Getting by with Binary

“Are you on the bus, or off the bus?” Ken Kesey

I have been astonished recently at the disparagement of what is called ‘binary thinking.’ You know, the sort of thinking people do when distinguishing between themselves and that other person, also on the tennis court, but on the other side of the net.

This criticism is largely used when referring to a person’s personal gender identification. It would be rude to assign such to another person, despite the obvious clues on display when a newborn baby is about to receive that first slap on its bottom. Mere physical fact is so passé. And is that sex assigned? Or just noted?

Nowadays one’s gender self-assignment is only limited by your imagination. No one has been able to annotate all the proliferating qualifiers. I cannot keep track. Color me sieve-sexual.

These days, even facts cannot be counted on to be objectively true. People declare ‘the science to be settled.’ Science doesn’t settle things, though. It asks questions incessantly and seeks to disprove. Considering the vehemence with which it is often declared, ‘settled science’ appears to be just a euphemism for ‘faith.’

BTW, sorry to be writing this on a computer. I know. So binary.

(I once asked a computer programmer if he knows of anyone who writes code comedy. Code Poetry? What rhymes with zero? Nothing.)

“Call me.”

“Oh, but I don’t have your number.”

“That’s okay. Just use one you like.”

Unlike facts, feelings have nuance – feelings shift and morph and transform. Binary thinking is so specific, either this or that. We (as opposed to ‘they’) prefer fluidity as opposed to solidity. Oops! There goes that binary thinking again.

Jungian psychology identified the male/female continuum within each of us. (For instance, I like it when my wife… oh, never mind.) But Jung isn’t being taught any longer. Do feminists resent having to share a continuum with men? They want it all. I recently read that some feminists have declared that one cannot be both a feminist and a conservative. How binary is that?

“Who are you talking about?”

“That two-spirited, non-binary, half-caff, cis-gendered, non-dairy person with a twist, over there.”

“That narrows it down, but… you mean that man?”

“Yeah, with the coffee.”

I want to ask the protester pictured holding a sign calling for ‘no more borders’ why, if borders are obsolete, they want to stay here so badly.

To be honest, binary thinking predominates because it is just so darned convenient. Yes/no.

On/off.

Us/them.

I/thou.

In/out.

Left/right.

Up/down.

Active/passive.

Cold/hot.

Male/female.

Rich/poor.

True/false.

Connected/unplugged.

Should I stop? Start?

Fall in or out of love? Oops, binary.

Slippery slope? Binary.

Non-binary? Yep. Binary.

Language is made up of distinctions. Try to define your terms without identifying what something is not.

They are descriptive words after all. Not meant to plumb the depths of your soul. And, in the spirit of privacy (remember that?) you don’t need the government in your bedroom. Nor do you need to squeeze your ever evolving sense of identity onto that tiny ID card issued by the state.

Proto-Indo-European (the Mother of all languages) only identified black, red and green as colors. Not much nuance there. Some cultures do not distinguish between green and blue. Is that unitary thinking? Or just lazy?

I am not against nuance. That would be nuance as opposed to… what?

Black/white? Ahh… but what about grey? Yes, what about grey? Is that a cool grey? Or a warm grey?

Is the world more nuanced than a one or a zero? Of course. I have eight other fingers to keep occupied holding the smart phone whilst my thumbs text.

But I think trying to get a four year old to grasp the nuances of gender fluidity, when they can barely form sentences is a bridge too far.

Interestingly, one distinction many love to make is between Fascism and Communism, which to my un-nuanced eye, seem to have more in common than not.

And is there anything more binary than agreement/racist? The best answer I’ve heard (on the radio) to the question of race is there is only the human color – melanin, in various shades.

Beige? Wheat? Some distinctions really do not have a difference.

Where would deconstruction be without construction?

Ugly/pretty obviously has the nuance of pretty ugly.

Yin/yang carries the seed of its opposite within it. This implies change over time. Life is not static. Even stasis is not static. And thankfully, an entity as complicated as a person cannot be reduced to mere ones and zeros. Yet.

But by way of a short hand reference to a quality or behavior, there may be nothing better. Or worse?

Some philosophies attempt to embrace the unity of all things. I’m told one cannot achieve Nirvana without sloughing off binary thinking. Of course, achieving Nirvana is impossible if one wants to ‘achieve’ anything. And to even consider ‘binary thinking’ at all, ensures you will never achieve Nirvana. Pity the poor enlightened soul who remembers there are those who are not enlightened.

In my 3rd grade class was my first introduction to New Math – my first exposure to binary thinking as a concept. I had never heard of computers. Why would anyone want to use only ones and zeros? It made little sense to me. Such a limited palette. I have come to appreciate just how dependent we all are on it. Is binary thinking so pervasive, it is the ultimate unitary mode of thought?

“War is peace.” George Orwell

Must one be in denial to think all things are unified and undifferentiated? Embrace the denial.

I’ve tried to be clear. Perhaps you see it differently.

I’m going to turn up the stereo and celebrate. Viva la difference!

Sing the Body Electric

Imagine you lived your life in a cloud. You think you see clearly, as well as anyone else. But nothing is vivid. Shadows dominate.

Then one day you awaken to clarity. You have never seen a mountain. After several days of driving, one looms on the horizon. “Ahh,” you think. “Now I’ve seen a mountain. I know what a mountain is.” But after another full day’s drive, that mountain seems barely larger and hardly closer. The magnitude of what a mountain actually is begins to dawn. When you finally approach the mountain and it takes hours to drive past it, illusions evaporate.

We experience the world in abstractions, removed from stark reality. Our brains average things into a generalized caricature. Even at our most attentive, we approximate the world. When actual reality slaps us, it is startling.

No one has the acuity of vision to see things as they truly are.

The world teams with bacteria which ubiquitous presence was only recently discovered. What if we could see atomic structure?

I was a materialist. I judged things based on the tangible, the visual and that which exists. What I thought of as ‘the real’. Then, in Science 101 I learned atoms are anything but solid. In fact they are more than 99% empty, airless space. Electromagnetic forces bind the particles together. Solid ‘matter’ and ‘mass’ are an illusion, just terms of equivalence to varied forms of ‘energy’.

I walked out of class expecting to sink into the pavement. My sense of the world was transformed but the world just spun around like always. I was a walking sponge, a materialist with no place to stand.

The tangible is actually an electromagnetic field. My energy field resists the electromagnetic field making up the apple I juggle or the friend I embrace. My chair, or my street, or a tree are no more solid than I am in the conventional sense, as the atoms composing everything are primarily empty space, surrounded by whirling knots of energy. Electromagnetism is your friend.

But from where that energy emanates, or how it sustains itself is a mystery. So that Big Mac I ate for lunch sustains all this whirling energy? That Big Mac, which is also made up of whirling energy, empty space and not much else? Hold the pickle.

And anyway, my lunch sustains my living body chemically but does not serve to preserve the gazillions of atoms, making up the trillions of molecules, making up the innumerable cells in my body. All that spinning makes me dizzy.

And my 2000 Corolla? The gasoline it carries is also a store of chemical energy that propels it forward. But the steel frame? The tires? The windshield? What sustains the integrity of their composition?

Living or dead, everything we call matter, the whole universe is made of an infinite number of perpetual motion devices. How can I get in on that action? Oh, I am.

Within any atom, the strong forces overcome the weak forces, but both are necessary to maintain the structure of each individual atom, keeping its component parts, protons, neutrons, etc. from spinning away.

In short, we are composed of energy. And we are immersed in a ‘soup’ of ebbing and flowing energy. That is the cloud we live in. Different elements have varying frequencies of electromagnetic force.

Who can explain this constant, inexhaustible source of energy? Scientists assure us. ”Trust us. It just is.” And, of course, all this (atoms, the universe, and all the interconnected systems) just randomly organized itself after the big bang. No designer, no programmer here. Move along.

Boy, did we luck out!

Some websites actually point to the mystical, that ineffable reality beyond any language’s ability to describe. Others ignore the pivotal, unanswered question and dazzle us with math. The scientific debate rages, round and round, anything but fixed or settled. One site assures us “energy is not itself stuff; it is something that all stuff has.” Now I get it. Why didn’t you say so?

It is not a case though, of “what’s behind the curtain?” where we are duped. Because it isn’t a conspiracy of silence or misdirection. The real question is “what paradise awaits unveiling?” We merely lack the ability to discern and have only yardsticks with which to measure electrons.

“How do I feel today?” said the particle to the wave. Our part, what we can bring to it, is our attitude.

How do we recapture that sense of being an integral part of the larger scheme, like when a child first grasps marking time with a song?

With all this static and kinetic energy in the air, one must ask, “How should I spend my energy today?” How do I connect? Stay grounded? Close the circuit?

Sins of the Father

Can any son live up to his father’s expectations? Can any father live up to his son’s? We are bound to disappoint in this life.

What compels us to resist, to make our own mistakes, instead of doing as told by those who know best? Is defying authority in our genes? Do we merely take off the training wheels to see what happens? My Dad didn’t believe in training wheels, to become dependent on ‘a crutch’.

However, when I was a kid my Dad gave my dog away, without warning. He had his reasons, I guess. But it was my dog. I came home one day and my dog was gone – “given to a farmer.” I never saw her again. Nothing was said. Ever.

Yet, the unwritten rules within my family did not allow for the open and candid airing of differences. He died, decades later, without my ever confronting him. I never heard one word of explanation, let alone an apology for this assault on me, and my sense of self. He probably never knew how affected I was. And how injured.

I reacted. I stole and did things that, had I been caught, would have deeply embarrassed him. He was a respected business man in our town. Had events played out differently, I wouldn’t have survived to write about them. That would have shown him.

I doubt my Dad was an angel in his youth. What process draws us to maturity? What causes ‘youthful indiscretion’? What have my children done only to lay their justifications at my feet?

Dad’s simple, thoughtless act affected everything between us for the rest of his life. As solid and dependable as he was in every other way, I never trusted him after that. Or anyone.

My Mom would suggest I ride with him on errands. We rode in silence.

Decades later, I would call to talk. He would pass the phone to Mom.

Is each parent a falling domino in an endless succession? Everyone knows the Trojan War was caused by the Trojans stealing Helen from Greece. But before that, the Greeks kidnapped… However, they were only reacting to the Trojan’s barbaric… We are told to begin at the beginning. Can someone please point me in that direction?

In the story of the Prodigal Son the title character, a wayward son, returns to his father’s embrace, as returned from the dead, his honor restored. The father insists his elder brother follow suit. But did the prodigal himself entertain doubts of his own worthiness? Did he accept his acceptance? Could he forgive his own flaws and betrayals? We are never told.

He is us. What do you think?

My Dad’s casket was the heaviest thing I ever carried. Do I carry it still? How does one slough off those very burdens by which we define ourselves?

Letting go of old wounds is difficult. After all, I paid a premium for them. I should discard them?

“Rest in peace” is wishful thinking if we haven’t resolved the issues which haunt us. Spoken in hope, it is ultimately ourselves to whom we speak. Incapable of following their own advice, the living command the dead, who neither need nor heed us.

Unfinished business haunts our days. The living must attend to it. The dead have reached their conclusions.

If forgiveness is withheld, how can unhealed wounds not be perpetuated as the sins of fathers visited on their children? Pain echoes down the generations. How to break the cycle? Could history be changed by forgiving not only our young, and our dead, but ourselves?

Does the beginning begin with us?

 

 

A Way with Words

Karl was a writer who took his craft very seriously. He was good at it.

One day he wrote a perfect sentence and it stopped him cold. This had never happened to him before. He had been writing for a long time but this was really something.

He looked at it and was filled with awe. It was exquisite. It accomplished its purpose… perfectly. It was as long as it needed to be. No clutter. The punctuation was balanced and tasteful. It said everything he meant to say.  Succeeding sentences would add words but not meaning.

Karl felt liberated. He had said it all. On re-reading it he felt he might never need write again. It was that perfect.

Then the thought welled up, he was trapped by this perfection. He felt restricted. The freedom he felt moments ago, now confined him. Nothing looked different but this perfect sentence had changed everything.

Karl always saw writing as a sculptor approaches a block of stone; chiseling each sentence, stroke by stroke, shaping the story. Now the jewel was cut and polished. This perfect sentence stole Karl’s words.

Karl threw his pen across the room. He crumpled the paper holding his perfect sentence and threw it into the waste basket. It was a perfect throw.

He went out for a drink. Karl needed distance from this bizarre phenomenon. This absurdity of perfection. His apartment was stuffy, like fifty people populated it, breathing his air.

He sat at the bar and drank in silence. But words streamed through his mind. They were not perfect words though. And they weren’t perfect sentences. He finished his drink and left, telling himself the noisy bar was distracting. But the words followed.

Karl sat at his typewriter. The words stopped.

He told himself the sentence was not so perfect. He could go on. No words came.

Then Karl thought he had imagined it all. It wasn’t even his sentence. It wasn’t important. Just ink on paper. A meaningless scribble.

He retrieved the paper from the basket and smoothed it on his desk. The sentence was undoubtedly written in his handwriting. They were his words. He could not deny his creation.

He couldn’t explain it either. It truly was perfect in every way. It was unambiguous but evocative, and precisely expressed his meaning. The sentence was suggestive and musical. Witty but not precious. Rhythmic, colorful and terse. Clear.

Karl assured himself his ego was not running away. It was beyond him how he wrote it. He didn’t know he had such a good sentence in him. Two? Impossible.

The more he studied it, the more he felt unworthy of its greatness. How could he write another so well? He felt helpless. All sentences flow from this sentence. Having written it, no more were needed.

He feared his future writing would only be derivative. Empty. Flaccid.

Karl always devoted himself to using words as beautifully and effectively as possible. Having reached this pinnacle, was his life now but a long slog down the nether slope? Would he spend his declining years like some old fool on a bench, mumbling about his past greatness? His damned perfect sentence?

Mediocrity stared at him.

He berated himself for spending his life chasing empty words. Waves on a beach.

After all, words are only vague shadows of fleeting abstractions. Fossilized metaphors binding us to archaic objects and deeds, laden with repetition, a gloss of emotion and memorializing some anonymous utterance. Words. Why grope for meaning sifting through shards of the past?

He sat in silence and watched shadows grow.

Karl lurched to his feet and charged out of his room. The door slammed behind him and he staggered into the street. He didn’t know where to go. He needed to move.

He passed people and yelled greetings. He could only gesture, grunt and shout. No one returned his wild gaze but furtively glanced as he passed. A policeman eyed him.

Karl paid no mind. He walked too quickly to notice. He didn’t know where he was going but couldn’t wait to get there. He raged toward the river.

Then Karl stopped. Passing under a stone bridge he noticed a shoeless man sitting in the gloom. Karl had thought he was walking past discarded rags. The beggar moved his feet when Karl passed. He looked as if he had not moved in days.

The man’s sign caught his eye. Scrawled on tattered cardboard, it read, “Please help.”

Karl emptied his pockets and offered what he had to the man who took it meekly. Karl fell to his knees and weeping, he embraced the poor soul.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you.” Karl said.

Eulogy

My mother passed away just before Christmas. The following is the eulogy I gave at her Memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Sarasota, Florida on March 24th, 2018. time restrictions forced my brevity. Mom was one of the great ones, with an irrepressible spirit. She touched many lives.

Thank you all for joining my family and me in honoring my mother, Marti Adams. I am John, Marti and Gordon’s third son.

There is an unreal quality in the loss of a loved one. Ninety years of memories, suddenly gone. Especially my mother, who knew me before I knew myself, and who nurtured me to the end.

The last time we spoke, a day before she passed, she assured me she was fine. She didn’t want me to worry. She was strong.

After all, in her nineties, while planning a trip, she had a personal trainer at the gym.

I can’t sum up Mom’s life, but let me give you my sense of her.

An early memory is Mom playing Beethoven’s, Moonlight Sonata on her piano. Her attempts at private time were always interrupted by us kids.

I don’t think I ever heard her complete it, but that pensive, opening movement has always been a favorite. Mom perfected her private time doing her art.

Mom’s signature phrase with us was “Fair is fair.” She used it to settle any dispute. But she also applied it in her spending habits, like when she bought each of us three boys, a giant, stuffed poodle dog for Christmas. Or the annual, festively wrapped socks and underwear under the tree.

We never pinned down exactly what ‘fair is fair’ meant, but it almost always stopped an argument. If things continued out of hand, Mom aimed her famous and dreaded ‘raised eyebrow’ at the perps, and that would be that.

Marti and Gordon met during WWII, at the University of Michigan while Gordon was there for Marine officer training.

I recently found a letter Dad wrote to his Commanding officer, requesting permission to marry ‘Miss Daligga,’ our future Mom.

Dad declared he knew “Miss Daligga and her family for over two years.” I shared it with Mom and laughing, she said “more like two weeks!”

Mom and Dad made marriage look easy. As easy as clearing the floor and dancing the ‘Lindy’ to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” They were a great team. I never saw them argue.

Friday night was date night for Mom and Dad and that meant fish sticks or tuna fish over rice for us four kids.

On our many road trips, Mom always brought hard boiled eggs for snacks, saving Dad from stopping every twenty minutes. Six weeks on the road and she always had hard boiled eggs. How did she do that?

Mom got much of her spirit and spunk from her mother, another strong and beautiful woman.

For a year in the late fifties, Mom basically raised us four kids solo. Dad was starting his business in Wilmar – two hours west of us. Although he came home on weekends, it must have been lonely for them both. But we never knew about that.

Mom kept us busy with projects, like gathering berries from our garden to make jams and jellies.

We moved to a rental house in Wilmar, near Dad’s office. On cold nights, the furnace would go out. It was below zero outside and no heat inside. Mom just got us dressed for school in front of the oven.

One Saturday, we kids discovered Rocky and Bullwinkle on TV. Our laughter drew Mom in, to see what mischief we were up to. She joined us on the couch and ended up laughing harder than the rest of us.

Mom was always practical when faced with a challenge. She told us, ‘Never, ever give up.’ One night we needed to pick up my darling sister Jan, from her piano lessons. Mom had poor night vision. And it was foggy.

While Mom attempted to drive the winding two-lane highway, I was hanging out the rear, driver’s side window while Jeff watched out the passenger side.

I called out “Mom! Mom! Go to the right. You’re gonna hit the curb” – (which would be the curb on the left side of the road).

Mom pulled over to the right and stopped. She decided it was safer for Jeff to drive, even though he was unlicensed. He could see. We all got home safely.

Mom was a fighter. Mom petitioned the court for us to keep our dog, Sam after Sam scared some bicyclists. The judge wouldn’t listen. Mom persisted. He threatened her with contempt of court. Mom wouldn’t give up.

He didn’t reckon on her using ‘fair is fair’ followed by ‘the eyebrow’.

We got to keep Sam.

Maryann and Lori Ann from St. Patrick’s rectory tell me Mom’s parishioner number was #1. They are now retiring her number, so Mom will always be #1.

Though we are all here today to celebrate Mom’s life, I have it on excellent authority that this separation we feel is only temporary. We’ll see you again Mom. Thank you.

Hearing Silence, Seeing Darkness

I once went out into the desert to record silence.  You might wonder why, and even how can one record silence – it being so quiet and all. But in the sound business one finds the constant need for what might better be labeled as ‘ambiance’ to play behind dialogue or to enhance a mood for the characters. The quietest scene will always have at least a ‘room tone’. In the real world you only get quiet but very rarely is silence achieved. In the sound track of a film, ambient sounds may be labeled as sound effects but they are orchestrated no less than the musical score.

I once cut backgrounds for a scene in a movie that took place in a meadow. Because of the way it was cut, what would really last over an hour – bright sunlight turning to dusk, took about five minutes of screen time. I cut various tracks of birds and breeze, gradually phasing out the birds and overlapped them with other birds and cicadas and then crickets so the visually compressed time felt natural in the transitions. It felt good when the producer announced that I was an artist.

So, back to the desert. I wanted to record natural sounds, away from traffic or mechanical and man-made sounds. In Los Angeles County, that is nearly impossible. One has to go a long way into the desert to escape the ubiquitous sounds of humankind.

But I discovered something. This may seem self-evident, but it was a revelation to me. It is in silence that one can really hear everything happening.

I set up my recorder and microphones in my wind break and sat still, awaiting the symphony of nature to unfold before me. First I heard the freeway, several miles away and sounding like a distant surf. Then a mile or so distant, someone started up their tractor and drove it into their barn. I heard meadow larks marking their territory. A distant horse neighed. A truck door slammed. Something rustled in the brush. A gust of wind met a clump of dry sage. A crow flew by, its feathers beating the air. It spoke its click language to a neighboring crow. It was so quiet, I could hear everything.

Had I been recording in almost any other location, almost none of those discreet sounds would have even been noticed. We are submerged in a cacophony and are barely aware of it. It was only where there was hardly any sound at all that I could hear so much activity. Ordinarily, we are deafened by the sheer number and volume of sounds constantly barraging our ears. In the recent rains, did anyone hear any individual rain drops?

In a similar vein, we don’t really see, unless it is dark. Or, if you will, we are not aware that we see unless we are focused on what draws our attention. I took my kids camping at Lake Cachuma some years ago. That night, we left the tent to take in some night air.

I looked to the night sky and fell speechless at the splendor of the stars on that moonless night. We could actually see the Milky Way laid out before us. The sheer scope of the night sky, unsullied by city lights, was beyond description. The constellations everyone can identify, even in the city, like the Big Dipper or Orion, were almost lost in the pointillist cloud of stars – each one a sun.

One may be important in one’s life and to others, but on the scale of the vast night sky, one can only be humbled.

Likewise, the time I saw the Northern Lights was unforgettable – a vast luminescent curtain blowing in the cosmic wind. The radiation which causes them is almost always present. But the circumstances whereby one can take in their awesome display requires that one, at the very least, look to the sky with open eyes.

A cat or a dog sees, but they are not aware of their sight. Sight’s purpose is to maneuver about, to find the thrown stick, to catch a mouse. It is only when consciously looking at something (which might always be there) but never noticed, that one begins to truly see. Suddenly, one gains perspective on everything present to our senses but drowned out by the many, many things barely looked at in passing. One becomes present in their own life, but only if one participates.

 

On Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’

I recently saw a video of “Pale Blue Dot.” It is Carl Sagan’s meditation on our “insignificant earth” accompanied by a visual of earth receding into the void until it becomes but a ‘pale blue dot’.

Carl Sagan was more of a poet than most physicists, I guess. His grasping for hope in the face of his own mortality should be recognized for his humanity.

Sagan’s musings inspired me with some thoughts and reactions. I won’t reprint his narration here. It is easily googled.

Sagan condemns mankind as self-important and deluded about our privileged place in the universe. Privileged and self-important as compared to what? What is offended that we use our consciousness to examine our inner and outer worlds?

If we are alone in the universe, our abilities to examine our world and think about our place in it, make us unique.

Our mind is our greatest tool. Should we attenuate its power so as to step down from this privilege? Did this world famous scientist really suggest we do so?

Ideas have no tangible existence yet they can move mountains. If we are to act only on the visible and the material, we severely limit ourselves while reaching for the stars.

That we are not good stewards of our only home, our planet, speaks to a deeper flaw than poor hygiene.

Because no known planet is hospitable, Sagan states that it is here on Earth that “we make our stand.” This phrase reminds us of ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ probably the most familiar use of the term. It came into use depicting a heroic, tragically failed defense against the superior numbers of an ‘inferior’ enemy.

Revisionist history thankfully recasts the racist Custer’s blunder into enemy territory. He was blinded by genocidal instincts and trapped by his grasping for glory. His true enemy resided within. Rather than heroic, Custer was embarrassingly human, an every-man.

Sagan, the atheist who dismisses religion as pompous, has more faith than I do. He believes humanity, through our own will, can change our essence and become consistently caring and upright in our endeavors. What evidence has he (the scientist), that this could ever be possible? Did someone say ‘self-important’?

Even if you disbelieve in a Supreme Being, why would you believe in that? Is he not actually promoting flaccid, New-age wish fulfillment masked by his scientific bona-fides? Humanity will save itself? Are you high?

Did Sagan want “a hint” of our needed salvation coming from beyond our solar system? What gives Sagan the confidence that a superior alien race would be more merciful to us than we are to each other? Or than we are to ‘lesser beings’?

As for migrating to new worlds, if mankind destroyed earth but successfully escaped elsewhere, would anyone be surprised that we brought our ‘fouled-up-edness’ along for the ride?

“What do you mean you ‘forgot to pack the innocence’?”

What new insights would we gain or bring to the enterprise of settling some distant planet? Or would we merely replay the past before a fresh landscape? Tell me these refugees would not soon be ravaged by their innate talent to deny their own inner darkness?

How does it follow, if it is all so meaningless, that must we be kind to each other? What is the payoff in that?

It seems it is that meaninglessness which drives men to fill the void with their self-importance and ever expanding egos. Believing we answer to no one but ourselves in service of our grandiose cravings is what creates monsters and tyrants.

Doesn’t our pride keep us from achieving our ideals? Generally, those who successfully transcend their basest nature, do not claim the credit, but give it to the ineffable – God. Transcendence would make such self-aggrandizement absurd.

Sagan says there is no hint of anyone coming to save us from ourselves. But our Savior is, was and will ever be. There is more than a hint if we open our hearts. Truth is unavoidable to one who humbly listens to that ‘still small voice’ in the whirlwind.

The Bible talks throughout of the God of the insignificant, the forgotten, the weak, the meek, and the downtrodden. The strong need no God. The strong fend for themselves. They are an end unto themselves.

Knowing our Creator favors the insignificant, allows us to stop inflating ourselves within a vacuum. Acknowledging our insignificance within this vast and magnificent universe humbles us.

The expectation that earth is the only home for life, suggests that ours is a very important speck indeed. Earth’s unique, life bearing status makes us privileged. But this is not our doing. A better term than ‘privileged’ might be that we are recipients of undeserved favor, or grace.

Humankind would be better served, not only by owning our humble place within Creation, but also in acknowledging its loving and merciful Creator.

Or not. That is the proverbial choice.

I’m not a Talking Bomb, but I Played One on TV

One of the most interesting aspects of working in post-production in Hollywood was the time I spent on the ADR stage. ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) is the process by which actors are brought onto a sound stage to recreate their original performance that was marred by noisy ambience or other technical issues. I had the opportunity to work with many talented actors, most of whom were cooperative and agreeable under stressful circumstances.

The task is a unique blend of technical ability and art. Ideally, in the original performance, the actor inhabits the character while submerged in the ambiance of the location and interacting with the other characters.

On the ADR stage, the actor must re-create that original sense and emotion of the scene, while standing alone on a dark stage which lacks any of the physical cues that supported the original performance. And he must also watch him or herself on the screen and perfectly lip-sync his new performance to the original. It is that combination of re-creating an emotional performance, while also objectively observing it, which throws some actors.

Imagine yourself playing a character helping a wounded friend while dodging bullets from a sniper. All your exertions and dialogue provide the viewer with a sense of the immediacy and danger of your plight.

Now, imagine trying to re-create that same tension, without the noise, the dust, the struggle, or your co-player, all while standing on a cool, dark stage, watching yourself perform on a giant screen.

Some actors just cannot do it. Their process of acting is so integrated into the moment that doing justice to their performance, after the fact, in such artificial circumstances defeats them. And many are wonderful actors. Ultimately, if the performance is good, a little judicious editorial surgery will improve on the sync.

One such case was with the actor Robert DeNiro. Considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, the process of ADR is completely counter-intuitive for him and his style of acting. We scheduled multiple sessions, only for him to balk or cancel each in turn. He was agreeable, but intimidated by the technical process. I finally got him to do his lines ‘wild,’ with four or five interpretations of each line. With minimal editing, I was able to make one of these performances fit.

I worked with the actor Jackie Chan on one of his films. He is the most focused and exacting actor I ever worked with. Except for lunch, he never took a break. A week was scheduled for the recording and he finished re-voicing the complete film in three days.

Jackie’s film was shot in Chinese. Our task was to replace Jackie’s whole Chinese language performance with English lines. We needed to write Jackie’s lines so they would make sense to the story and also closely match the onscreen lip movements.

This task was daunting enough. But as we were starting, Jackie asked how he could get rid of his Chinese accent. Since we were preparing his film for an American release, he didn’t want his Chinese accent to distract or make the audience struggle to understand.

Having never been asked this, or thought about it, I needed to think fast. How could I solve this? Hardly missing a beat, a solution popped into my head. The ADR gods were smiling down on me.

One factor for any non-native speaker of English (or, I suspect, any second language) is the natural tendency to pronounce each word discreetly. This exaggerates the accent and creates a stilted hesitation, rather than a natural flow of expression. The speaker sounds like they are struggling over a pile of rocks, rather than floating down a stream.

I asked Jackie to say the phrase ‘American accent’ but to slur the final ‘n’ to the beginning of ‘accent’ to sound like ‘America-naccent’. By tying the two words together, much of that odd emphasis and hesitation is lost and it sounds much more natural.

Jackie tried it and immediately grasped my intent. We started work and he was pleased with the improvement in his ‘American’ accent. Whew!

Another aspect of ADR is the recording of background ‘walla’ for crowd scenes, restaurant scenes etc. Some ‘loop groups’ are very talented and will create a texture of background that adds a sense of reality to a scene.

Long ago, loop groups were told to murmur ‘peanut butter’ over and over to create a non-descript background buzz that would not compete with the foreground dialogue. Modern loop groups bring vocabulary lists and even foreign language phrases for the talent to use in order to give the walla the flavor of a specific time and place. A Moroccan street market sounds different than a corporate board room. Really!

Many actors, practice their craft and can make a decent living working in a loop group while seeking on-camera work. The downside can be that novice actors are so hungry to be ‘discovered,’ their performances must be reined in so they remain in the background.

Working with inexperienced actors provided me with the opportunity to perform as a ‘talking bomb’. Twice. Occasionally, some absurd gimmick becomes popular with multiple script writers. In this case, a time bomb which not only had a clock, but also a voice which announced, to anyone who happened to be standing around, how many seconds they had before being blown to bits.

“Siri, should I cut the red wire or the blue wire?”

On two different shows, I ran the sessions where we needed a voice counting down from ‘ten,’ presumably to inject further tension into an already anxious scene. But the actors seemed unable to grasp the ‘motivation’ of the ‘talking bomb.’ Alternatively gleefully evil or mother-hover anxious, their bomb was over-acting.

Every Shakespearean attempt by each member of the loop group would be rejected by the director. When they ran out of actors, I offered to try.

The tension in the scene was in the characters, and hopefully, with the audience. But the bomb couldn’t care less about the pending explosion. It wasn’t a character. It had no character. It didn’t ‘know’ what was about to happen.

I performed my count-down as devoid of emotion as possible, a counter-point to the humans in the scene. This bomb had not a care in the world. Rain or shine, this bomb was indifferent to its future or the lack thereof. It was what no actor wants to be described as – mechanical and flat. My performance, with just a suggestion of boredom, was perfect.

I was the bomb. They loved it.

On Science and Miracles – Christmas and Others

It is the common belief that miracles are a fantasy of an over-heated religious sensibility. In our enlightened age, miracles have largely disappeared. Cultures which believe in miracles are regarded as primitive, childlike and, at best, quaint (like clapping your hands if you believe in fairies). Postmodern thinkers believe miracles won’t happen because they don’t happen, because they can’t happen… and so on.

Modern culture believes miracles cannot be true because they break the laws of nature. Those laws, though, imply a Law Giver. But let’s not talk about that.

So do miracles cease to happen in modern cultures? Or do we just stop seeing them? Blinded by our sophistication?

As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We possess the advanced technology. And yet there are still phenomenon that occur outside our control or ability to explain them.

Considering the number of UFO sightings each year (and rising) there is an appetite for that which is beyond our comprehension.

What distinguishes the religion of Scientism from other religions is it denies the occurrence of miracles, except perhaps those accomplished by its high priests (I mean those holders of advanced technology). I’m not aware that followers of Scientism believe in a Supreme Being, unless he has an advanced degree from MIT.

What rational person could believe in an all knowing entity that answers everyone’s questions in seconds, simultaneously, throughout the world? Before Google that was an absurd expectation. Now it is mundane and expected.

By miracles, I am not talking about parlor trick ‘miracles’ like might be demonstrated by David Copperfield parting the waters of a swimming pool. Nor do I think just any fantastic occurrence would be a miracle. I don’t necessarily think it would be a miracle if a cat were to talk. If it told a funny joke, that would be a miracle, for everyone knows cats have no sense of humor, unlike dogs.

Also, miracles are not a form of wish fulfillment like programming a computer to spit out predictions. That kind of hocus pocus is neither science nor miraculous. How sad to be throwing darts at a digital target and hoping no one notices those darts keep missing. Predictions aren’t miraculous. Results are.

Science is not consensus. And it doesn’t campaign. It isn’t a cult. Science does not recruit the largest crowd of believers to sway public opinion and policy to their side. It is not subject to vote. Pure science is based on meticulous research and replicable, predictable results.

Science doesn’t sell itself. It isn’t supposed to have any agenda but inquiry into the truth of things. Ideally, it doesn’t seek to win anything as it is dispassionate in its search.

By miraculous I am thinking more in terms of spontaneous recovery from an incurable disease, or someone risking their life to save another. These things happen fairly often, but are not predictable and so are thought miraculous by witnesses. They might not even make the news.

Miracles are popularly thought of in positive terms. To hear “It’s a miracle!” would generally indicate that good news had arrived. But obviously, Pharaoh’s army was not happy when Moses parted the Red Sea.

No one predicted Donald Trump would be elected president. It was declared impossible by the experts and described by many as a disaster, a tragedy. Most would agree that it was unpredictable and couldn’t happen again. Yet you don’t believe in miracles? Some still deny it happened.

Science is not all encompassing. Grant money is limited and choices must be made as to what will be researched. Some things are hard to study and so money does not flow to those challenging areas.

Science does not prove anything. It documents results of its painstaking research and posts statistical analysis as to the probabilities of this or that phenomenon. Science predicts based on those published probabilities. Science predicts. If results contradict the predictions, that theory collapses.

Science seeks to disprove. And that which cannot be disproven is deemed to be true (with qualifications).

A one-time event (aka a miracle) is a rare occurrence and so cannot be studied let alone predicted. Those who witnessed that occurrence are dismissed as superstitious for seeing a phenomenon that science chooses to ignore. How predictable and boring would be a life that only experienced ‘what is possible’ as determined by some bureaucrat in a distant government office?

Quantum physics is lifting the lid on some very curious, if not miraculous, phenomenon that do not fit previously accepted paradigms – like particles mirroring each other’s behavior simultaneously despite vast distances separating them. And the famous demonstration of a particle’s behavior being influenced by whether or not it is observed.

Consciousness receives very little attention from the scientific community. Most of us believe in consciousness because most of us believe we are conscious. But try to pin it down or tell me where to pin it. Consciousness is elusive despite seeming to be almost everywhere. Science side-steps it because they just don’t know how to test or duplicate it. Science does not play well with the ineffable.

Scientist and author Dr. Robert Lanza theorizes that death only seems to exist because we identify so closely with the physical body. Because humans are bio-centric, we fail to apprehend that other states of being may exist without our physical bodies. How does one test for that?

A man risking his life by running into a burning building to rescue others is counter-intuitive and irrational. It happens rarely enough to be unpredictable, but everyone knows it happens. Is it miraculous? To the person saved it would be.

Near death experiences are rare and so are ignored by science. Yet they exist. A friend of mine, Ray, describes how he died on the operating table and then watched from afar as the doctors tried to revive him. He realized his wife needed him and so he needed to return. He still tells his story.

The floods in Houston after Hurricane Harvey did not bring the predicted inter-racial blood bath, chaos and anarchy. Contrary to expectations, people instead acted on their best instincts to help one another.

News coverage of the Houston floods evaporated when common humanity appeared. Faith-based organizations converged on Houston to assist those who had lost everything. Atheists, predictably, stayed away in droves.

Many species have virgin births. Science confirms this. A human having a virgin birth would be extremely rare but not scientifically impossible. There is only one account of it ever happening.

One thing about the miracle of Christmas, regardless that you accept the virgin birth, Mary risked her life for her child. Life in those days was cheap but at risk of her own life she protected her baby and herself from death on many fronts. King Herod, fearing his replacement, sought to kill all babies under two years old. Unmarried sex (adultery) was a capital crime then. Mary was a single mother, and homeless. Rather than claiming victim-hood, or aborting him, she gave him birth and nurtured him.

By today’s enlightened and evolved standards, so many options now exist to avoid that dire fate. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood would eagerly offer support. What homeless, single mother these days, would intentionally bear a child under threat of death? It would be completely irrational.

Who would predict Mary, or Jesus?

My Horrible Task

I am faced with a horrible task. I have written and so I am told I must write.

I feel like a lost child, raging against this unfair world. What a fool. The worldly are moved to laughter. Events, promises, appointments, all the ‘important things’ pale against this ineffable mystery. How can emptiness be so large? How can an absence weigh so much?

It is beyond comprehension, this horrible void that words barely suggest and never hope to capture but in withered, insignificant mumblings over-flowing with dread. What are words anyway but ghosts, ever searching for lost meanings? Intensions become a mockery in the face of this horror.

And why would I want to capture this? I want to put this far away, to blot it out. This is one embrace I can live without.

I awaken to yet another grotesque facsimile of a normal day. It is a tainted reality that allows a century of cumulated personal experience to vanish, a wisp of smoke in a heartbeat.

Words fail to build anything more substantial than unstable emotions shifting more easily than a cloud eclipses the sun. Words are leaky, empty vessels. They hold nothing. They sustain nothing. Illusions. Imaginary waves breaking against real rocks. Playthings for the mad babbling of the lost. A breath creates them and, like a breath they are gone.

And like a breath, followed by another no more, the time is past as well. There is no more time to say the words that wanted saying. That needed hearing. That meant everything when words were all we had that could matter. How can words carry more weight than the world they describe?

Yes, to put the words, these abstract shadows onto paper somehow makes this nightmare a reality. The words don’t create but acknowledge, no less than etching them in stone, this loss, this abomination, this incoherent, perpetual absence where before was the magnificent life that brought me to life.

All the nurturing and caring correction is past. I recoil. To write it seems an obscenity scrawled on the face of the sacred.

We exchanged tender good-byes on an ashen landscape.

I face a life sentence. My mother is dead.