a look of complete astonishment on his face. All I’d been expecting was cosmic sex with my young goddess. Instead, completely unprepared, I had broken through an unseen barrier that imprisoned me in a painfully limited reality, entered an undeniably superior realm of consciousness, and walked around in it for several hours. This new reality was no hallucination; it was more detailed, beautiful, and logical than anything I’d ever experienced in my ordinary state of awareness.
You can read the first two chapters at the Kindle store.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Embracing Failure

I watched some of the World Series this weekend. I like baseball because of the interesting mix of team and individual effort. Every single player has to go to the plate and be the focus of the game, usually multiple times in a game; many plays are handled by a single player on the field; and the pitcher is alone on the mound, hurling pitch after pitch.
What is particularly interesting to me about baseball is the high level of failure that each player must be able to endure. Even a great hitter will fail to get a hit two out of three times at bat. When I watch a man who is famous for slugging balls out of the park swing powerfully and miss, striking out, I wonder, “How can he endure failing so spectacularly and publicly? How does he manage to come to the plate his next at-bat and not have that strike-out affect his mind?”
The pitcher is even more amazing. The spotlight is on him every pitch, and after you’ve walked a runner, how do you come back from that public failure and get the next batter out?
Science is another field that also must embrace failure. Thomas Edison once famously said, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 1,000 ways that don’t work.” In one of my classes in molecular biology I remember the professor discussing an experiment in which an assistant looked through hundreds of petri dishes before she found the one that had the particular mutation the researcher was looking for (one of the reasons I didn’t go into research, I didn’t like the idea of being that young assistant!).

This weekend I also watched the film “Young Frankenstein,” the 1970’s Mel Brooks spoof of the Frankenstein genre. Gene Wilder, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, has attempted to bring his creature to life, and it appears he has failed. Wilder calmly says to his assistants that failure is part of science. Then he starts beating on the creature’s chest bemoaning his fate. From an online transcript:
Frankenstein: No, no. Be of good cheer. If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes, with quiet dignity and grace. [Beginning to beat on the chest] Son of a bitch bastard, I'll get you for this. What did you do to me? What did you do to me?  
Inga: Doctor. Doctor, stop. You'll kill him. 
Frankenstein: I don't want to live. I do not want to live.  
Igor: Quiet dignity and grace.
This is closer to the way I often deal with failure: a temper tantrum. “It’s the end of the world, this means I’m a failure, useless, not good for anything,” etc. I eventually pick myself up, but it affects my future actions; I either give up on the idea or it takes awhile before I’m back in there slugging. Edison also said, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
A great movie example of failure is "Apollo 13." This is one of my favorite films, and part of the reason is because it portrays people overcoming failure. After some panic and displays of anger, the people on the ground and in space start "working the problem." At one point, Flight Director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, overheard two men behind him worrying about this being NASA's greatest disaster. Harris turns and says, "With all due respect, sir, I think this will be NASA'a finest hour." And it was certainly one of the finest, because no one ran from the failure. They embraced it and went forward.
I think this explains why I like baseball. I like watching people not allowing failure to influence their next moment.

Update: Recently I heard Dr. Cornel West speak in Asheville, and he ended his talk with a quote from Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." 

Quote: "Failure is the key to the kingdom within." Rumi
Footnote about the individual in sports: In other popular team sports the individual counts of course, but from my perspective the focus isn’t so intense on individual effort. In football the quarterback throws to a receiver who catches the ball and runs, but there is an enormous amount of action all around—tackling, faking—that distracts from the main action. That’s why slow-motion replay is such a big part of televised football, it’s important for understanding what just happened on the field. Basketball is very team-oriented; an individual is the one who makes the basket of course but much of a game involves the passing of the ball between players. Same with soccer.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Government Slimdown

I wrote a blog post last spring asking liberals why they were so self-congratulatory after Obama won re-election (for example, they couldn’t even get gun control legislation passed after a mass shooting at an elementary school). At that time there was widespread speculation that the Republican Party was weak and doomed. Six months later I’m hearing the same sort of predictions that the Republican Party is self-destructing with their hostage-taking tactics in both the government shutdown and the threat not to raise the debt ceiling.
But Republicans are geniuses at turning a defeat into a victory. Listen to FOX News; they’re not calling this a shutdown; they’re calling it a slimdown. Look at the polls that put almost as much blame for the shutdown on the Democrats and Obama as the Republicans. Last night I talked to someone who is, for me, a representative of the average person who doesn’t pay much attention to the news. She asked, “Why won’t Obama talk to the Republicans?”
Last spring’s sequester was a big win for the Republicans; it was supposed to be a worst-case scenario—a line no one would cross—that would force the two parties to a compromise; instead the Republicans chose to cross it and got what they wanted: smaller government.
What people don’t seem to realize is that the conservatives in the Republican Party hate government. They think there are only a few things the government should do, mostly provide for a military and service the national debt. Everything else should be eliminated. Remember Rick Perry’s meltdown in the debates last year when he couldn’t think of all the government departments he wanted to eliminate (he remembered Education and Commerce, Romney helpfully suggested EPA, later Perry remembered the third was Energy)? Liberals laughed at him instead of paying attention to what he was saying.
Now six months after the sequester the “self-destructing” conservatives are once again getting what they want: an even smaller government. The insanity in the Republican Party has spread so far that there is a growing number of congressmen willing to risk a default on U.S. Treasury responsibilities. What they are arguing is that there is enough tax revenue coming in to pay the interest on the U.S. debt that will come due. The New York Times had an article today quoting some of these Republicans: 
Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, a reliable friend of business on Capitol Hill and no one’s idea of a bomb thrower, isn’t buying the apocalyptic warnings that a default on United States government debt would lead to a global economic cataclysm.
“We always have enough money to pay our debt service,” said Mr. Burr, who pointed to a stream of tax revenue flowing into the Treasury as he shrugged off fears of a cascading financial crisis. “You’ve had the federal government out of work for close to two weeks; that’s about $24 billion a month. Every month, you have enough saved in salaries alone that you’re covering three-fifths, four-fifths of the total debt service, about $35 billion a month. That’s manageable for some time.”
… “It really is irresponsible of the president to try to scare the markets,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. “If you don’t raise your debt ceiling, all you’re saying is, ‘We’re going to be balancing our budget.’ So if you put it in those terms, all these scary terms of, ‘Oh my goodness, the world’s going to end’ — if we balance the budget, the world’s going to end? Why don’t we spend what comes in?”

Once again, my argument is that liberals need to do a much better job educating the public about what government does. The government shutdown is providing some education; every day it seems another agency is recalling workers to deal with a crisis: FEMA brought back workers when Tropical Storm Sandy threatened the Gulf coast, FDA is bringing back some workers to deal with an outbreak of salmonella. Other closings, like the national parks and monuments, are affecting the lives of tourists and those whose income depends on those tourists.
But these individual examples can get lost in the whirlwind of daily news. Liberals need to keep hammering on this point: government is good. Yes it can always be improved, but the basic system is sound.
Elizabeth Warren is one of the few prominent liberals trying to educate the average American about the value of government. In this video about the government shutdown she calls the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party “anarchists.” She defines government as a system where we work together to solve problems; we have decided that there are some things we do much better together. This is what government is. It’s not some scary boogeyman.
Update: Michael Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, published an op-ed in the New York Times on Oct. 15 that says some similar things as this post:
Even if the immediate crises — the partial shutdown and the looming debt default — are resolved, we will still be living in a dangerous political moment. The danger in question is because of the recent emergence of a political philosophy — and I mean that in the loosest sense — which threatens to unravel our joint commitment to a common democratic enterprise.
What is the “political philosophy” I have in mind? The conservative writer John Tamny at puts it this way: “It quite simply must be asked,” he writes, “what the point of the Republican Party is if it’s not regularly shutting down the federal government?” No point at all, Tamny seems to think, suggesting that “shutdown should be a part of the G.O.P.’s readily unsheathed arsenal of weapons meant to always be shrinking the size and scope of our economy-asphyxiating federal government.”
This, Lynch argues, has two dangers. First, it weakens the commitment to the social contract, that sense that we work together within our democratic institutions to govern ourselves. The second danger in this strategy is to democracy itself:
Should shutdowns, debt-ceiling fights and the radical political legislative gridlock they represent really become a fixture of American political life, it will be more tempting, more reasonable, to think that someone should  “step in” to make the decisions. The chorus calling for action — for the president, for example, to go around the Congress — will only increase. If you are on the left, and Obama is still in power, you may even tell yourself that is a good thing. But it is a bad precedent, the type of precedent that causes democracies to erode.
Social contracts don’t have to be made for democratic intentions...
In the end, that’s the real danger we are now facing. Not just the shutdown, but the rise of the shutdown strategy. By unraveling the threads of our joint commitment to shared governance, it raises the chances those threads will be rewoven into something else: something deeply, and tragically, undemocratic.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Grateful For Every Breath

Today I went to Jubilee, a wonderfully alive and joyful "faith community" in Asheville, NC. This is a dog-friendly church, so there are always a few dogs present, but today there were more than usual. Finally I realized it’s St. Francis day, when animals are blessed in churches all over the country. Not only were there lots of dogs, there were a few birds and even one very brave cat.
Howard Hanger, the minister, chose “greed” as his topic: so much is given freely to us, yet we are greedy for more. We sang of the sun, the wind, and all the ways the earth provides for us abundantly (a version of St. Francis of Assisi's hymn, "All Creatures of our God and King"). Howard spoke of the mist flowing through the mountains this morning; what a gift that was. He spoke of the love that flows from our animals, freely and without condition.
This brought to my mind other living creatures that have given a great gift to us: cyanobacteria (algae). Billions of years ago there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. Early microbes evolved the ability to manufacture energy from sunlight—photosynthesis—and oxygen was their “waste” product. Slowly over hundreds of millions of years oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere until it reached the level that could support animals.
I was reminded of this by an article in this morning’s New York Times about a new book, Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History, by geochemist Dr. Donald Canfield. The article quotes Dr. Canfield:
“People take oxygen for granted because it’s just there and we breathe it all the time. But we have the only planet we know of anywhere that has oxygen on it.”
Breathe in and give thanks to the cyanobacteria!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Collective Beliefs and War

One of the premises of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is that much of our worldview is influenced by the collective beliefs of our culture. We are programmed to think the way people in our culture do. A trip to another country is an interesting way to see this programming in action. Culture shock is the way we describe the experience of visiting people who have different assumptions about reality. A favorite example of mine is the time I went to Fiji, and saw big strapping policemen wearing skirts. That conflicted with one of my culture’s sillier assumptions, that men can’t wear skirts.
But the assumptions that make up our collective reality are not all silly by any means. In fact they have profound consequences in how we think and interact with each other.
One that has been on my mind lately has to do with war. As I noted in a recent post, after Syria used chemical weapons why was the Obama administration so focused on bombing to the exclusion of diplomacy? Why do we have so few non-violent mechanisms for enforcing international norms?
David Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled Are We Hard-Wired for War? that argues that our fundamental assumptions about human nature affect our attitudes toward violence in general and war in particular.