A Teacher Who Changed My Life

I don’t know if he still walks the planet. He’d be at least 85. I tried looking him up on the Internet, but there were hundreds with his name.

He was just a young prof teaching an evening course, Introduction to Literature, at Eastern Michigan University. He would change my life.

The course featured Oedipus Rex, Gullivers Travels, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms; short stories by Mansfield, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Jackson.

He had a unique way of teaching, like a language teacher, parsing a verb cluster, focusing on verbal inflection. Literature became electric, pulsating with nuance.

It was beautiful! It was inspiring.

He taught me to see behind the literal—that good writers, like their poet kin,
weave multiplicity; that the literal isn’t the text. It’s what lies underneath. Hemingway critics dubbed it “the iceberg technique,” three quarters hidden.

Words were never simple things. They were latent with connotation.

He taught me the subtlety of irony, the discrepancy between statement and meaning, expectation and event, appearance and reality; the role of symbol in undergirding theme and prognosticating outcome.

In short, he taught me how to read: Good readers were translators. Literature exhibits its own grammar of codes and rules, imposing a specific exegesis.

He and I clicked. He had wanted me to take a creative writing course with him, but I had other priorities then.

He urged me to pursue a Ph. D. and join the profession.

Two years later, I began the long journey that would define my life.

Being an English prof won’t get you riches, but making hoards of money was never my life acumen. Ironically, the money pursuit may make us poorer.
Saul Bellow, my favorite novelist, conveyed my aversion to the Faustian wager aptly in Seize the Day: “Uch! How they love money, thought Wilhelm. They adore money! Holy money! Beautiful money! It was getting so that people were feeble-minded about everything except money. While if you didn’​​​​​​t have it you were a dummy, a dummy!”

I owe considerably to a young zealous professor with Keatsian fervor for the aesthetic dominion, who gave me entrance to “the milk of Paradise” (Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”).

Thank you, Franklin Case!

–rj

Heroes do Exist: Environment Champion, Bob Brown

Australian Bob Brown is a humble man who’s accomplished extraordinary things, not for himself, but for his fellow earthlings. His goodness makes the heart glad, inspires, and assures: that each of us, where we are, doing what we’re able, can foster needed change.

Brown had been a physician for twelve years, moving from the Sydney area to Tasmania out of love for wilderness. There, he would become active in the state’s environmental movement, subsequently founding The Wilderness Society and serving as its director for five years, a commitment leading to his giving up his medical practice.

Such dedication characterizes Brown, unstinting in his endeavors to promote a global democracy and green economy, single payer healthcare, human rights, and environmental welfare.

In 1982-3, The Wilderness Society helped organize resistance to the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Franklin River in a large area of wilderness. 1500 showed up to blockade bulldozers. 600 were arrested, including Brown. He would spend nineteen days in prison. The good part: the day after his release, he was elected into Tasmania’s parliament.

Parliament, however, proved an unfriendly place, with only two other members voting to halt dam construction, despite 20,000 protestors on the streets of Hobart, the capital. In 1983, the issue moved to the Australian High Court, which ruled to halt the construction in a 4-3 vote.

Today, the wild river area attracts 200,000 visitors annually and has created thousands of jobs. The assertive protest efforts confirmed Brown’s belief that small, individual efforts at reform aren’t sufficient. Mass, collective protest is necessary to ward off powerful pecuniary interests.

In 1986, Brown was shot at and assaulted for protesting logging at Tasmania’s Farm House Creek.

In 1995, he was imprisoned twice for protesting logging in Tasmania’s Tarkine Wilderness.

In 2006, as a member of Tasmania’s Parliament, he initiated legal action to protect Tasmania’s Wielangta forest.

Additionally, he has authored bills advocating Death with Dignity, a nuclear free Tasmania, gay law reform, and lowering parliamentary salaries.

With the help of fellow Green members of Parliament (he was one of the Australia Green Party founders), the size of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area has doubled to 1.4 million hectares.

In 2011, as the elected leader of the Greens, first in the world legislation was passed, mandating the reduction of greenhouse gas emission and the adoption of renewable energy resources.

In June 2912, Brown resigned from the Senate to found the Bob Brown Organization, a non-profit fund to assist Australian environmental campaigns and activists (bobbrown.org.au).

Now approaching 79, Brown is sanguine about his mortality: “I am an optimist. I’m also an opsimath. I learn as I get older. And I have never been happier in my life. Hurtling to death, I am alive and loving being Green.”

May Brown’s successful efforts kindle a fire in all of us to vehemently contest, whenever and wherever, those egocentric forces of greed that impede social equity, poverty’s elimination, a peaceful earth, and an abiding wilderness in which species achieve their destiny.

–rj

All Things are Full of God: Robinson Jeffers, Environment Poet

I’ve long revered Robinson Jeffers’ poetry, ahead of its time in addressing humanity’s pillaging of nature and its consequence.

Formerly one of our most esteemed poets, even making the cover of Time Magazine (1932), Jeffers fell out of favor with the entrance of America into WW Il. Another outplay of human interests gone amuck, he wanted no part in it. It violated his concept of “inhumanism,” the subordinating of anthropocentric interests to nature’s primacy. By 1965, much of his work was out of print.

That is no shame. Other American poets, like Dickinson and Whitman, out of joint with their times, have suffered banishment to benign forgetfulness.

As he later explained in his 1948 preface to the Double-Axe and Other Poems, “Inhumanism is the devaluation of human-centered illusions, the turning outward from man to what is boundlessly greater. The attitude is neither misanthropic nor pessimistic, nor irreligious.”

I’m not unaware that his poetry has aroused controversy with its misanthropic tenor, long narrative poems replete with violence and latent pessimism about humanity’s future.

With the 2022 UN supported IPCC study just out, conducted by more than 500 scientists from 40 countries, and running 8,000 pages, documenting climate change acceleration and biodiversity loss, Jeffers deserves the reappraisal of his poetry now underway.

Jeffers’ antipathy towards humanity is expressed in his poem, “Original Sin”:

As for me, I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are; and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not to be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death: it is the only way to be cleansed

Much of his verse is rooted in Darwinian cataclysm. No Wordsworth, Jeffers wasn’t myopic about nature. He accepted its relentless tooth and claw interchange. Man, however, is the ultimate predator, which explains his hostility: “I’d sooner, except for the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” (“Hurt Hawks”).

Jeffers will not lament mankind’s ultimate passing:

I’m never sorry to think that here’s a planet
Will go on like this glen, perfectly whole and content, after mankind is
Scummed from the kettle.

Nature deserves reverence. In his poem, “Nova,” he writes,

…we know that the enormous invulnerable beauty of things
Is the face of God, to live gladly in its presence, and die without
grief or fear knowing it survives us”

In “The Answer,” he pens that

Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of
the universe. Love that, not man

Man has violated that wholeness. In “Animals,” one of my favorites, Jeffers movingly nuances man’s estrangement from his fellow creatures:

At dawn a knot of sea-lions lies off the shore In the slow swell between the rock and the cliff,
Sharp flippers lifted, or great-eyed heads, as they roll
in the sea, Bigger than draft-horses, and barking like dogs Their all-night song. It makes me wonder a little
That life near kin to human, intelligent, hot blooded, idle
and singing, can float at ease
In the ice-cold midwinter water.

Jeffers’ poetry isn’t always easy to understand. Immensely learned, he can be deeply philosophic, much of his verse influenced by his wide reading in Lucretius, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Spengler, Vico, myth and anthropology.

Gifted, Jeffers read classical Greek and Latin at age 5, and as a teen, was fluent in French, German and Italian. Along with his brother, he had been educated in private schools in Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, and Leipzig,

Recognized for his intellectual brilliance, he was admitted to Occidental College with junior standing, though only sixteen, graduating two years later. He went on to medical and forestry schools,dropping out to pursue his love for literature.

He settled with his beloved wife, Una, in Big Sur’s rugged landscape where the Santa Lucia mountains in Monterey County rise suddenly, adjacent to the Pacific ocean and not far from Carmel, a lush landscape of small farms and virgin redwood forest. I think of it as one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. Jeffers described it as “the noblest thing I have ever seen.”

Big Sur

Relishing its beauty and isolation, he built his own house, now open to visitors, out of stone wrestled up with his own hands from the beach below, and called it Tor House. It includes Hawk Tower, where he wrote his poems each morning by a window offering mountain vistas. From it, absent of mist, visitors can glimpse many of the 2,000 cypress and eucalyptus trees he planted and hand-watered. The grounds include a well-maintained cottage garden.

Tor House merits visiting. The docent quality may vary, but here Jeffers is rekindled, few places so associated with a writer as Tor House. George Gershwin, Martha Graham, and Langston Hughes would be among those paying homage. It’s in the dining room, laid out like an English pub, that he slipped into eternity.

Jeffers settled in Big Sur in 1914. Nearby Carmel had only 350 inhabitants.

In his forward to Selected Poetry, he relished the afforded isolation, “purged of its ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will do for thousands of years to come.”

Jeffers inspired novelist Henry Miller to settle nearby, where he would remain until Jeffers’ death in 1962. Others, like Ken Kesey and Hunter Thompson, would follow. Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums has its partial setting in Big Sur.

Jeffers wasn’t a rabid romantic. He knew intrusion would prove inevitable, expressing his resentment in his acclaimed pastoral lyric, “Carmel Point.”

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Poet Robert Hass deems Jeffers “the first American poet to grasp the devastating extent of the changes human technologies and populations were wreaking on the rest of the earth’s biological life” (“Introduction,” Rock and HawkA Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers).

Renowned physicist Freeman Dyson exclaims in The New York Review of Books that “Robinson Jeffers was no scientist, but he expressed better than any other poet the scientist’s vision. Ironic, detached, contemptuous like Einstein of national pride and cultural taboos, he stood in awe of nature alone. He stood alone in uncompromising opposition to the follies of the Second World War. His poems during those years of patriotic frenzy were unpublishable….I discovered Jeffers thirty years later, when the sadness and the passion of the war had become a distant memory. Fortunately, his works are now in print and you can read them for yourselves” (May 25, 1995).

Can I ever forget his magisterial “De Rerum Virtute,” alluding to Lucretius “De rerum natura”?

All things are full of God
Winter and summer, day and
night, war and peace are God …

One light is left us, the beauty of things
The immense beauty of the world, not the human world

Jeffers’ reputation may have suffered time’s undulations—a change in taste, or political rebuttal, or rebellion against his insistent passion and human dislike, but for environmentalists, he remains its patron saint, and I know that I, for one, adore him.

rj

I’ve just tried out CHATGPT!

If you read yesterday’s Brimmings, you know about the challenge ChatGPT represents across many fronts, how it’s already impacting daily life, and how it may affect your future. Taking the Internet by storm, it now has 100 million subscribers. Rumors abound that Microsoft will soon invest $10bn in openchat GPT.

Like many, I sensed from the outset that ChatGPT would pose a threat in the classroom, encouraging lazy minds to take shortcuts in completing assignments. In the past, educators had tech apps capable of monitoring suspected plagiarism. I’ve used them effectively in my own college teaching. At the moment, that’s old school. We really don’t have a deterrent these days, say many educators with the onset of ChatGPT.

Now comes breaking news that the New York City Board of Education has banned ChatGPT from department devices or Internet networks.

But is this much touted new tech really the threat many say it is? I decided to find out for myself by trying out the software. I have to caution you that the money vultures are out there in abundance, so guard your wallet. Through much effort, I did find a site that’s free. And bonus, easy to use.

Since I was a college English prof till my retirement, it seemed appropriate to begin with asking in the topic box why I should read George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The response came within seconds:

Sure, I can help you write an essay on why to read Middlemarch. Middlemarch, written by George Eliot and first published in 1871-72, is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. The novel follows many characters in a small English town called Middlemarch and explores how their lives intersect and their stories become intertwined. It has been praised for its complex characters and intricate plot structure, which allow for a deep exploration of themes such as morality, beauty, power, and corruption. In addition, Middlemarch is also known for its sharp and witty social commentary as well as its profound analysis of human nature. It is a must-read for anyone interested in literature or wanting to gain a better insight into humanity. Reading Middlemarch will allow readers to explore a wide range of topics, such as faith, love, politics, and ambition. It will provide a new perspective and understanding of the human experience, and its timelessness allows it to remain relevant today. Whether you are an avid reader or someone looking to start their journey with literature, Middlemarch is sure to be a rewarding experience that will leave you richer in understanding and appreciation.

Not bad, but not really good enough, consisting of several generalizations, when what we need is flesh on the bones. In short, more specifics.

Thinking maybe “the intricate plot” bit might warrant more development and a topic in itself, I then asked ChatGPT to discuss the novel’s complex plot structure . Dutifully, I got this immediate response:

In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, plot complexity is paramount. The intertwining of multiple stories and the multiple points of view create a complex web of relationships, tensions, and conflicts that make the novel an interesting and engaging read.

The novel focuses on the lives of the inhabitants of a small English town, Middlemarch, and centers on the developing relationship between Dorothea Brooks and Edward Casaubon. The complexity of their relationship is what drives much of the narrative as we see them struggle to reconcile their different social backgrounds and personal goals. The characters in the novel also have their own individual stories that contribute to the overall complexity of the plot: Rosamund Vincy’s thwarted romance, Fred Vincy’s moral dilemmas, Will Ladislaw’s struggles with identity and Lydgate’s prideful quest for professional success. All of these threads intertwine and eventually come to a head in the denouement of the novel.

Eliot uses her characters’ struggles to explore the complexities of human emotions and relationships, showing how seemingly small decisions can lead to large consequences. She creates a narrative that is both intricate and believable, where characters must confront difficult moral choices and grapple with their own flaws. Through this, Eliot is able to convey a powerful message while also creating an engaging story that readers can connect to.

Overall, Eliot’s use of plot complexity in Middlemarch makes it an enthralling read that is sure to captivate readers. By combining a variety of characters and storylines, she creates a narrative that is both complex and believable, ultimately making it an unforgettable read.

Obviously, this is more specific to what I asked, though still requiring development. A good student will resort to an appropriate database for further yield, perhaps along the lines of character comparison and contrast.

At this juncture, I don’t see ChatGPT as a horrendous menace in academia.  You may remember that google search was viewed similarly when it initially made its appearance.  Now we see it as a tool.  I view ChatGPT likewise.

Students utilizing ChatGPT will still need to document their sources properly.  Plagiarists will still get caught, lacking the voice element that normally identifies their writing.  A good many students, sadly, can’t even formulate a proper sentence, develop a thesis governed by coherence, etc.  Sudden perfection?   Hey, not happening!

There’s also the deterrent of expense.  Many of these bots require an annual fee up to $100 annually or $8.00 weekly. Some charge per word.

ChatGPT can be humorously silly in its results. In one scenario, I asked for specifics on myself.  I got back that I was founder and CEO of an international software company located in Montreal.

What I dislike is the mindset that’s too commonly out there, the proclivity to taking the shortcut rather than rolling up the sleeves to do the necessary research consolidating the thesis.  As one student tweeted:  “Wow ChatGPT just wrote a 20 paragraph final essay for me. Now I don’t have to watch the 2 hour movie and write the essay myself.”

More than ever, we need minds able to weigh the best ideas in the agora of open debate as we confront challenges to human survival itself.  There aren’t any shortcuts to this end.  Recent findings on neuroplasticity inform us that consequent with learning, experience and memory formation, new neural pathways get strengthened, whereas those infrequently used wither and die (simplypsychology.org).  The  brain, just like the body, requires exercise.

The good life is that of assertion, not passivity, of doing and becoming, fundamental to our  achieving identity and, with it, purpose and happiness.  There are no shortcuts.

—rj






A Brave New World: The AI Invasion

It seems everywhere now and every day its capabilities grow exponentially. Were it science fiction, we could suspend disbelief, but no, it’s brick and mortar of today’s living space, architect of our present and, like a Mars landing spaceship, crewed by humans, powering us into new frontiers beyond the limits of imagination.

We call it Artificial Intelligence, or AI, the subset of machine learning algorithms. Prototyping the human brain, AI maps our cognitive processes, enabling a computer, computer controlled robot, or software entity to think like you and me.

AI’s prowess dwarfs the best human minds and, daily, it grows smarter still.

In 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue defeated the world’s champion chess player.

Today, we take for granted speech recognition, robotic process automation, video surveillance, facial recognition, and what we call smart homes. It lies behind your smartphone’s Siri, or Amazon’s ability to track your consumer choices, or Google Search, speeding you to your targeted page among an electronic galaxy of several billion websites, all in micro seconds.

How many of us know that AI was instrumental in developing the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) vaccine, its algorithm capable of predicting the RNA sequence of the virus in a mere 27 seconds, or 120 times faster than previous methods?

Currently, AI machines are servile to our needs. They’re singular in their applications, their memory subject to our input. This may not always be so in our future, which may have already begun.

What’s coming is an AI that comprehends thoughts and emotions and can interact socially, AI machines, not only intelligent, but sentient and conscious.

They’ll soon earmark the new economy, with 9% of all new jobs being in the AI machine learning, and automation realm. Most AI engineer jobs currently average an annual median salary of $131,490, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s a scenario none of us will escape. In a recent New York Times interview, entrepreneur Elon Musk predicted artificial intelligence or robots would assume most human jobs in the next five years.

Fortune Magazine extends that time element to 15 years, with 40% of our current jobs being replaced by AI robots.

Custom service reps are already being replaced by FAQs to answer queries.

Bookkeeping and data entry, relics of a bygone era, have been replaced by AI and machine learning.

Going and gone are receptionists in hotels, with automatic check-ins and checkouts the order of the day.

Fast food chains will increasingly move to automated service. You push the tab, a robot fills your order, and that includes the packaging. An automatic McDonalds opened near Fort Worth, Texas, recently.

In publishing, proofreaders will become an extinct species. What with apps like Grammarly, who needs them?

Drones and robots will transform delivery services.

Shopping malls, a once ubiquitous landscape feature, are already closing doors as retail moves online, staffs are cut, orders computerized, and consumer preferences anticipated. We already know what Amazon has done to bookshops.

Taxi and bus drivers will increasingly vanish as transportation gets automated. The Los Angeles Times says that self-driving trucks could replace 1.7 million American truckers over the next ten years. What you see in the automatic transit systems of our larger airports will become standard fare.

Think medicine’s safe from AI’s inroads? Think again! Radiologists will be an endangered species, given AI’s superior ability to read images. “AI can see things the human eye can’t,” says Eric Topol of Scripps Research.

Diagnostic selfies are on the way. Never mind the dermatologist. Your app will spot any skin cancer.

Tomorrow’s economy will be powered increasingly by fewer workers as automation, fueled by AI, takes hold. The economic fallout promises to be staggering, resulting in heightened inequity and its consequent disruption of the loop of productivity, rising wages, and increased consumerism. In fact, it’s already happening, with just 5% of households responsible for 40% of spending.

Society will need restructuring, urgently so, to preempt social breakdown as the plural weight of an aging population, rising costs for education and medicine, depletion of natural resources and climate change exercise their grip.

Where is all of this taking us? Are we about to create a Frankenstein monster? Is AI destined to become sentient and even more so than ourselves?

I’m not there yet. Sentient shouldn’t be used lightly. It deals with sensory apprehension. It can be argued that some animals have this capacity.

AI, however, remains a logic construct. While it can assess our syllogistic reasoning for its fallacies, it can’t attribute emotion, the collective consequence of sensory interchange via a robust neural network, to its surveillance.

But that doesn’t dissipate the threat that AI may ultimately become too damn smart for our own good! Isaac Asimov posed the threat acutely in his 1956 short story, The Last Question, with humans creating Multilac, a super intelligent machine that ultimately subverts human control and subsumes every aspect of existence.

The creation of maverick Elon Musk’s OpenAI GPT-3 is getting a lot of hype as the best we’ve seen imitating human intelligence, if not the largest artificial neural network ever created. This is the third version to date.

Educators are in consternation over ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence bot offshoot of GPT-3, released in November 2022, with already more than a million users and currently free. ChatGPT exhibits extraordinary finesse at mirroring creative capacities of our finest human minds, despite infinitely lacking the human brain’s 100 trillion-plus synapses. Feed a few inquiries into the topic box and it spews out answers, can write an essay, summarize a report, translate languages, even compose a poem—all in seconds.

If English teachers thought Cliff Notes a bane, God help them now. As for universities, the academic integrity of your traditional thesis and dissertation is at stake. It isn’t a perfect technology. It can give silly results, but it may get better.

The bottomline is that if sentient machines are ultimately coming our way, it behooves us to inaugurate an ethical framework for their governance. As Yuval Harari warns, “Netflix tells us what to watch and Amazon tells us what to buy. Eventually within 10 or 20 or 30 years such algorithms could also tell you what to study at college and where to work and whom to marry and even whom to vote for.”

Meanwhile, high tech continues promoting machine learning to enhance profitability over public welfare. It’s a brave new world!

–rj

RJ´s 2023 Reading List

One of Keats’ first notable poems, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s
Homer,“ celebrates Elizabethan poet George Chapman’s translation of Homer, an achievement kindling discovery and wonderment in Keats akin to that of the best travel venture. It’s what good books do, transporting us into unforeseen realms, expanding awareness and making us wiser, often lessening our prejudices, wrought by custom, that prohibit pathways to new understanding. Staying close to my drawback booklist for 2022, I read twenty-five books that, even at this stage in my life, have granted me gateways into personal growth. With similar expectation, I’ve again selected from among the very best reads out there, those that inform, challenge, and delight. Even in a time of declining readership, there remain books justifying your investment and, potentially, life-changing. —rj

Fiction:

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility (Not as widely read as Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion, it’s still worth reading in its exploration of moral dilemmas and, as the title suggests, the role of reason over emotion in solving them.)

Caroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland (The great classic you meant to read, but haven’t. A work inspiring others, and though seemingly a romp in imagination, latent with nuance, momentarily retrieving childhood wonderment lamentably lost by adults).

Catha, Willa. My Antonia. (Catha’s classic novel of a female immigrant’s tenacity to prevail on the Nebraska prairies. )

Franzen, Jonathan. Crossroads. (The latest novel by the great master of family dynamics, set in 1970s suburban Chicago, the first of an intended trilogy, a family headed by a minister must confront issues of faith and morality.)

Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie’s World. (Very appealing to both young people and adults, Gaarder’s novel embeds philosophical history that many readers find more compelling than the novel’s story. A favorite read internationally.)

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God (A moving work of the Harlem Renaissance, underscoring black identity, feminism, and love’s vulnerability.)

Ishiguru, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day (Narrated in first person through flashback and travelogue, a retired butler reevaluates his life. A Booker Prize fiction winner turned into a film selected as an Academy Awards Best Picture ,1993).

Labutut, Benjamin. When We Cease to Understand the World (“A monster and brilliant book,” says Philip Pullman. An exploration of the last century’s greatest minds exploring the profundities of existence.)

Percy, Walter. The Movie Goer. (Percy’s debut novel, featuring a post-Korea war veteran, now stock broker, suffering from malaise, in search of life’s meaning. A National Book Award winner listed by Modern Library as the sixteenth best novel of the 20th Century.)

Powers, Richard. Bewilderment. (The writer of acclaimed Overstory pens another literary masterpiece of Man’s estrangement from nature.)

Roberts, Gregory David. Shantaram. (The late Pat Conroy wrote: “Shantaram is a novel of the first order, a work of extraordinary art, a thing of exceptional beauty. If someone asked me what the book was about, I would have to say everything, every thing in the world”).

Rushdie, Salmon. Midnight’s Children (Booker Prize winning novel narrating India’s transition from British rule, a landmark work in post-colonial literature.)

Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz (Surely among the best ten novels of the previous century, a gripping account of repressed memory and the quest for identity.}

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth (An insightful first novel by a contemporary author observant of a plethora of issues: race, immigrants, education, science, religion, and nationalism among still others. Listed in Time Magazine {2005} among 100 All Time 100 Novels.)

Stendhal. The Charter House of Parma (An aristocrat in Napoleon’s army depicts court intrigue with psychological portraitures ahead of its time.)

Yanagihara, Hanya. To Paradise (A powerful narrative of the intersection of privilege and exclusion in America across three generations by one of our foremost contemporary novelists. The Guardian calls it a “masterpiece for our time.”)

Non-Fiction

Gardner, Howard, et al. Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Based on more than 100 interviews across the workplace, a quest at evaluating what good work is and the ethical dilemmas posed by today’s technology.)

Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice. Revised ed. (Gardner’s influential thesis that there exist multiple kinds of intelligence, not just one.)

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brönte. (Classic Victorian biography of the writer of Jane Eyre. Fascinating in its delineation of Brönte family dynamics.)

Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project. Rev. ed. The controversial book that sets America’s beginnings in 1619, not 1776, and argues the American Revolution was a reactionary response to incipient British antagonism to slavery.)

Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture ( A leading anthropologist’s explanation of why people believe the things they do. Harris’ many books never cease to allure.)

Kolbert, Elisabeth. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (Pulitzer Prize winner for The Sixth Extinction, this new work explores whether we can still mitigate the damage we’ve done and save our planet. Recommended by Obama and Gates.)

Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. (Nobel Prize winner examines the moral and intellectual conflicts posed by life under authoritarianism. Recommended by Elif Shafak.)

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. (Just maybe the greatest essay writer ever, Montaigne teems with brilliance, helping us live better lives.)

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth (A survey of climate change’s brutal impact, but not without hope, if we get on board.)

Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True. (An engaging approach to secular Buddhism and its alignment with disciplines like psychology and neurobiology. Buddhism at its best takes on our human predicament and provides strategies for finding peace.)

Wulf, Andrea. Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of Self. (A New Yorker selection as one of the best 2022 non-fiction books, Magnificent Rebels is an intellectual history of early Romanticism, centered in Jena, Germany, ultimately laying the foundation for English Romanticism. )

Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden World Around Us. (We humans, anthropocentric as we are, consider ourselves lords of the creation. Yong’s book dispels our pretentiousness as we learn of fellow creatures of myriad, and superior, capabilities. New York Times listed as one of the ten best books of 2022.)

Democrat Sellout of North Atlantic Right Whale in New Spending Bill


Yesterday, Senate democrats, led by Chuck Schumer and Patrick Leahy, assured the extinction of the rapidly declining right whale, inserting a rider into a sweeping 1.7 trillion spending bill. The government-funding bill for the fiscal year, ending September 30, 2023, received over-whelming bipartisan support.

The policy rider calls for continuation of current lobster trap practice up through 2028, cancelling out a recent Federal court decision affirming the National Marine Fisheries Service mandate, ordering employment of weak lobster trap ropes to preempt whale entanglement and restriction of lobster harvesting between October and January.

As is, the court delayed its implementation for two years to allow the lobster industry time to adjust to the new measures.

In my last post, I noted the plight of the North Atlantic right whale, down to just 340 whales. Ominously, no calfs were born in 2022. Fishing gear such as lobster traps and ship collisions are largely responsible for the decline. I worried that political interests might win out.

The measure was initially introduced by Maine Republican Martha Collins.
That Democrat leadership would join is a knife in the back. We expect this kind of thing from Republicans, but not Democrats.

Its implications at large reenforce the priority, worldwide, given to political and pecuniary interests over doing the right thing to protect our environment under assault by climate change propelled by human disregard for diminishing resources, continuing dependance on fossil fuels, and resistance to court remedies mitigating habitat loss and protection of endangered species that include the North Atlantic right whale.

President Biden, who recently donated $35bn of tax payer revenue to the Teamsters retirement fund, hinted his support of Maine lobster employees in ordering 200 lobsters for his recent state dinner bash, honoring French president, Emmanuel Macron. (Not widely reported, the fare wasn’t served-up until 10:30 pm, many of the 300 guests having left.)

Lobster industry advocates contend that the whales do not intrude into lobster fishing areas and that there isn’t any documented instance of entanglement. This is demonstrably false. Observer sightings, aerial reconnaissance, and vessel surveys confirm their intrusion every month of the year for the last ten years!

In 2020, a video documented a right whale breaching in lower Blue Hill Bay, where thousands of lobster traps are fished.

Historically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has conducted numerous aerial surveys during the fall and winter months in Jordan Basin and around Cashes Ledge and Outer Fall. From this effort, 212 individual right whales were identified in the central Gulf of Maine where Maine lobstermen fish between 2002-2008.

Horribly, the facts reveal that Maine marine mammals, including right whales, get entangled in vertical lines rising to the surface from lobster and crab traps as well as gillnet gear. From 1997 to 2017, at least three right whales were entangled in Maine coastal lobster fisheries, and three more were caught in offshore lobster fisheries in the Gulf of Maine (NOAA).

As most entanglements can’t be traced to their place of origin, a letter from 18 concerned scientists to the Maine Delegation in 2019, highlighted that “the number of North Atlantic right whales in Maine waters, the number of entanglements that are occurring in Maine waters, and the severity of all entanglements and their effects upon the right whale population are all significantly underestimated.”

Their letter also states that the “combined, high lobster trap density and simultaneous whale occurrence will lead to entanglements in any part of the ocean. Right whales are demonstrably occurring in Maine lobster fishing zones, and 87 percent of the U.S. Atlantic lobster fishery falls within Maine waters—representing about 3 million licensed traps and approximately 400,000 vertical lines. Every single vertical line poses an entanglement risk.”

Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, immediately responded to the spending bill insertion. “With the rate we’ve been killing right whales, extinction is expected to occur between the next 20 to 40 years. In the absence of the new rule, we’ve got more years of unsustainable killing going on.”

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this rider will doom the right whale to extinction,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. “Even if you got rid of all other sources of mortality, entanglements with fishing gear alone are enough to drive the species to extinction by reducing births and increasing deaths.”

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which President Richard M. Nixon signed into law in 1972 to protect marine mammals from extinction in the United States.

“What a terrible anniversary present,” said Davenport.

rj

Lobsters or Whales?


I was raised a New Englander and, by custom, eating lobster had been a staple in my diet. The problem with custom, however, is that we seldom question its tenets, propelling us to mindlessly continue behavior that scrutiny might render pause, if not discontinuance.

My misgivings began some years years ago when I found myself in a restaurant featuring a large water tank, containing lobsters scavenging its pebbled bottom, oblivious to their impending fate of being boiled live.

It spoiled everything for me. I no longer could enjoy squeezing the shell until it cracked, exposing the meat of the hideously killed creature.

Several years ago, my wife and I met up with our children in Maine, a favorite haunt for us with its rocky coasts, salty air, deep forests, quaint villages and, yes, super ice cream. In Maine, you eat crabs, clams, or lobsters. And so, here I am in a seafood restaurant, my family toiling at their lobsters; that is, except me.

But are lobsters sentient? Do they feel pain?

I say yes, based on recent science research, indicating their nervous system is complex. The fact they have a spine should suffice. When you drop them into that boiling water, however, they lack vocal chords to voice their screams.

You don’t really need the lab to confirm their suffering. Just witness a lobster or crab hurling itself violently against the sides of a pot of boiling water.

Opponents retort it’s simply reflex, taking us back to Descartes and his mechanistic assessment of animal behavior, ignoring their neurological components. On the other hand, crabs in a recent experiment rapidly adjusted their habits to avoid areas where they had previously experienced an electric shock.

A number of countries have taken legal measures to protect crustaceans like lobsters from unnecessary pain, among them, Norway, New Zealand, Austria and parts of Italy and Germany.

Switzerland set the precedent in 2018, banning boiling crustaceans alive, based on research indicating they feel pain. They needn’t possess a neocortex to experience pain. Biologist Robert Elwood, whose research led to Switzerland’s ruling, tells us that “crustacean brains and nervous systems are configured differently” (aldf.org).

But what about freezing them, a predominate recourse in shipping lobsters over long distances, say, to Biden’s recent celeb bash for the French president?

In June 2016, Italy’s highest court outlawed the practice, ruling it inflicted unjustifiable suffering. That makes sense. Freezing sentient creatures is no less repulsive than boiling them alive.

But environment also looms as a pressing concern involving the lobster industry.

Whole Foods has joined the debate, announcing it will no longer sell lobster after two consumer-focused environmental watchdogs— the Maine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch—pulled their certifications due to concerns over impacts on North Atlantic right whales. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it will reduce whale deaths and injuries by 69%.

This morning I woke to The Guardian’s lead article, “Save whales or eat lobster”: the battle reaches the White House” (11 December 2022), centering on the Federal court’s decision to curtail Maine’s lobster industry employing 10,000 workers in order to safeguard the diminishing North Atlantic right whales.

The Biden staff, nonetheless, ordered 200 lobsters be flown in for the Macron fete, despite the 2021 1st Circuit Court of Appeals decision reinstating a ban on lobster harvesting in some 940 square miles of the Gulf of Maine from October to January to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales menaced by entanglement in fishing gear and collision with large ships.

White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford responded that they wanted to “honor our lobstermen from Maine.” Meanwhile, the court’s decision is under fast track appeal.

I’m not hopeful. Sadly, politics often govern, expediency prevails, and the pecuniary nearly always wins, with accelerated biodiversity loss and climate warming their consequence.

My high regard for environmentalist Rachel Carson persists. An oceanographer by profession, her eloquent The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award, America’s highest literary award, in 1952.

Living summers on Southport Island, Maine, adjacent to touristy Boothbay, she loved the then abundant whale life. With her typical prescience, she also served an incipient warning: “We live in an age of rising seas,” she wrote. “In our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate.”

That was 1964, or 58-years ago.

The North American right whale, an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, has since declined to a scant 340, of which only 100 fertile females remain. We know the seas are ubiquitously afflicted with fishing gear, imposing an immense burden and much suffering upon sea life.

The lobster industry, instead of shouting their outrage, would do better to observe the U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mandate to employ multiple break points to pull up lobster traps in order to prevent right whale entanglement.

Declining rapidly in number, unless we protect these whales, they will have vanished forever.

–rj

The Crisis in American Medicine: Limited and Costly


This morning my wife shared a letter just received from her former health care provider in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She writes that she’ll no longer bill insurance, with the exception of Medicare. To continue with her, she asks that you join her health community at $4100 annually. Medicare recipients must also join.

I ran into this same thing two years ago when I saw a specialist for a leg ailment. In the future, her clients would need to pay a $3700 annual retainer fee. That was two years ago. I’m reasonably sure with inflation her fee has increased.

I want to warn you that American medicine, formerly the finest in the world, is likely to become more expensive, limited and inequitable. Increasingly with the rise of corporate medicine, the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. On average, you may need to wait several months before accessing your primary care physician, and even more to see a specialist, and when you do, it’s a physician’s assistant.

Concurrently, private insurance coverage is becoming more discriminating in what it pays for and how much. Medicare payout to physicians suffered a 4% cut this year, with an additional 4.5 anticipated cut for next year unless Congress intervenes before its adjournment next month.

Cuts like these result in reduced treatment, hiring of staff, and implementation of new technologies.

In response, doctors are increasingly resorting to concierge medicine, i.e., retainer fee medicine, now averaging $4000 annually per individual. Obviously, this will accelerate the already large number of Americans foregoing or delaying medical treatment, resulting in tardy diagnosis of mortality threatening illnesses.

As for hospitals, Mayo Clinic, accepts Medicare, but will bill you for the difference between original billing and Medicare payout. I fear this may become a growing trend.

—rj

The Piece of God in All of Us: Mary Oliver and Franz Marc

Franz Marc: Blue Horses

I’ve always had this curiosity about art, but feel I’m an outsider. I simply lack the wherewithal needed to unlock its portals. On the several occasions I’ve visited art galleys, whether in LA, Santa Fe, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Madrid, I tried vainly to stare paintings down, hoping a mindfulness approach might unleash an avalanche of revelation. A good many of the contemporary paintings could be hung upside down and I wouldn’t know the difference.

Scroll back to summer, 1978, and a graduate course in Southern California. A classmate invites me to go with him to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a treasure trove of art, in fact, the largest in the U.S. west of the Mississippi.

An hour in, I grow bored, regretting my hasty acceptance, hoping my friend will share my mood.

Another hour idles by when he tells me he’s exhausted. He’s looked at three paintings. Really, just three! “There’s just too much to take-in,” he says. What does he see that I can’t? Fetch me my sunglasses and tin cup!

Over the years, I’ve tried to close the gap, taking students to Aix-en Provence and its Cézanne vestiges, picnicking on a sun drenched afternoon with Mont Sainte Victoire, beloved haunt of many of his paintings, looming in the background.

We visited Arles, where moody van Gogh and tempestuous Gauguin put up with each other in the Yellow House in 1888, now gone, and take-in the local museum housing many of van Gogh’s renowned paintings.

As a literature student in grad school, I was familiar with the art poems of Keats, Browning, Rossetti and Ruskin’s aesthetics. Among modernists poets, Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Art, for all its brevity, haunts me almost daily in its depiction from Breugal’s “The Fall of Icarus” (1560) of human indifference in a context of suffering.

In the early 1980s, I invested in a Time Magazine multi-volume edition of art books, each volume with its illustrated slip case cover. Replete with photos, biography, and salient details of art masterpieces, it was the closest you come to the paint by numbers art kits I delighted in as a child.

When we moved to New Mexico in 2018, I grieved to have to donate these exquisite volumes to the performing arts school library where my wife previously taught. The moving cost was already mind-boggling and we had to jettison items replete with memory, especially my many books.

Why am I telling you this? Simply because art still engages me. Today, I came upon a poem by beloved poet Mary Oliver, commemorating German artist Franz Marc’s “Blue Horses” (1911) painting. I had never heard of him.

Franz Marc was a dedicated painter who pursued his craft assiduously, living several years in Paris and studying the great masters. Post impressionist Vincent van Gogh influenced him greatly in his broad brush strokes and vivid colors. Marc’s paintings often feature animals, especially horses, in combination with landscape to achieve an organic whole.

He shunned their objectification, contending for their mystical import: “I never, for instance, have the urge to paint animals ‘the way I see them,’ but rather the way they are. The way they themselves look at the world and feel their being.”

Marc was a color symbolist, colors having individual nuance: “Blue is the male principle, stern and spiritual. Yellow the female principle, gentle, cheerful and sensual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour which must be fought and vanquished by the other two.”

This helps elucidate his latent purpose in “Blue Horses” (1911). He told his wife it dealt with his foreboding of an imminent war, though this was three years before Sarajevo, leading to the Great War that would result in a combined twenty million military and civilian dead.

In the painting, horses symbolize freedom and vitality: blue is the color of calm and peace and the male principle at the spiritual level; yellow, the female principle, gentle and sensuous; red, the inharmonious and conflictive.

Marc adored animals, seeing them as harmonious with nature and representing the good in the world.

In contrast, mankind has adulterated that natural tranquility through deceit and corruption. Only by reconciling with nature and art can Man find restoration to his better self.

Marc was right in his premonition of war and was called up. He would die of a shrapnel head wound at Verdun in 1916. He was 36.

Oliver’s poetry, like Marc’s art, is nearly always centered in nature, so scarce wonder Marc’s painting would lead to her moving poem tribute:                                        

“FRANZ MARC’S BLUE HORSES”

I step into the painting of the four blue horses. I am not even surprised that I can do this. One of the horses walks toward me. His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm over his blue mane, not holding on, just commingling.
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.   I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses
what war is. They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.  Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.  Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.          
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me as if they have secrets to tell. I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what  could they possibly say?                                        

I may sometimes feel locked out when it comes to art, but as Oliver says so well, “Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” It explains why art engages me still.

–rj

 

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