Searching for Friends in the Silence Between the Stars

We know more about the Universe now than ever before. Science is showing us its vastness beyond comprehension, its deep complexity, its ancient days, and its probable future.

Compared to the cosmos, we are very small, bits of protoplasm clinging to Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot.

As a sentient species, we are gradually realizing our insignificance among the worlds. I think it frightens us. We know that intelligence could exist elsewhere, but we have no proof yet that it does.

Scientist devote their lives to listening for a Signal, a calling card across the electromagnetic spectrum from Others who breathe and think. Lately these explorers have come to realize that alien civilizations may be out there, but lived and died eons ago. They have have called us, but we missed them.

We want E.T. We want to meet Others, not necessarily like us, but sentient and curious and like us, looking for some company. We feel lonely in the infinitude of the many suns.

Perhaps we have grown tired of ourselves, our discontents and shortcomings. We see our Earth, full to the brim with unhappy people, possessed by violence, hatred, dishonesty, and fear. We want to know that someone else has gone through these struggles, and survived long enough to reach out and seek others.

For all we know, another race is out there looking for us, wondering if communication is possible.

(Or maybe the aliens are already here. I don’t mean beings from another planet. I am thinking of the other definition of alien that refers to persons from other countries residing within our borders. Another angle, but relevant, given that extraterrestrials may be observing our propensity for unbrotherhood and deciding to stay the hell away. Maybe it’s time to put our house in order so as to provide a reason for Others to know us.)

So we wait. Years ago an early UFO investigator proposed that we construct a kind of lure to attract the attention of the flying saucers. It’s a rather silly idea, but it shows our desire to find new friends.

As I grow older, I see the value of friends and even enemies. My friends delight me, perplex me, and sometimes piss me off. Maybe we Earthlings, aged by millennia, are looking for the same thing on a grand scale.

Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering. Arthur C. Clarke

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On the Necessity of Donald Trump

Be forewarned: you probably will not like this.

We human beings love a scapegoat. Love and say: I’m not so bad. Look at then. I’m better than they are. I’m good.

Those who know me know I am no fan of Donald Trump. Here’s why. He is a bad choice for the presidency and will be judged harshly by history.

But he serves a useful purpose. His misdeeds and shortcomings distract us from the unpleasant business of owning our own misdeeds and shortcomings. In Christian language, he is the mote in our collective eye.

When you strip away our carefully-crafted facades, we are all greedy bastards, and always have been. Look: I want more. There is a gap in my being that I try to fill with more prestige, more power, more sex. Although my head the real treasures are in my soul, my heart wants more.

I want my way, and sometimes I don’t care who I have to step on to get it. I am in recovery from the diseases of self-obsession and self-centeredness. I try to do better, but my vision naturally turns inward.

The short word for this malady is sin. It can be treated, but we cannot cure ourselves. No matter how strong our moral center is, there are times when we our best intentions fail us. The Lutherans say we are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves.

Donald Trump is not the issue. I am the issue. I want what I want when I want it.

And whether you like it or not, you, my friend, are exactly the same way.

Autohysteria

Chevy Bel Air station wagon. This beast belonged to the Koops, a Burmese-American family and great friends of my brother. The sons exhibited redneckish automotive tendencies, as evidenced by the jury-rigging that held the Bel Air together. For instance, a garden hose attached to the engine served as an exhaust pipe. (The Koops followed in the footsteps of my father, who famously filled a necessary gap in the carburetor of a Studebaker Lark with a precisely calibrated twig.)

The Bel Air was an astonishing sight. The engine needed replacement, and in addition to the customary valve-clacking emitted an odd, otherworldly whine. Wherever it went, a viscous cloud of burned oil trailed in its wake. One afternoon it stopped in front of my family’s house on Van Dyke Avenue. Driven by gaseous inertia, the cloud kept moving, passing around the Bel Air and drifting onward to the corner of Brooks Avenue, raining particulates previously unknown to science.

Fiat 128 SL. I bought her while I lived in Rocky Mount. It was a sweet drive, taking corners firmly as I powered its front wheel drive. It was my first experience with a stick and I spent a week jerking through the city streets as I learned. One horrible evening I stalled the car in the middle of my driveway. I simply could not shift into first gear. After a stream of rude language I finally coaxed her into the garage.

In addition to Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, (Italian automobile factory of Turin—thank you google) Fiat stood for Fix It Again Tony. When I moved back to Raleigh, I became a regular at Fowler’s garage. The ignition and electrical systems were such that I became adept at glide-starting her. For a while, too cash-strapped to afford a new alternator, I visited only friends who lived on hills.

Mercury Topaz sedan. This car had a spiritual provenance. It was first owned by the father of our Lutheran pastor and then passed to my Mom, who almost literally drove it only to church. When she died it passed in turn to me, an (im)proper Lutheran. Otherwise an ordinary car, its most salient feature was its red velveteen interior. I thought nothing of it until my friend Jane said it reminded her of a Russian bordello.

Buick Century. The car Mom drove before the Mercury, it originally belonged to my grandmother. P. J. O’Rourke once quipped that when you were driving a big car, outside events seemed as far away as civil wars in remote nations. He got that right.

The Century was a mechanized force of nature, sporting a V8 engine. Our neighbor Jim said it sounded like a B-52 revving up when you started it. Its horsepower was such that, without a firm foot on the power brakes, it would have leaped backwards into the street and crushed anything in its path. It could propel you up the on-ramp like nobody’s business. I was a little afraid of it.

Mom’s years of smoking left it redolent of tobacco. It was probably the only car that was more polluted inside than out.

The boys at the service station loved it. They kept asking if Miz Bliss would sell it to them so they could put the engine in a stock car. She kindly obliged them, and the Buick’s engine finally got to run at speed. It cheers me no end to think of the spirit of two strong women rocketing that Buick down the straightaway.

Chevy II Nova. A rugged mid-Sixties classic, it was a fine car for a hesitant driver like me to learn on. I became quite fond of it as I drove to Broughton High School as a senior. Great little car… except for the seats:

Black. Vinyl. When summer came, it burned like the surface of the Sun, scorching any flesh not protected by a beach towel, with no AC to cool it. The salesman* somehow failed to mention this.

Chevy Impala. Made in 1968 when gas was 30 cents a gallon. Another V8, it was the match of Mom’s Buick. My favorite feature was the miles-long front seat, which had three sets of seat belts, allowing me to drive and cuddle my girlfriend at the same time. Sweet for both of us.

One fateful afternoon I made a wrong turn off Pershing Street and hit a black sports car. Of course, my tank was barely dented, but the other car’s front end crumpled like an eggshell. The policeman admired my steed and declined to charge me.

I thought I was in the clear until eight months later, when the drive train bent and killed my beloved Impala. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and that Nissan is probably still snickering.

 

* In those pre-feminist days there were no female sales representatives.

Days of Miracle and Wonder

These are the days of miracle and wonder… Don’t cry baby, don’t cry, don’t cry…

Maybe it’s the accordion, lilting in a jaunty rhythm. Maybe it’s the bass, sharply plucked, loping its way into your cortex. Maybe it’s the voice, rich and melodic.

“The Boy in the Bubble” opens Paul Simon’s masterpiece, Graceland. Released in 1986, the album opened American music to the extraordinary sounds emanating from Africa.

Maybe it’s the lyrics, each line a carefully-crafted epiphany of surprise and euphony: A shattering of shop windows… Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. Medicine is magical and magical is art… There was a dry wind…[and it] curled into the circle of birth… A distant constellation that is dying in a corner of the sky… A loose affiliation of billionaires and millionaires…

It’s the rare pop song that speaks of terror, globalization, and astronomy. It was apropos in 1986 and it reminds us how nothing has changed in 2018, and in some ways gotten much worse.

The loose affiliation of billionaires and millionaires runs the world and shows no sign of letting go. The circle of birth has been corrupted, deserts advance, disease runs rampant.

Simon’s song is catchy, bouncy, and tickles the ear in a thousand ways, but not far beneath the surface is Bad News.

The sum total of our miracle and wonder is transforming human society utterly. There has never been such an outpouring of music, art, and sport. We peer through the constellations into a Universe of unimaginable splendor.

But only the naive are sure of where we are going.

We live in an age of miracle and wonder. And yet we cry.

Secular Music I Thank God For

Talking Heads, More Songs About Building and Food

Jane Siberry, The Speckless Sky

Twentieth Century Promised Land; Simple Minds, Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call

Steve Reich; Music for 19 Musicians

U2, Achtung Baby

Baba O’Riley; The Who, Who’s Next

Reminiscing in Tempo; Duke Ellington

Nowhere to Hide; Martha and the Vandellas, Martha and the Vandellas Live!

Repercussion, The dB’s

Dynamico, Mitch Easter

Youth of the Nation; P.O.D., Satellite

Brown Eyed Girl; Van Morrison, Blowin’ Your Mind!

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction; The Rolling Stones, Out of Our Heads

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction; Devo, Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!

Symphony No. 7 in A Minor; Ludwig Von Beethoven

The Mountain’s High; Dick and Dee Dee

Tomorrow’s Music Today, Dwight Yoakam

Witchcraft, Frank Sinatra.

Mr. Lee; The Bobbettes

Sobabamba (We Will Get Them); Udokotela Shange Namajaha, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto

Paul Simon, Graceland

Cedars of Lebanon; U2, No Line on the Horizon

Get Out; CHVRCHES, Love Is Dead

Whenever You’re on My Mind; Marshall Crenshaw, Field Day

Voodoo Child; Angelique Kidjo, Oremi

Black Market; Weather Report, Black Market

Funkytown; Lipps Inc., Mouth to Mouth

Mrs. Bluebeard; They Might Be Giants, I Like Fun

The Girl From Ipanema; Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto

Once in a Lifetime; Talking Heads, Remain in Light

Once in a Lifetime; Angelique Kidjo, Remain in Light

Satori in Tangier; King Crimson, Beat

Backwater; Brian Eno, Before and After Science

Nefinofo; Milton Bliss [private recording]

 

 

 

Presence

I sit quietly in the Presence. I speak and pause, then speak again. All in all.

I am calm and reflective. I try to have no secrets between me and my Interlocutor, my Other. Everything is fair game for communication: sorrow, gratitude, unfulfilled dreams, plans for living this day. I hold back nothing. I am open.

Between us is love. I have been trying on the idea that my Companion enjoys my company, revels in it, can’t wait for it. Lives for it as a relief to his loneliness. He is, after all, the only one of his kind.

* * *

Suffering is real, intense, unwelcome, and necessary to learning. I despise it, hate those growing pains that interrupt my serenity. But if life was all hunky-dory, I would gain no wisdom.

Suffering brings me to my knees. It reminds me that I am not in charge of my life, that I cannot control others, cannot shape the world to my liking, cannot alter one iota of my past. Suffering evokes humility.

I need help to live, and I always have. I see only my corner of the world. My mind is not sensitized to the vast forces that move behind the scenes. I see only the stage and the players. Backstage is invisible. I have not seen the hours and weeks of rehearsal, nor do I know the author of the play, and the life experiences that formed its writing. My vision is limited and deceptive.

I resist admitting it, I desire to be independent and self-directed, but I am needy and my life is temporary and confusing.

* * *

Inside the Presence, I get up and walk to my window, quiet and receptive. Though the blinds are shut, I peer outward.

For a moment I receive a glimpse of ultimate reality. I encounter a beautiful Being. A voice moves through me, and I reach out with the sum total of my hopes, my fears, my regrets, and my ecstasy. Space and time recede, and I realize that my Contact is far, far, far beyond my understanding, existing on a scale that is unfathomable and terrifying.

And yet, I am noticed. I matter, and I see that my small, short life is, yes, a drop in the bucket, but is absolutely necessary to the existence of the water. All in all.

Transformed, I sit back down. My worries have vanished, lost in glory. I am at peace. The coming days and years will at times be tumultuous, but I will live through them. I will thrive, and there will be joy.

A Few Things That Draw Me Closer

Physical (aside from the usual T&A). Haircuts that expose the nape of her neck. Bangs. (OMG bangs. I once fell in love with a girl because she switched to bangs.) A little bit of tummy pudge. The leetle delta of flesh on the upper lip. Brown eyes. Moles. Small soft hands. Tapering calves. Especially: a steady, true gaze. And shoulders. Holy Jesus. Shoulders.

Apparel (aside from tight and clingy). Peasant blouses. Long print skirts. White T-shirts. Sandals.

Actions (the most important thing). Cradling a cat. Listening attentively. Praying. Crouching to talk to a child. Helping an older person walk. Carrying a book.

Voice (a window to the soul). Soft, lightly accented, melodious. Strong enough to fill a room, yet whisper-quiet.

Traits (beyond merely liking me). Large vocabulary. Reverence. Decorum. Tenderness. Straightforward. Unpretentious. Critical thinking. Curiosity. Open-mindedness. Curiosity. Loves God.

Wrap these up in a nice bow, and I am in wonderful trouble.

A Few Words About the M-Word

For adults only, adolescents, and precocious kids

Shhh… shhh… maintain low tones… I am going to discuss (wait for it)… masturbation. Persons of delicate constitutions and/or sexual hangups should leave now.

Is anything as universal and secretive? Masturbation dates back probably to Adam before Eve, and yet even mentioning its existence is considered vulgar in polite society. Given our preoccupation with hook-ups, BDSM, threesomes, and swapping, saying “quiet please” to discussions of solitary pleasure is absurd.

All of the information presented in this essay, it goes without saying, is based on the experience of people other than me.

Immediately after the first wank, condemnation followed. Various religious texts prohibit five-finger (less for women) dating, often based on the premise that its practitioners load up with fantasies involving the wrong people.

Shall we be real? In and of themselves, fantasies are not harmful or wrong, unless you mistake them for reality. The workings of the theater of the imagination only present a potential for problems if they are acted upon. The First Amendment says this, somewhere.

Others argue that flying solo is unhealthy. So is gardening, if you do it too much. For most people, beer is not harmful unless consumed in cases. As in all habits, moderation is the key.

(I should be serious a moment. Use of the, er, equipment presents problems if practiced in long sessions too frequently. Like architecture, less is more.)

So folks, let’s go easy on ourselves. There are plenty of opportunities for guilt without adding another. God wired human beings for pleasure. If not, our arms would not be exactly the right length.

Thank you for your attention. I gotta go.

God’s Timing

You have to have a card to get into the building I live in. The other morning, as I was about to go on a short photo walk, two EMS techs were waiting at the door. I let them in and asked if it was an emergency. Just a fall, they said.

Just a fall. From their point of view, this was all in a day’s work. They encounter much worse. But to people my age and older, a fall is a serious matter.

I said a prayer and went out, headed for a magnolia tree with blossoms in all stages of bloom. I made some pleasing compositions.

When I came back in about twenty minutes, the elevator doors were just opening. I recognized one of my neighbors in the stretcher.

I averted my eyes and went up the nearby stairs, so as to be unobtrusive. I can only imagine the embarrassment of being wheeled out to the ambulance. It could easily have been me. Fortunately no one else was around to witness her trauma.

This just happened. I am praying for her now, as she enters the hospital and undergoes a long succession of doctors, tests, waiting, and questions. As she sits with her mortality.

There is such a thing as God’s timing. My goal was to take a few pictures but I became a vessel of prayer. There was no coincidence here. I was meant to see it, and lift this hurting woman to God’s mercy.

I am reminded to remain attuned to unexpected events. My own problems seem smaller now. We are all connected, each to the other, as we are meant to.

It is time to pray again.

Can We Please Retire These?

There are some words and phrases out there that have simply outlived their usefulness, whose power has been sapped by overuse. A few of them are…

Nice. A photographer, who is wonderfully named Joe DiMaggio, once said that “nice” was the kiss of death in regards to compliments. I agree. When our inner complimenter fails us, we say “nice”. When we say “nice person”, we really mean friendly but dull.

Iconic. The most overused superlative in the English language today. It once meant like an icon, a very specific religious reference. Now it just means “really good.” Hint: if everything is iconic, then nothing is iconic.

Classic. Another worn-out superlative. It used to mean “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.” As I understand it, this refers to a process of years or even centuries. Shakespeare’s works are classic. Nowadays it means, it’s been around two weeks and I like it.

Awesome. It originally meant capable of inspiring awe, or a state of transcendent reverence. It used to be limited to events such as visitations from a deity. People now use it to refer to anything that is above average. Save it for something real, such as the Grand Canyon.

The next level. This has to be one of the stupidest euphemisms for initiating sex ever made. Going to the next level has all the soulfulness of getting the latest upgrade to your I-Phone. The word for the experience of first sex has yet to be coined.

Surreal. Back when the Surrealists were tooling around Paris, it meant “having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream”. Now it just means weird. Sigh…

I could go on. These words have become worn out and watered down because most folks have a tiny vocabulary. (A certain public person is said to a vocabulary of 700 words. 700 words!)

You build a good vocabulary by reading lots of good books. It’s best to begin early, but it’s never too late to start.

Devour a book of substance and fire today. It’s the iconic thing to do.