View from the end of our street, February 22nd, 2019

Monday, May 30, 2011

"If you love freedom . . ."

"The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten."
                    - Calvin Coolidge

          Today is Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer, a day for cookouts, shopping, or a trip to the beach.  I don't want to put a damper on any of that, but with America ten years into its longest war, I am going to take a few moments to focus attention on the origins and purpose of this American holiday.  I am going to wave the flag, and express pride in my own service as well as that of my millions of fellow veterans.  I am not going to challenge or belittle the views of anyone who doesn't share my opinions.  There is a time and place for that; it is not here, not today.

"The core of our defense is the faith we have in the institutions we defend."
                    - Franklin D. Roosevelt

          In the middle of the nineteenth century, the young United States steeled itself to confront the single most divisive issue in its short lifetime.  That issue was human slavery, an institution so ugly as to have left hard feelings that today, 146 years after the fact, can erupt into personal violence at the dropping of one simple word.  Politicians of the day, as they continue to do in our own time, tried to muddy the water and complicate the issue, cloaking it in dissertations about states' rights, and the sanctity of a man's "property," but it was about one thing.  Then, as now, people were smarter than their politicians gave them credit for, and the war over slavery consumed over 600,000 young lives to decide whether the "liberty and justice for all" on which this nation was founded was to include people other than Caucasians in those soaring words.
          Following that great conflagration, the victorious Federal Government sought a means to reunite the country in ties of the spirit, and remind us that we were Americans all.  The South, the portion of the nation that had sought to break away and keep its slaves, had long had a springtime tradition in which the population of a town would declare a day to meet at the local cemetery and clean the place up; pull the weeds, polish the headstones, put out flags and flowers, in short decorate their loved ones' final resting place.  The people marched to the cemetery in an informal parade, and when the work was done, there were religious services, picnics on the grass, and maybe sometimes a performance of patriotic music by local musicians.  The people called it Decoration Day, and Washington saw this as a day to engage everyone in the country in a unifying honoring of those who had died for their country.  A date was fixed (each town had chosen its own before), and the whole nation was decorated in its patriotic finery.  The date has floated around the spring, currently being observed on the last Monday in May, and the name has become Memorial Day, but this is what it is about.

"To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."
                    - George Washington

          Americans, north and south, were forced to bring forth those huge Civil War armies virtually from scratch, and the fact that both sides found no shortage of men to march shoulder to shoulder into the meat grinder that was a Civil War era defensive position is testament to what happens when your enemy believes that you lack the courage or fortitude to stand up to him.  Northerners saw their southern adversaries as a mob of hillbillies who could no more be disciplined than a pack of apes, and southerners looked on their northern opponents as greedy shopkeepers and destitute immigrants whose only interest was making money, and who had no idea which end of a gun the bullet came out of.  Driven by such institutionalized ignorance, they went on to rack up, in four years of war, a death toll that to this day surpasses American deaths suffered in all our other wars combined!
          Appalled by the prospect of having every home in America with a family member lost to war, we were quick to beat the swords into plowshares.  I'm not saying this is bad in and of itself, but every war that we have been drawn into since has been caused by some tyrant, dictator, despot, or fanatic overlooking, dismissing, or simply mistaking America for a nation of lazy consumers who lack the moral fortitude to defend our way of life if it means setting aside our comfy lifestyle for the hardships of a soldier.  Every time it has happened, against the colonial powers of old Europe, against Germany (twice), against Japan, against petty dictators in nothing countries who despise our values, and against the great bogeyman of Communist Domination of the World, we have done what we needed to do, then quickly thrown away our swords and gotten back to business.  Upon which it happens again.  It happened most recently on a clear fall morning in 2001.  Welcome to the new century; same as the old century.

"For those who fight for it, freedom has a flavor the sheltered never know."
                   - Anonymous (scrawled on a bunker at Khe Sanh)

          This is a quote from my war, and it seems somehow fitting that its author is unknown.  I came home, a proud veteran, to a nation that wanted to forget me, to wealthy friends who enjoyed that wealth because they were protected by the might of America, and who shunned me for my service, my defense of them, as I saw it.  I came home to pretty girls who would feign interest, only to ask me how many babies I had murdered in Viet Nam (None, for the record).  I came back to self-serving politicians who threw me and my fellow vets under the bus when their war proved unpopular, and I took great pride in saying that I never voted for one of the sons-of-bitches.  The lowest, vilest example was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the whole Viet Nam debacle, who wrote in his memoirs that the reason we lost in Viet Nam was that we didn't send our best and brightest.  He should have gotten a medal from the Hanoi government after that statement.  I gave up on voting, performing charitable activities, withdrew from mainstream society and became essentially an urban hermit.  This was my own form of PTSD, and it had nothing to do with combat.  It was the way I was treated by those who created the situation and put us all into it.
          Then came 9/11.  Thank you, Osama bin Laden, for reminding me who I am.  Since that day, I have been an American patriot.  I take an interest in my country, how it operates, who's doing what to whom, and I've never since that day missed an election.  I only regret that it took several thousand dead Americans to remind me.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
                    - Edmund Blake (attributed, but unproven)

          A fine sentiment, nonetheless.  Good Americans stood up and gave their lives when the Kaiser would have unified Europe under his personal tyranny.  Good Americans stood up and gave their lives when Tojo's minions would have enslaved all of Asia.  Good Americans stood up and gave their lives when Hitler would have slaughtered every Jew on Earth.  Good Americans stood up and gave their lives when Communism would have turned the world into the great workers' paradise.  Good Americans are standing up now to face a chilling form of extremism that would replace free expression the world over with a form of religious despotism that prescribes death for holding a personal opinion at odds with their interpretation of the Koran.
          Let me clarify my views here.  I have heard my country called an oppressor, an imperialist power, a taker from the weak, a partner to the haves.  Let's get this crystal clear once and for all:  There are worse things to build empires upon than the concepts of justice and equality, and worse causes to fight in than that of freedom.  This world, so much of which hates and reviles us, owes America, and Americans, more than anyone could ever dream of repaying.  Every Jew who is alive today because armed and determined Americans a long way from home prevented Satan-on-Earth from pushing his parents into a gas chamber, every Asian farmer who doesn't have to send all his rice to Tokyo, every Frenchman who looks around his beautiful country and notes the lack of swastikas on every wall and flagpole, owes daily thanks to hundreds of thousands of Americans who have put aside their comfortable lives of easy living, cheap entertainment, good plentiful food, readily available recreation, and taken up arms, allowing themselves to be formed into a force of liberty for the world, again, and again, and again.  If you live in a place where you are reading these words without the fear of someone kicking your door down and hauling you off to a concentration camp for reading them, pray that we never get tired of it.

"God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it."
                    - Daniel Webster

          Thank you, American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.  Today is technically set aside to honor those who have given their lives, and I certainly do that, but as a Viet Nam veteran, I never want to see another young American come home to the reception that my generation received.  Not after going through what you are asked to endure every day in the service of America.  Thank you all, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, black, white, and every shade between.  I am able to sit here and type these words without worrying about being jailed because of your sacrifices, and I don't want one of you to ever think for one minute that what you are doing is not appreciated.

"In the final choice, a soldier's pack is not so heavy a burden as a prisoner's chains."
                    - Dwight D. Eisenhower

          The rest of the title, of course, is "If you love freedom, thank a veteran."  Thank you, thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the rest of my days, THANK YOU!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's About Time

          We here in the United States shifted to Daylight Savings Time last month.  If you aren't familiar with this ritual, what occurs is that every spring we move the clocks ahead an hour, and every fall, we move them back.  I think the idea is that if you have more light in the evening, and nice summer weather to go with it, then you'll go out more, and spend more money.  That does seem to drive pretty much everything, but that isn't what this particular post is about (but excuse me a minute while I write that in my "upcoming subject" book).  Rather, having observed twice a year for my whole life the havoc this seemingly innocuous change wreaks on my body, I've decided to examine the whole concept of time, and how we perceive it.
          Time is what it is, however, measurement of its passage is a uniquely human product.  For millions of years, all the proto-humans wandering the veldts and forests had to know about time was how to estimate how long it was until dark.  Obviously, it was paramount to their survival to be back in the cave with their homie-nids before the nocturnal predators came out to hunt.  Ten thousand years ago, give or take a millennium, we began to indulge in agriculture, and from that point on, we began to change how time worked to suit our needs.  A glance at the sky would no longer suffice; now we had to know when to plant and reap, and all the other things a farmer has to do that are driven by season rather than hour.  Methods of determining solstice and equinox came into being, great annual clocks were constructed, along the lines of Stonehenge, and rituals perfected to make sure nothing went wrong, and to give thanks when it didn't.  Rituals create a class of specialists whose contribution is keeping that knowledge, and hitherto unknown classes of artisans, priests and historians among them, come into being.  All because of our need to measure time in a new way.
          The classical civilizations knew the sundial, the hourglass has long been in use, but along about the middle of the second millennium, the mechanical clock is invented.  Are we back to counting hours again?  Almost literally, as the earliest clocks only had an hour hand.  They gave their owners a general idea of what point the day had reached, which was handy for a farmer when it was overcast (Two hours of daylight left.  Better start cleaning up.), shopkeepers meeting to conduct business, priests needing to conduct rituals at the right time of day, etc.  Not long into it, the minute hand was added, which was a prestige item for a clockowner, sort of the sixteenth century equivalent of the latest and greatest i-phone app.
          It became the custom for a town to have a clock, often on a bell tower in the town square, which became the standard for all the town's business to run by.  Your town set its clock to noon when the sun was straight up (hence the expression, used to this day, "straight-up noon"), and it was normal practice for the town over the next hill to keep a time that was ten or twelve minutes different from yours.
          Then, at the beginning of the nineteenth century came a development that changed the fundamental way we look at time forever.  If you have ever arrived at work to be greeted by a boss snarling, "You're thirty seconds late, you deadbeat!  I'm docking you an hour's pay!" thank the railroads.  See, when you're trying to coordinate the movement of cargo and passengers across the length and breadth of a good sized country, or even a continent, "about noon" no longer cuts it.  Once the railroads grew from playthings for the wealthy to the engines that moved the commerce of nations, they needed to know what time it was in every town they serviced, and governments responded with the time zones we know today.  That one word, "railroads," is the explanation for why it is always exactly one hour later in Tallahassee, Florida than it is in Chicago, Illinois.  It also explains why there are places where you can walk across a street and find that you need to reset your watch.  Not a perfect system, but one that has served us well for two hundred years.
          Okay, before I address the impact of the chaotic human mind on all this mathematical precision, I offer this disclaimer:  I am not a mathematician, a theoretical physicist, or any other sort of scientist who thinks so far ahead of Joe Everyman that he can't really communicate on his level.  I am Joe Everyman, an ordinary guy with a blog who likes to think outside the box.  I watch Nova and Discover, and, prodded by shows I see there, enjoy following the paths that they start me along; I enjoy exploration, and the best frontiers are inside your head, so come along, and let's see if we can clear some brush...
          You have heard, I'm sure, the expression, "Time flies when you're having fun," and you know it to be true.  Conversely, try hand-weeding a five acre lot, or counting the BBs in a 55 gallon drum, and see what time does.  The monks of ancient China recognized this, and learned to reach into their inner chi to make time do what they needed.  I have followed a Chinese religious philosophy all my adult life.  Being aware of the concept and the discipline, I have been able to produce this effect a couple of times.  It is amazing, but beyond that, it causes me to wonder about the "solidity" of this thing we call "time."

The Time Machine
          We have all heard and used the expression, the "flow" of time.  This is used and understood universally, and I can't help but wonder what intuitive knowledge we all tap into to find our way to this term.  "Flow" is what a river does.  A river is a dynamic, fluid liquid in which items can change their position, the speed with which they follow the current, and their position relative to other objects.  We can't reposition ourselves in the stream of time, though... Or can we?  We have already seen how time seems to speed up and slow down depending on what we're doing (or more basically, how boring it is).  We have learned how trained religious aesthetics can make (or as they would put it, "allow") time to behave according to their needs of the moment.  In this age of space exploration, most of us are aware that when things travel close to the speed of light, time slows down for them.  A ship traveling for ten years near the speed of light might return to earth to find that a thousand years have passed, and nothing is familiar anymore.  A theoretical particle called the tachyon is said to only travel above the speed of light.  So, how big a leap is it from these facts to the willful control of time?
Back to the Future
          I'm thinking, pretty big.  Exhibit A:  Where are the tourists from the future, when time machines will be invented, if they ever are?  Of course, maybe their skill is that of remaining undetected.  A footnote:  I used to play a boardgame called Time Wars.  The premise of this game was that the great world-changing entities of history, from Jesus Christ to Lee Harvey Oswald, were agents of some far-future bureaus whose job was to travel back in time and change history so that the outcome was more favorable to their own society.  Each player in the game was the head of his nation's Bureau of Time Management.  Feasible?  Who knows?  If it was going on right now, how would we know?  Right now, we know that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, who as a consequence, was not around to influence post-Civil War reconstruction.  But what if that had just been done by a time-traveling agent?  If up until five minutes ago we had lived in a world where Lincoln had survived to a ripe old age, and then history had been changed by a time agent, would we know it, or would we have memories of Lincoln's assassination that we had learned from second grade?  More personally, what if you were a time traveler?  What if you went back in time and accidentally killed your own parents, maybe in a simple traffic accident, before you were actually born?  Since you now don't exist to come back and kill them, you will be born, at which time you will come back and kill them before you are born...
          This is the kind of stuff that can make your head hurt; this is the expedition worth taking.  See, the wolf lives by its teeth.  It constantly gnaws on bones and similar items to keep its teeth, the tools of its survival, sharp.  The cat makes its living with its claws.  You can't watch a cat for too long without seeing it reach up and sharpen its claws on whatever surface is handy.  Your survival tool is your big brain, and exploring the dark, overgrown pathways within is how you keep it sharp.  Your mind needs this sort of exercise, and if you don't consciously provide it, it will find its own way.  When the ancient Greeks spoke of Pegasus and the Hydra, these were to them real creatures that they reasonably expected that they might encounter at some point in their lives.  The Victorian Era was rife with ghosts and fairies.  People nowadays are known for seeing alien spacecraft, even being abducted by them for perverse medical experiments.  Look closer.  The Greeks lived in a land of mythology; the Victorians were exploring the world, inventing modern science, and trying to make sense of the diverse and often primitive cultures they were encountering; in modern times we are beginning the exploration of space.  All of these things are the minds of the people in those cultures trying to reach beyond the familiar, the comfortable, the mundane, and get some exercise.  Recreation is neither a luxury nor a waste of time; it is your brain trying to maintain its health; it's a good idea to let it off the leash once in a while.
          So, my conclusion?  It may be disappointing, but I don't have one.  Time travel has long been a staple of fiction.  The two odd devices pictured above are time machines from two movies separated by a generation.  There are many more less mainstream movies, and the subject is an entire branch of the SciFi family tree.  It has an appeal that rivals elves, dwarves, and fairies, and I don't claim to have any answers that are based in hard science; I enjoy it as much as the next guy, though, and invite you to join me here.  If you have views of your own, you want to start a thread, or pose a question for discussion, please, jump right in.  I've got plenty of time...