What Counts Most in a Person?

Of all character attributes, what counts most? For me, it’s integrity, or doing the right thing, regardless of circumstance, especially when no one’s around. I say this because of the pervasive anonymity our high tech age confers. I confess to being a Marcus Aurelius devotee, who in Meditations wisely counseled, “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

I was seated by a corporate CE0 on a flight years ago and we began to converse. He shared that what he looked for most were trustworthy employees committed to doing the job right, workers not requiring micromanagement. Warren Buffett echoes this sentiment when he counseled, “We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity. Without the latter, the first two can hurt you.“

In short, trustworthiness is primary, sorely lacking in business, politics and even religion today. And yes, too frequently in private conduct. Some may call it, ‘walking the talk.” I call it Integrity.—rj

Thanksgiving Reflections:

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius recommends we accept all things, even the painful: “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods.” Although this seems problematic, with everything that happens to us, good or bad, we can gain insight, transcend rather than recoil or take offense. If someone hurts me, I reach for the good that remains in that person. If stricken ill, I’m more mindful of healthy changes I must make. With the pandemic, I gain awareness of my need to protect others and give thanks for more time at home with those I love. As Epictetus, whom Aurelius follows, tells us, “Everything has two handles.” In all things, grasp the easier, more positive handle, and give thanks, both now and always.

California Reminiscence

I remember my first rendezvous with California, the Golden State, as a 17-year old serviceman on his way to Korea, dazzled by snow-capped mountains thrown back in the crystal blue waters of Lake Tahoe, the descent into orchard country and, then, San Francisco. Suddenly, I understood my brother and a beloved uncle making it their home.

Ultimately, I married a California girl and nearly thirty years ago we honeymooned in Monterey and its environs. Our children and grand-babies are Californians and, when we can, we make the trek. I know California well, studied in California on a government grant, am a devotee of Big Sur country, aficionado of poet Robinson Jeffers, writers Steinbeck, Didion, Chandler, Solnit and still others.

But the California I knew, along with countless generations, has lost much of its golden hue. For only the second time in its history, more people have moved out than moved in, fleeing rampant taxation, escalating housing and utility costs, and the state’s crazy politics.

California with 12% of the nation’s population has one third of its welfare recipients. A once proud educational artifice of well paid teachers and progressive schools now ranks 37th. It’s last in the number of K-12 students per teacher (2015-16).

Last summer, impacted by climate change, 4 million acres of forest burned and severe drought, a now annual specter, taunts the state’s huge agricultural sector, much of it irrigational. I could write pages on the consequences of the demise of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the state’s most significant water resource. Or of salinization of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta that supplies drinking water for 20 million Californians. Today, California suffers the worst air quality in the nation, resulting in huge medical outlays.

Even big tech has caught on to what’s happening, several firms recently choosing their options elsewhere for more welcoming states like Arizona, Texas, Idaho and Washington. Last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the world’s second richest man, announced plans to move his HQ to Texas/Nevada and sold $100 million of California real estate. (Tesla is the last auto manufacturer in the state.)

Political polity provided by a once robust two party rivalry of Democrats and Republicans has been vastly eroded. Between 1970 and 2018, the Hispanic population increased from 12% to 39%. They overwhelmingly prefer Democrats. Identity politics is everywhere.

Don’t get me wrong. Not everything is doom and gloom in California. Even with its troubles, California, were it a country, would rank fifth in GDP, exceeding several European countries such as England, France and Italy and nearly doubling Canada.

And yet, like the California haze that increasingly infiltrates our summer and fall traditionally vibrant blue New Mexico skies where Karen and I live, something’s gone out of things and a golden El Dorado no longer allures.

–rj

 

A Changing France: The Demise of Intellectual Exchange

When I was in high school in Newburyport, MA, I was thrilled to have my first taste of learning French under earnest Mrs. Waltz, mesmerized by its nasal intonations and lilting cadence. What can be more beautiful than telling your loved one, “Je t’aime avec tout mon coeur?”

Yes, I confess to being a Romantic, filled with passion, a love for all things beautiful, and a fondness for hard-thinking, attributes I associate with France. Besides, I’m three-quarters French.

I studied French on my own for many years, devoured Hugo, Flaubert, Maupassant, Proust, and Camus, been to Québec, sojourned a summer in France, taken students there, walked Paris streets, been to Provence, adore Aix-en-Provence, home of Cézanne and picnicked in the shadows of his beloved Mt. Sainte Victoire. And the food, I still remember that Menton garden-setting with its salade delicieuse washed down with Chardonnay.

But the France I have known is changing rapidly, symbolized by the recent demise of Le Débat, France’s leading journal of intellectual exchange in the spirit of the Enlightenment. Though founded by Leftists, appropriately on the day of Sartre’s funeral in 1980, and at one time edited by influential literary critic Michel Foucault and associated with anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, it allowed for open debate, but is now a casualty of France’s import of America’s cancel culture wave of identity politics with its revisionist history, infiltration of college campuses, abridgment of free speech, resultant censorship, threats of boycott, vigilante violence, and libelous personal attacks via social media. Le Débat has ceased publication.

Despite President Macron’s pledge that France “will not erase any trace or name from its history. It will not forget any of its works. It will not topple any statues,” the fate of Le Débat, France’s foremost intellectual journal, signals the hollowness of such a claim.

It used to be said that when France sneezed, all the world caught a cold. Alas, France is but a shadow of its former self and with its demise, tolerance for free exchange of ideas is everywhere diminished and social fracture its consequence. C’est dommage!

–R. Joly

Cherished Company

From a chiId I’ve always craved the company of animals, sometimes preferring them over humans. It was Darwin who in his massive studies of the animal kingdom posited that reason, emotion, and even morality, weren’t solely relegated to humans through evolution. My long acquaintance with animals tells me Darwin was on cue. Oh, the many stories I could tell.

Relatedly, there’s a delightful new little book just out by John Gray, titled Feline Philosophy, obviously about cats. And I can tell you a lot about them as well, though my wife, Karen, exceeds me greatly.

I like Gray’s cogent observation about animals when he says, “Lacking self-consciousness, non-human animals are present in the world more completely than we are. They inhabit nature fully whereas we are always dislocated, at a right angle, from it. Indeed, we are destroying it.”

So you see, you don’t have to consult a Buddhist monk to find serenity. It was the Buddha who taught us that suffering lay in desire and refusal to accept impermanence. On the other hand, our animal friends are simply their authentic selves, with each day a sojourn in life’s palate. Scarce wonder I pursue their company.

—r

The Vanishing World of Touch

Not long ago I celebrated in my brimmings blog the realm of touch, so wonderfully depicted by my favorite nature writer, Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses. What she doesn’t touch upon is the increasing loss of that tactile dimension in a virtual age powered by Artificial Intelligence now pushed to the forefront by the corona pandemic. Nearly a third of us now work from our homes. Fewer of us are needed. Sadly, we are probably witnessing the loss of a way of life to which we won’t fully return: fewer teachers, doctors, etc. , increased surveillance, a cadre of workers, many of color, working as grocery clerks, industrial farm laborers, or from remote warehouses.

The loss of a tactile world undermines the human enterprise for which social media becomes a poor substitute. And then the outcome for families, the stress of uncertainty and limited horizons of opportunity in a touchless society where we no longer shake hands, give hugs, or bestow a kiss upon the cheek, airport embraces of coming and going reduced to impalpable memory.

As never before in a world such as ours, we are children in the night needing to be held and to be loved. We cannot live happily in a world of reduced signifiers of human belonging. Touch is the lingua franca fundamental to our destiny.

—rj

The Left’s Problem with Free Speech

It didn’t take long for opposition to Harper’s Magazine letter featuring 153 heavyweight intellectuals, largely academics and writers protesting censorship, to engage counter protest. Not from the Right as one might suppose, but from the Left in a counter letter featuring 160 signatories, published in the online site, The Objective.

Some argued the Harper signatories were white, economically privileged, academic elitists who don’t merit any claim to duress for their views. “They are totalitarians in the waiting,“ commented Parker Molloy of Media Matters. “They are bad people. They want you to shut-up.” Molloy is referencing the current cancel culture conflict, intimating the Harper signatories would repress minorities from speaking out.

Not only is this the race card fallback again, but it’s absurd on two counts:

Twenty-four of the signees were people of color. As one Black signatory to the Harper letter wrote, “If they didn’t recognize your name, they assumed you’re white.”

Protestors seem to have ignored signatories Salman Rushdie who had to go into hiding after a fatwah was issued on his life and must still change his addresses frequently, or chess champion Garry Kasparov who was ostracized in Russia for opposing Vladimir Putin.

Do you think Noam Chomsky and Gloria Steinem haven’t been told to shut-up by adversaries from the Right?

What especially rankles some is J.K. Rowling’s presence on the Harper list. You may not agree with her sentiments re: transgender access to bathrooms as a traumatized rape victim, but she’s the one they specifically want to shut-up, with some calling for a boycott.

Ironically, there are several rank hypocrites among the Harper signatories: New York Times editor Bari Weiss, literary scholar Cary Nelson, and political scientist Yascha Mounk.  Weiss and Nelson have actively worked to silence pro-Palestinian voices;  Mounk in 2019 enthusiastically supported the Bolivian coup bringing Jeanine Añez to power.  Since then, massacres have followed, dissent been restricted, and an election postponed.

In all of this comes the need to distinguish criticism from censorship. The first is fundamental to liberal democracy; the latter, its nemesis. The Left’s vitriolic response, its ad hominem assault by race, economic status, and on alleged motives of the Harper signatories bear all the trademarks of a repressive body politic inimical to debate.

Leftist writer Freddie de Boer’s gets it right: “The people furious at this letter largely have genuine ideological problems with liberal norms and laws regarding free speech. Please, think for a minute and consider: what does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive and anti-left?”

—rj

70th Anniversary: Korea, the Forgotten War

A forgotten war that shaped the modern world

Seventy years ago today, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, invading South Korea. I was ten years old, but my father would send me up Front Street in Philly to get the Inquirer or Bulletin. I think it was five cents in those days, fifteen on Sundays. Pa would split the paper with me.

I knew the details intimately and followed the battle lines faithfully that summer, when U. S. troops intervened in large numbers.

And then came MacArthur’s superbly executed amphibious Inchon invasion behind enemy lines that fall, reigning in the North Korean forces. Boldly, we marched into North Korea. It turned into a protracted war, however, with the intrusion of vast numbers of Chinese soldiers into the conflict in a colossal failure of U. S. intelligence that would cost many lives. I remember GI’s telling me how the bodies of charging waves of Chinese would pile-up in front of their machine guns, preventing clear fire.

Truman dismissed MacArthur, who returned home to a hero’s welcome. He had wanted to hit China. The bridges across the Yalu were never touched, allowing the Chinese free access. I remember the Chinese encirclement of our marines at the Chosin Reservoir, their desperate retreat after seventeen days of protracted battle amid sub-zero temperatures in what became America’s version of Dunkirk.

The war would continue unabated into election year, 1952, with an unpopular Truman bowing out. Eisenhower would be swept into office, pledging to end the conflict, which he did by intimating nuclear intervention. The enemy got the message and in 1953, an armistice was signed. It provided for prisoner exchange. The sad reality is it never fully happened, some 7,800 American POWs unaccounted for. All told, more than 50,000 Americans perished, 100,000 were wounded. Five million Koreans, North and South, died, the vast majority civilians.

The war proved to be the opening salvo of the Cold War, foreshadowing Vietnam. As a little boy sprawled out on the floor reading the war accounts, I never imagined I’d be part of an occupying force four years after the war’s end, safeguarding the Republic of South Korea from the North. I spent thirteen months there, initially as a seventeen year old. I remember naked, hungry children begging, adults living in holes covered over with sheet metal, bullet shredded walls.

Today, North Korea remains a rogue state, menacing not only the Republic, but with its increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal, the U. S. mainland as well. We are at a loss for answers.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find anniversary accounts of the conflict in today’s press, understandably consumed with the pandemic, economic turndown and, not least, Donald Trump. Still, the Korean War has long been called America’s forgotten war. It hasn’t been that way for me. More like a shadow I can’t escape.

—RJoly

Oliver Sacks’ Ambivalence on Living in the Digital Age

Image result for Oliver Sacks

There isn’t anything I enjoy more in a stress-laden world than a time-out for a good read. Books lend me a purview of how others experience life, lending sagacity and connection with my fellows. Books teach me that I’m not alone.

Courtesy of The New Yorker (February 11, 2019), this morning I came upon Oliver Sacks’ restive short piece, ¨The Machine Stops.” Written in the last weeks of his impending death, the famed neurologist reflects on the fallout of living in the digital age.

Brilliant, cogent, unceasingly eloquent and abidingly compassionate, Sacks specialized in the eccentricities imposed by the brain, most famously in his Awakenings, later turned into one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen.

Sacks laments here the social distancing wrought by a technology that should be bringing us together, reminding me of Tolstoy’s initial response on seeing a film clip for the first time in his advanced years and countering that though this new technology was latent with promise, too often technology had been harnessed for ignoble ends.

Beginning with the ubiquitous cellphone, Sacks complains that he “cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.”

In short, our digital milieu has decimated a once fecund public and private life, replacing social interchange with inferior virtual substitutes. I remember in my boyhood sitting with neighbors on stoops in Philadelphia on humid summer nights, conversing until the arrival of night’s cool breezes sweeping across the Delaware; houses teeming with porches where we played games, conversed, and shared neighborhood babble. Mornings, I’d grab my ball glove and saunter off to a crowded diamond. Those ball fields, in Philly and afar, lie increasingly vacant in these days of video games:

In similar vein, Sacks continues that he’s “confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.”

0ur personal lives have been turned inside out, our privacy invaded. Think of what Facebook has done with posts you thought were personal to your friends, or that daily invasion of your cell phone space by a stream of telemarketing calls, or the tracking of your computer viewing via cookies.

And then there’s that immense loss for our culture and, consequently, for ourselves in our spendthrift use of our time for trivialities, foreclosing on better priorities such as art, music, literature and science that have buttressed our civilization and refine our humanity, promoting sensitivity, tolerance, knowledge and wisdom. Inundated by media, we traffic in noise. Bored, we may not like ourselves. We no longer know how to sit still.

“Everything is public now, potentially, Sacks writes: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

The punchline of all this arrives for Sacks in his now retreating days of life when he conjectures the worth of a life lived for better values in a context of seemingly burgeoning social indifference:

“. . . it may not be enough to create, to contribute, to have influenced others if one feels, as I do now, that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened. Though I am supported and stimulated by my friends, by readers around the world, by memories of my life, and by the joy that writing gives me, I have, as many of us must have, deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world.”

And yet Sacks stubbornly defies those hovering specters of demise:

“Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before, though it moves cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continual self-testing and experimentation. I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.”

I fervently hope along with you that Sacks’ midnight wager turns out right. But to paraphrase Keats, the thought paradoxically lingers in me: does Sacks “wake or sleep”?

—rj

And a Child Shall Lead Them: Healing What Ails Us

Image result for and a child shall lead themI was talking just a few minutes ago with my better half, wondering just how I used to spend my idle hours before the Internet came into vogue. As is, I’m cuffed to a binary lodestone, whether smart phone, iPad, or desktop, dulling awareness, squandering time, exponentially addictive.

Generally, my dawns begin not with photographing sunrises or heading to the gym, but grabbing my tablet, which accompanies me even to bed, for a wakeup breakfast of The Guardian, BBC, CNN, and NPR.

Unsatiated, I imbibe local news back home where I lived for 41 years before moving this past summer, all of this consuming at least an hour. I check for updates several times throughout the day.

I comb Facebook for friend posts, get off text messages as day tumbles into noon.

One of the inveterate things I do is to google this and google that. If curiosity killed the cat, it’s stuffed my brain into info overload.

According to a recent report in Ofcom featured in The Guardian, I’m not alone by any means. 78% of us now have smartphones, rising to 95% of young people, 16-24. Returning from work, we grab a fast meal, throw ourselves into a comfy chair, turning on, say, Netflix, for a few hours more of wasteful indulgence.

Bored and stressed, we moderns seek distraction. We have difficulty keeping company with ourselves.

Addicted, each day becomes a round of what Buddhists term Samsara, or the unenlightened repetition of daily round, captured famously in Bill Murray’s stellar performance in Groundhog Day.

And we pay a steep price for all of this in a lifespan never really long enough, missing out on the miracle of life that´s not only ourselves, and won’t happen again, but of those around us enveloped in a cosmos, earthly and heavenly, infinite, yet temporal.

It was Wordsworth, nature poet of a quieter time, who told us “the child is father of the man” in the ¨Rainbow.” What he probably meant is that what we are as children we become as adults in the maturation of habits and sensibilities acquired when children, particularly an early fondness for nature.

I’d extend its meaning to include a child’s sometimes extraordinary ability to show us the way as adults in their frequent exemplar of sensory delight in the nowness of things, each day a renewed cornucopia, at least before the advent of video games.

Maybe you’re getting my drift—that one way out of our electronic matrix is to rethink what we loved to do as children and rediscover it again. I loved studying languages, playing and watching baseball, walking to the library and the adventure of new book, traveling to new places, meeting new people, learning new things, the smell of country air, the touch of bare feet on cool earth in early morning in our garden.

Children teach us not to fret about tomorrow.
To stop if it isn’t fun.
To be curious.
Honest.
Passionate.
Hopeful.
Forgiving.
To savor the moment.
To forgive.
To love.

I hold to action over prayer, but were I a praying guy, I’d surely pray, “Lord, give me the mind of a child again!”

–rj

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