home for the holidays

Ah, the holiday season is now more or less officially upon us. That most American of holidays — Thanksgiving (or more casually to some, Turkey Day) — is tomorrow. After that, it’s just a downhill coast into Yuletide and New Year’s Day, bringing all of the hallowed tradition and blantant commericalism those holidays imply.

Fiancee S. and I will be spending the holidays my parents in the land of my birth this year. We went back for Thanksgiving last year to introduce her to my friends and relations back there. We’ve more or less agreed to alternate travel to my parents’ place from year to year. This year, we will travel around Christmas. Next year, we will try to make it back for Thanksgiving, and so on.

It will be good to be back. I have lived away from the land of my birth for over a decade now, but, there is no place like it in some ways. I have friends who I have known for decades back there. I also have family. My current surround is an excellent place to live with many virtues, but I will never be a native here.

I find, however, that somewhat selfish thoughts intrude when I think about being “home for the holidays”. To explain why, I must first mention my brother-in-law, M. My parents and M. have a sometimes uneven relationship. They did not necessarily approve of M. when he and my sister Sa. first started seeing each other over 10 years ago, mostly because of how he acts.

M. can be a difficult man to know in some ways. While he has many praiseworthy aspects (he has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, which makes him deserving of major respect from me), his actions can sometimes be interpreted as immature and childish. His sense of humor has a hard edge to it, making it sometimes seems insensitive. His situation growing up was somewhat unsettled and because of that or cultural disposition, he seems to thrive more on argument and conflict than good natured relations. M. is not the kind of guy that seems easy to hang out with when you first meet him, and the way he treats my sister has not always been as my parents would like.

Yet, M. is now a member of our family and my sister Sa. loves him dearly. He will soon be the father of my parents’ first grandchild and my first niece or nephew (Sa. is expecting in February.)Though it may not always be easy to understand M., we try hard to do so and build a good relationship with him.

Now the selfish part: I don’t want there to be that kind struggle between Fiancee S. and my family. She is a jewel in my eyes, and I hope that all of my old friends and relations see her and quickly grow to understand why. I want her to fit in with my friends and family, in ways that M. has not.

And there, my friends, is where I feel a sharp pang of guilt. I have an intense sense of loyalty toward my sister. I want to respect and I wish I could accept M. more than I do at times. There is a lot about M. that I admire, but I don’t think I will ever really understand some things about M., or thoroughly embrace him.

Yet I have to admire my sister. She has stuck to the courage of her conviction that M. is the right man for her through all of this. I know that everything with Fiancee S. would probably be harder if she and my parents didn’t get along. Yes, Sa. has complained at times about her relationship with the family, but, she stuck it out. As I prepare to expand our family by marrying Fiancee S., I have to admire that determination and fortitude.

a quiet weekend

Often after a period of profound change when the ground seems to shift constantly beneath my feet, I tend to remember that first moment when I appeared (at least) to return to more solid ground. When I moved into the apartment where I now live, I remember falling asleep late one Saturday afternoon about three years ago as my (then) new electric dryer hummed in the background. Or the time when I moved before that, and I got to sleep in one Saturday morning after I realized that I had absolutely nothing to do that day; no packing, no unpacking, no arrangements to make. It is a sense that I have finally caught whatever it is that I have been chasing for so long and I don’t have to worry about it anymore. I can live in the moment, and take care of all the little bits of business that involve having a life rather than put them off because I am riding out the storm of events and obligations.

I think Fiancee S. and finally had a moment or two like that over the weekend. I hope, hope, hope that our war with boxes is finally over. There are no more marriage encounter weekends or Godparent preparation classes to attend. There are no storage lockers to rent or carloads of stuff to put into them. I have no computers to rebuild (though I am awaiting a factory rebuilt disk from Seagate.) We have no parents or relatives to entertain. There are no engagement parties where “the Hatfields and the McCoys” of our respective future in-laws meet for the first time.

No, this last weekend was quiet. We slept in late. We went to one of these “glaze your own pottery” places to replace a butter dish I accidently broke last week (we made it look like a Holstien cow… it should be cool.) We got a few necessities (new flannel pyjamas for me) and did a little window shopping. We made it to Mass, where we heard Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” as an Offertory Motet for Christ The King Sunday and enjoyed a Kyrie and Agnus Dei by Haydn in all its choral majesty. I got my Christmas and Birthday gift list started, and we started shopping for gifts for others. We visited with some of Fiancee S.’s cousins. We made reservations for a romantic getaway this coming weekend. I cleaned the kitchen for the first time in ages. We spent a romantic evening in front of the fireplace.

In short, it was the first time in a long time when I felt like Fiancee S. and I could live in the moment without worrying about something we should be doing… and probably wondering if we would have the energy to do it. I feel as if I have finally come ashore after a long journey at sea. No doubt other such journies will begin in the not-to-distant future, but, I am glad to be here on firm dry land in a home both different from and the same as the one left. For the moment, I am at peace. It feels good while it lasts.

lee harvey

Lee Harvey was a friend of mine
He used to take me fishin’ all the time
He used to throw the ball to me
When I was just a kid
They say he shot the President
I don’t think he did
— song “Lee Harvey” by M. Henderson

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, there is a glut of documentary programming on television in the United States this week about that fateful day in Dallas. After catching parts of two programs last night, Peter Jennings Reporting — The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond The Conspiracy and Frontline: Who was Lee Harvey Oswald?, it was refreshing to see several hours of detailed interviews and analysis devoted to the premise that Lee Harvey Oswald did act alone.

Now I suppose I should be very clear about my personal and ideological preferences on the subject. I tend to believe that Oswald acted alone… it wasn’t the CIA, or Lyndon Johnson, or Texas Oil Men, or the Pentagon, or the Cubans, or the Soviets, or the Mob, or what-have-you. I know that lone gunman theories are not particularly glamorous, especially when it comes to explaining the martyrdom of a man who became hero to a generation. Lee Harvey, however, was a nut — the kind of person they now talk about blowing up buildings in Oklahoma, bringing guns to high school in Colorado, or having explosives in his bedroom in California. He also was a nut with sharpshooter skills taught to him by the U.S. Marines. Very dangerous.

If, through some stretch of the imagination, it did prove to be a conspiracy, I would say it was the Mob. Certainly favors were granted to get Kennedy elected in certain key districts in Chicago during a VERY close election, and they were repaid by a Mafia manhunt from Bobby Kennedy. That an assassination would follow is a typical bit of Mafia logic; kill the boss of the rival gang and get them off your back.

We can talk specifics all day and all night, but, I think the ultimate reasons for a lone gunman are twofold. First, I don’t think there can be any real dispute that Lee Harvey was there with a gun. The Warren Commission found that. The House Select Committee on Assassinations found that. His fingerprints were on the boxes in the sniper’s nest at the Book Depository, and on the rifle found nearby. The final head shot was made at only 88 yards, when his Marine training made him expert at shooting up to about 210 yards. Experts both foreign (including the KGB) and domestic have shown that he could make the shots in the time allotted. He killed a Dallas police officer after the fact — hardly the actions of an innocent man.

The only remaining question then is was there anyone else doing the shooting? Was it, as Oliver Stone suggests in JFK, a professional execution? I think part of the answer has to be no, because after 40 years of EXHAUSTIVE trying, there is no conclusive smoking gun. Get conspiracy theorists in the room, and you’ll get nearly as many shooters and organizations behind the assassination as you have people. After multiple government scandals, the end of the Cold War, and the defection of many high level operatives in the Mafia, no one has come forward with any physical evidence to substantiate a second shooter. Can such a conspiracy really remain hidden so well for so long? Wouldn’t someone have to talk by now?

Now, what can you say about Oliver Stone’s JFK? Well, it evidently plays fast and loose with the truth, according to nearly everyone except Oliver Stone. It takes a case, brought by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (and let us remember how “incorruptable” New Orleans law enforcment is — Warner Brothers once gave Jim Garrison a bribe to get the Grateful Dead out of jail), and uses it as a platform for every major conspiracy theory developed since the assassination. It does so, interleaving real footage and made-for-movie footage and interleaving hard fact and fiction in a way that heightens drama. Mr. Stone may believe it to be the truth, but it is not, by any stretch of imagination, up to documentary standards. If it was a newpaper story, it would closer to a National Enquirer article in terms of its factual standards than, say, the New York Times. I should add, however, that I have never seen the film all the way through — the fact that Mr. Stone attempted offer it to schools for free as “truth” sickens me too much to watch it.

No, for me the most compelling evidence related to Lee Harvey Oswald is the testimony of his brother. His brother essentially says that if he had a single doubt about his brother pulling the trigger and felt that Lee Harvey was actually innocent, he would be out there screaming it from the rooftops. He isn’t.

There also were two tragedies in Dallas that weekend. That Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy, everyone knows. What most people forget is that Lee Harvey Oswald was held without specific charge and intensively questioned for over 48 hours without benefit of having a lawyer present at all. It just shows yet again that the U.S. Constitution goes out the window whenever the chips are really down.

rhythms of life, rhythms of love…

I was recently reminded of the movie Sirens starring Sam Neill, Hugh Grant, Elle MacPherson, and Tara Fitzgerald. In it, a (supposedly) progressive minister (Grant) and his wife (Fitzgerald) pay a call on an eccentric artist (Neill), whose painting “Crucified Venus” is deemed blasphemous and scandelous by prim Victorian society. While there, the minister and wife see that the painter, his wife and his three models (including MacPherson) enjoy a lifestyle that disregards the Victorian mores of the time. The minister and his wife both appear to be shocked at the amoral behavior, but her shock merely veils repressed sexual curiousity and discomfort with the stuffy propriety of her marriage. Her curiousity about the lives the artist, his wife, and his models lead eventually draws her into a tryst with a (seemingly) blind, male artist’s model/hunk/handyman. Her inner self ignited by this voyage of discovery, she returns to faithfulness with her husband and spices up their sex life.

I recall my primary reaction to this movie: why does sexual discovery for married couples in movies and erotic fiction generally involve women satisfying sexual curiousity outside of marriage? I immediately thought of Emmanuelle and other titles… including Belle du Jour. I suppose there is the natural taboo of the (supposedly) good wife seeking pleasure purely for pleasure’s sake. Such pleasure cannot have the stamp of societal approval by being with her husband; it must therefore be extra-marital. Or the merely structural argument (twisted argument if you ask me) that the eroticism of women on screen and in fiction appeals to more people on a visual and emotional level.

As the 25 year old I was when I first saw the movie, my reaction was probably rooted in sexual insecurity. I tended to see myself as the stuffy husband, not the virile extra-marital paramour. Women to that point had much more often seen me as the friend they could talk to rather than the hot guy they wanted to date. I feared that I truly was the stuffy, boring husband. That fear lent me a resolve to learn enough about sex that any woman who shared herself with me was not going to come away without some sense of genuine satisfaction (at least not for lack of trying).

As a 34 year old who is moving toward marriage, I have a somewhat different point of view. I see that couples develop certain rhythms to their relationships. Think of it as a physical, emotional, and sexual dance. At first it can be a little awkward because each partner cannot guage the reactions of the other well, but, it eventually becomes an elaborate pas de deux where each knows (or seems to know) the other quite well.

While that process of discovery can be quite liberating, it also can also lead to boredom. The movements of the dance become fixed, and the routine stagnates.In such a scenario, it may seem like the much easier thing to seek some sort of self-changing experience outside the bounds of monogamy, rather than change your ever-constant partner.

The struggle is to continue to grow in your relationship along multiple dimensions (including sexually) in order to prevent that stagnation from occuring. This was mentioned at the Engaged Encounter that Fiancee S. and I recently attended. I thought that it was surprisingly frank discussion for an event sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

I think about my relationship with Fiancee S. and I see the patterns forming. They are, for the most part, good patterns – we fit together very well. But there are always a few that may turn out to be questionable; every garden of beautiful flowers must inevitably produce a weed or two. Pulling those up while they are still small takes effort.

science and us (redux)

Since botanologia was kind enough to write detailed comments in my guestbook on my rant about science andnon-science last week, it has been my attention for the last fewdays to write a reply. Truth was, I was being polemic and there isanother side to my feelings on the subject that I do need to address.Before I do that though, something happened recently that will helpunderstand where I really stand on whether or not science reallymatters.

I have sort of a love/hate relationship with my personal workstation inmy office here at home. It is, in many ways, Frankencomputer. I havere-built it. I have the technology. It is my creation… as much as adevice can be that is assembled from off the shelf parts instead ofbuying a pre-assembled unit from a large manufacturer. I do thisbecause it allows me to control exactly what hardware is inside it(always useful when dual booting Windows XP andFreeBSD on the same machine) and itallows me to upgrade to a better than average machine every few years bybuying some new parts and reusing others. Yeah, I know. I’m the geekequivalent of that gear head brother who is always rebuilding carsout the garage. So sue me. This is Dr. Geek’s Laboratory after all. That says a lot right there.

Anyway, one problem with taking the Frankencomputer approach to home PCcreation is that there is no friendly neighborhood tech support for it.If there is a problem, I’m the one who has to fix it. This inevitablymeans a certain amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth from time totime. In the last year, there have been two times when I just wanted tothrow it out the window. The first was last Christmas, when I gotmyself a CD RW drive and installed it (the first two didn’t work at ALL,and I had to move to a completely different brand.) The second was lastMay, when I got myself a new motherboard and processor, and found Ineeded to reinstall Windows XP completely.

I recently vowed to myself that there would be no messing around withcomputers for this holiday season, but, found yesterday that this maynot be possible. My computer locked up yesterday morning and thensuddenly reset itself after the main hard disk started making a clickingnoise. That clicking noise almost gave me a heart attack; it generallysignifies that the disk heads are sweeping around VERY fast. I’ve heardcomputer disks make that noise and never work again. Fortunately, thedisk did survive (for the moment *fingers crossed*) and I suspect thedrive controller is the problem (which is incorrect, see below) — it’s been a bit flaky for the last year or so. Still, I’ll be walking around on egg shells for a while until I get this sorted out.

I was talking about this at work with a colleague, and we both believethat working with computers is philosophically like practicing aspirit-based religion like voodoo or Shinto (he’s a Shinto practicionerhimself.) When something goes wrong with a computer, we have to make aritual sacrifice. There are strict ritual incantations, and rigidformulas that must be observed. Regarding my problems, we discussedplacing a small disk of salt atop my computer because Shinto holds thatsalt chases away evil spirits. I myself felt like I should sacrifice achicken, though only as a couple dozen authentic Buffalo-style chicken wings (which as in ancient Egypt, would be consumed by the priests after the spirits had consumed their essence).

So, My ultimate point is that I find it very telling that when it comesto things technical in my own life, my own first instinct is to seebehavior in religious terms.

Now, the ever-wonderful botanologia had this to say about my last entry:

…I would tentatively like to point out a few things though: I think it is far too easy to draw a swift dichotomy between science and irrationality. Certainly there are other forms of knowledge (such as those offered in the humanities) that don’t neatly fit into either category yet are still relevant forms of knowledge. Second, yes there is currently a resurgence of fundementalism and pseudo-science, but I don’t think this harkens the death knell of the scientific programme. Remember that at the high of the Enlightenment came the popular appeal of Mesmer. The Evolutionary Synthesis of the early 20th century was preceded by the Scopes Monkey Trial. These things come and go in phases. Which, in my cynical opinion, may be for the best. As a culture, I think we box ourselves in when we put an almost religious faith and wholehearted trust in Science (capital s). Science can solve a lot of real life problems, but it alone cannot suss the human condition, nor should it be burdened with that responsibility. I disagree that you can trace a singminded progressive path from antiquity. Today’s scientific programme asks completely different questions than it did even a few hundred years ago. It can’t. Perhaps if people are alienated from science today, it is because they expect too much – an accessible, secular, laymen’s religion that will spoon feed them an easy reality. And I doubt science will have its Vatican II anytime soon…

The basic point here is well taken. Harkening back to my undergrad days studying History of Science at Rottweiler Puppy Institute (RPI), where we doubtless engaged in pointless and esoteric rivalries with schools like MIT, Caltech, UIUC, Rose-Hullman, and CoMputerU, I am aware that the reality of the history of science is closely tied to theories of the occult, mysticism, and alchemy as much as anything else. Science has always put up a brave front where rationality and logic are concerned, but, given Sir Isaac Newton’s private penchants for occult numerology, or Johannes Keplers obsessions with perfect platonic shapes, even its greatest practicioners have been generally been as caught up in the often weird ideas of their times as much as anyone else. Even in the more modern period of the 20th Century, great scientific thinkers have not resisted the inclination to combine religious and scientific language, as with Einstein’s famous quote about quantum theory that “God does not play dice with the Universe.”

I also agree that a single-minded belief in Science is unhealthy, if only because Science has been wrong so much. One need only look at the amount of mainstream research into craniology in the 19th Century that lead to so many of the eugenic theories of the 20th Century (with the attendant social consequences, such as, say, the Holocaust), which were all discredited as utter trash by studies in the genetic variation in the early 21st century. There are too many scientists with philosophical and ideological axes to grind. I sometimes think that it is only pure luck that many of them have stumbled across ideas that we consider to be still worthy of repute today.

I would also wholeheartedly agree that science alone cannot encompass the whole of the human experience by itself. If anything, I think humanity needs a higher sense of religious experience and basic compassion more than it ever has before. The last six or so centuries have been rather devastating to the Christian world view of Europe: we have gone from being God’s special creation on a planet at the center of the Universe, to being the evolved descendant of an ape on an insignificant planet in the outer backwater of an unremarkable galaxy in an ever-expanding Universe that will likely end up as a cold empty void. Finding something of comfort in that shift in world view is difficult, given the ego of the human species. Some sense of spiritual transcendence is required, I think, to help deal with it. Ever-rational existentialism offers too little comfort for many, it seems.

I think that much of the current disconnect between between the scientific community and popular culture has much to do with the laziness and specialization of the scientists themselves. As scientific reasoning finally seemed to claim victory in the mid-20th century, science as an ideology finally felt secure in its place among the hearts and minds of the populace. Scientists therefore ceased being as interested in public policy or popular thought (if they ever were), confident that people would eventually catch on to their way of thinking all by themselves. That is, alas, the frequently repeated mistake of arrogance. It left a vacuum in the area of public discourse that was filled with all sorts of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook.

Science also used to be a bit easier. My mother made her living as a chemist before deciding to become a homemaker, and was recently given a book about the history of chemistry compiled in the late 1920’s. In reading it, she was struck at the enormity of the advances in the three decades between the writing of that book and the time she went to college. There was a lot less to know 100 years ago, and getting up to speed on science was something that didn’t necessarily require 4-6 years of University work. The fact that the average high school student today is probably better educated in some respects than some University-educated students of the 19th century in science is a very clear indicator of how far things have come along.

Epilogue: Part of the reason for the delay in this entry was that the hard disk I mentioned at the start of this rant did indeed go bad. Much of my energy since then has been directed toward mirroring the data onto another disk. The silver lining of it all: the disk is still under warranty and will be exchanged.

science and us

I happened upon an article today entitled “Does science matter?” that deals with emerging trends in the public perception of science. Some of the implications of what was in the report disturb me; others echo ideas that I have already mentioned in this diary. All of them seem to have important consequences regarding what this country will be 100 years from now.

For me, the article underlined the fact that the United States, as a nation, is turning away from science. I think there are a variety of reasons for this. As I was recently telling the ever lovely Ilonina, people feel betrayed and confused by science and technology. It would appear that the scientific gains of the last 100 years have far outpaced the ability of our culture to digest them. That has left and ethical void that people yearn to fill. At the same time, the fruits of science and technology has allowed the human species to “go forth and multiply” to the point that it has to consider problems that it collectively never had to consider before — ranging from the large scale extinction of species to the ecological impact of progress.

The net effects of these changes have been to lose respect for science and scientists and seek faith in something else. According to the article, “a Harris poll found that the percentage of Americans who saw scientists as having ‘very great prestige’ had declined nine percentage points in the last quarter-century, down to 57 from 66 percent.” This also manifests inself in a resurgence of fundamentalist religious belief and faith-based pseudo-science, such as “the theory of intelligent design” that posits “purely random natural processes could never have produced humans” (Creationism). It has resulted in an increased media profile for what I can only call “crackpot science”, ranging from the so-called statistical experiments in spirit medium behavior that gave us Jon Edward, to denial that the Apollo space program ever landed on the moon, to studies in alien abduction, to so-called archeological evidence for the lost city of Atlantis. Finally, this attitude and the end of the Cold War has pushed the United States away from science education (foreigners now exceed United States citizens in advanced degree programs in science in the U.S.) and from nationally funded primary research.

The net result gets potentially kind of scary from my point of view. Science education will decline, and “crackpot science” and pseudo-science will flourish, governing our lives in everything from what is added to the water (fluoride), to what we believe about the world (we are actively being abducted by little gray space aliens with big oval eyes and telepathic powers), to what we understand about death (we are surrounded by the spirits of the dead and require psychics to intercede with them for us). The lack of fundamental discoveries that provide new sources of food, water, and energy (the oil will all be gone soon) will make it impossible for humans to live in the large urban centers we live in now. We will take to burning people at the stake or having public stonings, live on television (if we aren’t already).

Well, ok, maybe it isn’t all bleak as that. I still think that science represents a tradition of rational inquiry that is thousands of years old. It represents the best of human endevors. The dilemmas that it currently poses arise because it has worked so well, and become so complicated in the process. It brings us new and sometimes scary views of the world, but, that is always happening… even within the spheres philosophy and religion. Science doesn’t deserve to abandoned, because even if it helped to get us into a bit of a mess, nothing else is going to be able to help us get out.

voted least likely to

As a part of our ongoing marriage preparations required by the Catholic Church, Fiancee S. completed an Engaged Encounter workshop this past weekend. The modus operandi of the workshop goes something like this:

  • Get a bunch of engaged couples to a retreat center, where they live in sex-segregated dormatory conditions (women on one floor, men on another.)
  • Have said couples sit through a series of exercises presented by two already married couples (one married a decade or so, the other married for more than that) that consist of a 20 minute talk, a 20 minute period where the two members of each couple write separately about the issue at hand, and a 20 minute period where each couple meets privately to discuss what they have written.
  • At the end, there is a Mass (it can’t be Catholic gathering without a Mass, right?) at the conclusion of which each couple receives a hug and certificate that says “Soylent green is PEOPLE!!!” er no… it says that we completed the weekend.

After talking with some other couples we knew who completed this process already, we found that there is usually one couple in the encounter group that should be voted “least likely to have a successful marriage.” In our case, one half of that least likely couple was rooming near Fiancee S.

At this point, it is useful describe the exact living accomodations we enjoyed for two days. Most people were situated four-to-a-room accommodations that resembled semi-private hospital rooms. That is to say that each room had a bed in each corner with a small living area around it. The living areas were separated either by an armoire and a partial screening wall with a sink and mirror attached to it, or seven foot tall curtains.

We discovered the “least likely” couple (at least in our opinion) while discussing what we had written for an exercise on Saturday afternoon. Fiancee S. were starting to get a bit written out by that point, and finished our discussion in her dorm room “living area” before the 20 minutes was up. While we were engaging in some idle chit-chat about the weekend, we suddenly hear a man in the room hiss “you don’t have a hearing problem, you have a LISTENING problem!”

He said it with such insensitivity and venom that we knew this wasn’t the first fight they had, or the last. If this is how they deal with a fairly simple communication exercise while engaged, I hate to think what they will be like when they’ve been married for a few years. It probably won’t be pretty.