Small Local Efforts at Diversity

It may not be a good idea to editorialize about a magazine article that is editorializing about other editorializing. But here I go again.

Somehow in mid-July I ran out of New Yorker stories to read. Desperate on a hot day for something to read at the table over lunch, I rifled through old issues. I discovered an oddly titled piece from April 6, 2015, that I had somehow missed.

I will admit that my prejudices led me to start the story entitled “Carbon Capture.” [1] But soon I realized that I had stumbled across a piece that was different; an argument that would give me the intellectual twist and challenge that I desired.

In my humble opinion, this is a significant piece. It borders on political philosophy. By the end, I was thinking back 40 years to the blockbuster book “Small is Beautiful” and thinking the small, the local, and the diverse retained the strength, clarity, and utility that I had once thought they did.

This represents my mindset fairly: take nothing for granted, keep changing perspectives, focus on the small and the local and the naturally diverse. By this path, we will live better and end nobler.

FOOTNOTE:

1. The subtitle of Jonathan Franzen’s article “Carbon Capture” in The New Yorker on April 6, 2015, focuses the mind: “Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” He gets to the point early and holds fast to it: “As a narrative, climate change is almost as simple as ‘Markets are efficient.’ The story can be told in fewer than a hundred and forty characters: We’re taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we’re f~~ked.”

Raid on Palau

Having known R. W. Hulme (Bob) forty years, I can, without reservation, attest that I believe every single word of his stories. It is a wonder that he came to write his stories and that we should hear and like them so much.

I like the excitement and cool detachment; the brevity, clarity, and detail; his determination to get it done; the humility and the humor. But most of all I like the unmistakable humanity – the “one” and the “we” working it out on the fly.

Bob was drafted into the Army on his twenty-second birthday in September, 1941. That fact is completely consistent with the tone of his stories. He was no daring-do cowboy. He moved by force of persistence, against significant odds, into flying. Once there, he took charge without bravado.

Essentially, over time, Bob did not alter, except where a house full of lovely, intelligent, honorable women helps a man adjust admirably. It is noteworthy that his telling of this story comes in 1992. After Ross Perot, Bob privately struggled, for 19 more years, to negotiate the new world order. He adapted in increments like the self-taught, well-read, hard-working, experienced gentleman that he was.

Despite what they claim in fiction and history, great things happen in increments. Bob’s stories – and life – show us that great feats happen in short steps. The context of those steps is often out of control – as are the guiding instruments – but it is how one handles the stick that substantially determines when, where, how, and if one lands.

The new world order was more ambiguous and less trustworthy for a man such as Bob. He respected learning, loyalty, common sense, and work, but he clearly objected to the way things were headed.

After seeing the television series “The Pacific,” I am heartily grateful that Bob was in the air. His is the war that we know through his stories. He and they allow us to suspend judgment about the time, and all that preceded and followed it, in the suspense of how our loved one managed to survive intact. Not just survive, but thrive as the same man we read about now and knew around the kitchen table.

As he makes abundantly clear, Bob was one of many, a leader who wanted to get the hell out and get his comrades out, too, while doing his assigned task in a way that, though not exactly by the book, gets it done and wins peace in which a new world could emerge. Big men yield. But when they succumb to age and change, they leave gaping holes.

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Stories in TennesseeSoul by Lt. Col. Robert W. Hulme, USAF (Ret.)
(ordered by date of war event)

Black Sunday
Raid on Palau
The Big One
Clark Field
The One

He So Loves the World

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Concepts describe and augment reality. They become part of reality.

Thinking so, I come to a key proposition: Believing makes it so. This proposition is the vague plasma that connects loose components of a life, a culture, a civilization.

One of the best passages in Catch 22, a dialogue that takes the concept of the Catch-22 to its next level, has Yossarian discussing the God not believed in. In the conversation, it is clear that not believing requires a concept, too. When not believing becomes a integral part of a personal system, it becomes a belief.

Belief (and theories more meticulously built on empirical evidence and rational proof) guides perceptions and behavior. In a constant and consistent expression, they feed virtuous or vicious cycles.

I believe in trust. I believe that trust creates trust, that low trust generates inefficient interactions that impede productivity and growth. But on the other hand, I believe in questioning: trusting relationships concede the requirement to clarify and reconcile ends and means among members.

Recently I heard on NPR (what could be named Radio Trust) that the Huggington Post – formerly and officially called The Huffington Post – plans to focus only on stories about things that work. (There may be many fewer stories about Congress and radical political parties and their partisans.) The theory here is that less news about evil and failure, and more about cooperation, construction and success, will breed more success and diminish evil action and failure.

We can belabor this argument with A is B and B is C and so on to Z. We know that lengthy and time-consuming contests such as that, repeated over and over again, don’t convince or change radical views. With trust, we are able to jump straight from A to Z more efficiently.

Jumping from A to Z, we venture to the story of which this rumination is a prologue – a prologue of which the attached story is a proof. Thus we tie together these fragments of thought in an actual life, a life tied to many lives, a life of cooperation, construction, and delight. This is the small beginning of a story about the contagion of love.

Click here to read this story.

Born Again

With some frequency, I have mentioned that I once returned to college many years after leaving it. I never deliberately dropped out: eventually, after more than four years of hard study there, I was excreted.

The first time I left, though, I was propelled from college. Something was happening to me which I did not understand. Friendships were dissolving, personalities were shape-shifting, my body was bloating, the world was gnawing. And it was spring. But more significantly, I had hit a wall. I enrolled in a course on Renaissance Europe at Memphis State University. I had taken four very good required survey history courses prior to this particular course but had mainly taken courses in business and psychology. More inclined toward the latter – and seeing the former, based in no small part on the other people pursuing it, as a misfit for my temperament, principles, and evolving interests – I sought out new study paths late in my junior year.

The readings for the Renaissance course were complex and overwhelming on many levels. Though my professor was a spellbinding storyteller, I felt lost in material that I could neither digest nor piece together. I was captivated by images and tales of men and women who made my own life seem under-lived and completely uninteresting; I encountered ideas that made those surrounding me and my time appear clearly insufficient. Yet, I felt the time speak to me – call to me. Having read and attended with all my ability, I went to my professor and told him of my decision to withdraw from school. I told him that I would risk all, even risk being drafted for duty in Vietnam, to see the world and find my place in it. This man, who seemed to hold the world in his large hands, his imposing stature, and his deep, authoritative voice – a true believer in the power and fundamental necessity of education – did not attempt to dissuade me. He was genuinely supportive of the reasoning upon which I based my move outward.

I will be honest. I left school in pursuit of craft. The very word loomed noble and superior to bland consumption. Emphatically, I did not leave for humanism. I never would have dreamed that humanism could, through the twisted witchcraft of modern-day religion, be cast in popular American culture as the most wicked scourge ever to plague mankind. I was humanism through and through. I did not need to pursue it. And there was nothing that could drive it from me. It was the grand gift that had seeped into my pores from the moment that I was born. It was the alpha and omega of my education. It was the beginning and sustenance of my values. And nothing solidified humanism’s hold on me like the benevolent Protestant upbringing in my household that surrounded me since birth. To me, Jesus was humanism writ large. He would not stand so pervasively and personally approachable without the ideals, contributions, and sacrifices of humanism, and humanism would not thrive without the model and teachings of Jesus.

Consistent with my practice of posting manuscripts related to the Middle Ages, I have attached essays pertaining to my exploration of the Renaissance.

The mighty figures and events of the Renaissance would mock our petty conceits. And we justly deride many of theirs. But we easily see ourselves among them. We find their assumptions familiar. Their excesses are recognizably human in our eyes.

The Renaissance in History
Lawyers and Statecraft
Michelangelo
Letter About Machiavelli’s The Prince
Review of Renaissance Letters

(Refer to the key offered in the previous post on dooms to view these learning journals. Read them or ignore them at will.)

End of the Middle

Although we all think we know what differentiates dark from light, there are gradations across the middle that confound easy dismissal and categorization. Such questions hardly matter to most people nowadays, but they are the most fascinating questions to me. They are rich and complex, without definitive answers.

The more I studied, the more the questions. I thought that I studied for answers, but answers aren’t the half of it.

I can gaze out of my study window at a steep hill of green trees, or at the backs of my eyelids into black in the very early morning, and I see another version of our world, another time. It is just as alive as the day by day one in town or country.

Such experiences are not things of common social status and honorifics. They are not the source of livelihood and wealth. They are an internal eternity that can only be separated or ended by neglect, illness, injury, or death.

I have linked a number of manuscripts that I assembled while doing my most intensive study of history. I offer them not as examples of outstanding scholarship or creativity or party conversation, but as a record of the pageant that has been gifted to me by my life of observing, being taught, and questioning.

The complexity of the Middles Ages, and economic necessity, brought me back to studies in 1988 and riveted the focus of my mind. The Middle Ages are our alternate reality. The essence of the age is what we get if we are very very foolish or very imaginative. They are the default that hangs in air; they are the ways embedded in our DNA. They wait for awakening.

No more need be said. This is the end of the middle.

Delineating the Middle Ages

Evolution of English Law

Mediaeval Knights

Gothic Architecture

(Refer to the key offered in the previous post to view these essays. Pick any paragraph to start with and see where it takes you.)

The Monk

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Exposed to the elements, stoic monks teach us ways to live and die.

Circa 1968, my philosophical college associates and I quipped, satirically shedding trappings of our suburban upbringing, that when we died, we would like for our carcasses to be thrown in an outside trash can for disposal. Looking back, there may be hidden irony in our joke: half-educated white boys resigning themselves, even seeking, to be dispatched by Memphis garbage collectors.

Nothing clears the head like big outdoors. I should have recognized that earlier from my childhood, when I spent most of my free time in wide-open spaces.

Every single day, my brain is cleansed and my thoughts refreshed by dreamy sleep and exposure to a pastoral setting under huge skies where fields, trees, and hills stretch to the horizon. The out of doors purifies and restores: it is a more effective eraser than drugs and drink; it is a better muse and memory supplement, too.

I suppose the impact of taking to the streets of downtown Memphis in the mid-1970s offered a similar benefit. Like a modern-day monk of Tennessee, one could unburden one’s soul in the big outdoors of a struggling city by a river, while afloat, alone, alongside an occasional familiar and the drift of harmless strangers.

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Odd Man Out

When you travel, particularly if you take photographs and take note of the people and places you visit, it is easy to see your relationship with foreign places and people as being one where you are on the outside looking in. That is not necessarily the whole truth about the nature and consequences of the transaction.

Although I spent many weeks traveling in Central America in 1973 – and with a companion who also carried a valuable camera – there is not a single photograph of me among those remaining from the journey. (There might have been a couple taken, but my companion lost his complete film record from atop a Volkswagen Beetle during a move within a year of returning to Memphis.)

I certainly took no self-portraits, nor did I ask a local inhabitant or a fellow traveler to take a photograph of me standing before an important cultural site. (I wish I had asked.) Therefore, initially, I viewed myself as being on the outside looking in on a culture, observing differences that were supposed to be foreign to me, but never viewing myself as part of the picture.

In time, however, in a slowly revelatory way reminiscent of the movie Blowup, when I enlarged and studied the people frozen in my photographs, I began to see that my subjects were observing me, too. In fact, in a deeply reflective exercise, I saw that I was observing myself, along with my hosts, through the act of photography. Going further in this exercise, in terms of both my photographs and my notes, I came to see the trip as a flushing and fleshing out of identity – a transformative journey made by watching myself in a foreign context, where the context, even if at times a caustic compound of heat, grime, privation, isolation, exoticism, and tedium, was both a stimulate and a healing aid toward a path of personal resolution.

The details of that resolution are grainy now as then, but the process and conclusions are clearer. A photographic image of ourselves in distant places offers little insight, though it can be a pleasure and a mile post to others who know us. The impression that we project and recall, at home and abroad, in our commerce with matters foreign is the souvenir that gives and endures.

I see nothing in my old photographs that render my image as a traveler as intrusive or unwelcome, as beggarly or greedy, as uninterested or mean. By traveling, I took a part of my culture to my hosts and they pointed me home again by being themselves, uninhibited and unthreatened by my presence.

The ancient Greeks had it down to a tittle: our duty as hosts and sojourners, at home and abroad, is kindness to strangers from afar who are on the road with us. As visitors, we owe it to pay our way by sharing, demanding little, and leaving a small footprint – and by fair observation, remembrance, and gratitude.

When we notice an immigrant – if indeed we are privileged to do so – we tend to see an outsider looking in. But the immigrant is a conduit for our seeing a foreign culture, for our seeing potential for ourselves. We are then on the inside looking out along with the visitor – or we should be, if we intend to reap full advantage of our being graced by a visitor who wants to be part of us – who wants to learn and mimic our ways while among us.

The odd man out, then, is not the man who is left out of the picture. He is the man who neglects the essentials of his own survival by failing to behold the foreign, by failing to wisely seize and invest impressions of a predictably surprising world full of shooting stars and common wonders.

My photographs, journals, and musings from this travel are an open door on a perplexing, perilous, marvelous, and vulnerable world. Despite its plainness, it is a view of ceaseless bewilderment in the presence of bountiful variety and inevitable similarity.

The foreign is among us constantly. We stand unfulfilled if we do not embrace it as our own while allowing it to be foreign and itself. Foreign to none, all is foreign. Foreign to much, much is freshly familiar – the necessary spur to our ascent.

In Other Words

After a few million years, God said, “Let there be a change in climate.”

Then God commanded, “Children of Adam and Eve, as you have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, you must adapt together to a new challenge that affects all the earth.”

When sons and daughters of Adam and Eve complained that man was too small and could do little, God said, “Remember what Noah did.” And when they denied the change that God had ordained and claimed, like Job, to have done nothing to contribute to such harsh conditions, God said, “Your knowledge and your ignorance have endangered creation. You can undo what you have done if you use all of your talents in concert to conserve the bounty given you.”

And the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve went forth about the earth performing miracles, applying gifts from the Tree of Knowledge to turn sun and wind and water into light where it was dark, into heat where it was cold, into cool where it was hot, into moisture where it was dry, into fertility where it was barren. And God was pleased with man’s stewardship of the earth and saw that it was good enough.

Blurry Pictures

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Somewhat like the ground around my house covered by fallen leaves, I am blanketed by flawed pages from times past. Each leaf is a beautiful object and lively memory that others confuse with debris.

Pity the soul who cannot recall and re-examine, laugh at and draw lessons from, experiences of his prime. The young cannot fathom how much the twenty-three-year-old inhabits the body of the sixty-three-year-old. The near-elderly in their sixties can hardly conceive of the young girl yet dancing in the head of the octogenarian.

Blurry pictures are true pictures of life in midair.

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Uncommon Companions

With my joy theme in a previous essay, I sought to stake ground on religion from a reasoned position before life events dispose me not to. One might ask – if one is unplugged – “Why all the uncomfortable religious stuff in the middle of a festive holiday season?”

To enumerate a few reasons, I start with three selfish ones: First, on the off chance that others sometimes feel like life is formless or in disarray, I elect to explain my way out of the primordial soup to discover adaptive insights. Second, I need to stake more cheerful ground now before age dispossesses me of the ability to get my spirits up; I try to lock myself into an upbeat posture. Third, I need to state my sense of being in the cosmos quickly before my mind turns to mush: that point where one might remember sometime but have difficulty distinguishing whether it happened or not, and when. And if one does momentarily straighten it out mentally, one can’t retain it in memory for over an hour before other thoughts wash it off the field of attention. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, just wait, you aren’t old enough yet to sense your mind go soft – where images are vividly recalled but not well placed in context or historical fact.)

The whole endeavor of religious exposition, from my point of view, is a metaphysical exploration of the universe using a tiny brain. In the case of my own mind, you cannot grasp – assuming you are inclined to try – its world unless you take on the dimly lit philosophical factory that keeps churning around the clock. A dialogue is just that: more than one side talking. But if I am the only body participating in the exercise, I have got to fully reveal my divided thinking on subjects. But answers are elusive and never as one-sided as one word, one phrase, one complete sentence – or one brain.

There is another reason, too, for continuing a pattern of pursuing unusual discussion in an unconventional way. Published eccentricity has its advantages. Chief among them is privacy in plain view. When one broaches taboo subjects in responsible speech, barriers dissolve and expression expands.

In the past twenty years or so, religion has insinuated itself again, sometimes negatively and belligerently, into the politics of public policy. The disappointment of the past election – to some – should inform the religious and the non-religious alike that this is a time for changed dialogue about religion and its place in a modern Western society. The religious need to see more clearly how good non-church-going people view religion as it is now expressed. And non-religious participants in society need to stretch beyond their comfort zones, and intellectual self-satisfaction, to see how religious views and customs enrich individual lives and civil society.

There is a significant role for religion in public life. For instance, during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, it was not an intimate knowledge of history or a close reading of the Constitution that moved many toward expanded rights for minorities. But rather it was the impulses of religious upbringing – perhaps fortified by adolescent hormones – that shaped and nourished passions and fortified certainty in the rightness of a cause aimed at more personal freedom of action, fuller political participation, and heightened standards of social responsibility.

A fresh discussion reaches down into basic understanding of where religious and non-religious views touch philosophy and fundamental properties of human existence. That’s why now! There is vast meeting ground but low attendance in the revival of such dialogue. I am convinced that these great questions still pull at modern people who think. They will gnaw at us until we perish – all the while supplying inspiration and guidance.

But wait! There is much, much more to the story. I neglected to mention our invisible friends – other interlocutors whom we can enlist in our personal deliberations.

Read it here.