Story time about caves

Remember the Thai soccer team that got stranded in a cave with rising water, and a global effort was required to rescue them? That story felt a little personal to me. I had a cave experience once that clued me to how fast and unexpectedly you can get in trouble, in a cave.

Back in, maybe, 1977 or ’78, I was caving with a friend in Tennessee. We went down a long, twisting incline, walked around the perimeter of a subterranean lake, and crawled through a low horizontal passage. Its ceiling was so low we had to take our packs off and pull them behind us.

The horizontal passage opened into a chamber with a vertical wall. Which we scaled, and found a labyrinth of delightful new passages we’d never found before. These we explored for a couple hours (seeing only a small part of them), and returned to climb back down the vertical wall.

Which we did, and setting a foot down onto the level of the horizontal passage, felt… water.

The passage, maybe fifty feet long, had about four inches of water in it.

Outside, it had begun to rain. We could hear water pouring down the incline leading to the lake. Shining a light down the horizontal passage, we could see small waves coming toward us. The water was rising.

We could have climbed the wall and stayed in the high part of the cave for an undetermined period of time. Days? Longer?

How fast can you crawl? My answer to that right now would be “not very fast and not very far”. But when I was twenty? A lot faster, and a lot farther.

We race-crawled through the water in the passage to the lake. The walkway we had taken around the lake was now submerged. The incline had become a creek, feeding the lake.

Fortunately the water was very clear, so we could shine our lights through it and see the walkway. Then we climbed the incline back to the surface. When we emerged the rain was tapering off. It had been a brief event.

I have another story to tell of that cave, sometime. And others near it.

NOTES:

  • By the way, what a moving, amazing story the Thai cave rescue was. When I look at the hate and fear in a world bristling with pointless weapons, I wish we could all grasp the common fate of humanity and pull together for each other and the future like this.
  • In the excellent NOVA documentary, Elon Musk’s goofy plan to deliver an aluminum submarine for rescue got exactly the amount of attention it deserved.
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REFUSING TO PLAY THAT GAME

It took forever to walk that road, icy feet torn and bruised in the dark
Dismantling fear with little hope of comfort or safety
Scraping at prejudice etched into my child brain and always felt to be the pattern of truth
And now, you want me to retrace those bloody steps for your benefit?
To go back on every discovery, to visit again the humiliation of finding out I was wrong?
To share with you this treasure, the spoils of battle against my worst self
So you can mock me? So you can throw talking points at me?
I finally won some understanding of human value
I can finally see humanity and beauty where before I could not
At last I am beginning to understand that the history I learned has been sanitized
You are not interested, not really
You are not seeking
You could say; “Please recommend a book that helped you understand”
You could ask me to suggest a movie title, or an experience, but all you want is an argument
Well, no.
My friends are not up for discussion. That issue is closed now.
I am not going back just to carry you kicking and screaming
And I have much farther to go to as it is.
Go on your own damn journey.

NOTES:

A human truth about John McCain

John McCain in senate
McCain’s Senate portrait

Oh, that’s right; I was going to write about John McCain!

Right after he died, I said I never doubted he loved his country, and that I would wait a couple weeks to say anything else. Now it’s been 22 days and the news cycle (which is on ultra-spin these days) has moved on. So here we are. And this post is about him, but it isn’t only about him.

See, I want to honor the heroic things he did. I don’t care if he was a great pilot or not, he stood for his country and went to war while cadet bone-spurs was dodging STIs in Manhattan (look it up). He co-authored an important piece of campaign finance legislation. He spoke against the lies about Obama. And I am delighted that he stood up to Trump right at the end. But.

But he also gave us Sarah Palin, and there’s a straight line from Caribou Barbie to Donald Trump. Let’s be honest about that.

His voting record, for the most part served the interests of the rich. Which is not surprising, because he married into a rich family and lived as a rich person ever after. Let’s be honest about that. And have done with the myth that rich people built this country. It was the sweat and blood of working people and enslaved people. And the blood of indiginous people. And people in other countries who suffered and died so our extractive industries could exploit their resources. Let’s be honest about that, too.

Why bring this up? Because as someone once said, the truth will set us free.

When I die, don’t sugar-coat my legacy. (For example, I have never been great at anything, and have come very late in life to some realizations I should have had much earlier. And in spite of that, I still have hurt people who are important to me; sometimes by lack of understanding, sometimes by being unable to reconcile the directions of our respective lights.)

Why does this matter? Because we the living, need to stop living in the shadow of perfect dead people. We are trapped in the expectations of one sanitized legacy after another. If you want to honor me when I am gone, don’t pretend I was great. Let my shortcomings give living people space to breathe. To make mistakes and admit them, and walk on a journey instead of pretending to live at a destination.

And that’s the same for John McCain. He sometimes rose to greatness, and he was sometimes just awful. There are damn few people who were mostly great or mostly awful. This is where most of us live.

Let’s be honest about that.

NOTES:

  • Wikipedia, John McCain, is a pretty complete history and lacking in partisan rancor

“But we did it too!”

She was right you know. About all of it. Nailed it exactly during the campaign:

I see people responding to this by saying “But the US has been doing the same thing to Latin America and the middle East for years!”

Yeah. That’s true. I’ve taken part in some protests about it. But what’s your point?

If you want to say that the US should open up about its past sins and give the countries it has manipulated some transparency and maybe even some reparations, sure. We’d probably have to scale our military back to pay for it and start acting like we are part of the world community instead of its lords and masters, but that’s the cost of being a big bully all those years. Our status as an empire during the cold war.

But that isn’t the sense I get from people saying that. I get the feeling they are just saying; “Taste of your own medicine!” They just want Americans to suffer. They seem not to want us to defend ourselves against direct attack. Which is weird, since it’s mostly Americans* I even hear saying that.

The problem with that approach is that American influence matters. The world does have real problems in which we can lead. And we have a chance to move the foundations of that leadership to higher moral ground. But while we do that we still have our own nation to run.

If it was wrong for the US to meddle in Nicaragua, it is wrong for Russia to meddle in the US. And while we try to amend for the wrongs we have committed, we should defend ourselves. We have the FBI, we have the CIA and NSA; they can help fend off the illegal foreign influence of Russia screwing with our elections. We should let them do their jobs. This is so obvious it kind of hurts to have to say it.

NOTES:

Maybe he forgot about Rosie?

Today I went to Harbor Freight to get a grinding wheel, with nephew-in-law coming along for the ride. At 17, he’d never been in such a tool-intensive environment and flitted from one new object to another. He was amazed by the size of a pipe wrench, and thought he’d never be able to lift it. I picked it up and handed it to him, and said; “It’s aluminum alloy, so it doesn’t weight as much as you’d think.” He took the wrench, surprised by its light weight, and that’s when it happened…

WWII color image of black woman setting rivets in aircraft section
Photo Library of Congress

“Always get lighter tools!” said an older man, medium height, stocky build, gray hair, “So the women can lift them!”

“Right,” I said, puzzled “So they can fix the plumbing while you watch the game?” I set the wrench back on the shelf.

“Lemme tell ya!” he continued, “It’s equal rights! They want equality, don’t they? They want equal rights, don’t they? Twenty, twenty-five years ago we had a woman working at Caterpillar, and she was on the floor but she wouldn’t lift anything and she’d always say ‘you lift it’ and I said ‘Why?’ and she said ‘Because you’re a man’ and I said, listen, I told her, listen, I make $9.50 an hour and you’re makin’ $10.50 an  hour and you should be lifting…”

It went on like that for a while as we edged away. He covered how much he could lift, and how little women would lift, and how he didn’t mind lifting things because it kept him spry and strong but he thought it wasn’t fair, and if they want equality they should…

An employee asked; “Are you finding everything sir?” and I gratefully turned my attention to her. “Yes, thank you” and we slipped away to the next aisle. The old guy was still talking.

I wondered what it could have all been about. “He’s still mad about something that happened 25 years ago.”

“I wasn’t listening,” said nephew-in-law.

Ya didn’t miss much, kid.

You can’t hear what you’re not listening for

One way of understanding “open-mindedness” is to allow the possibility of changing your mind. And yes, it’s a good idea to leave the door open a crack, listen to your opponents, in the off chance they may be right about something. But that’s only one dimension of openness. Another is not making assumptions about what your opponents are saying.

Windmill with birds
While cell towers, cats, and skyscrapers kill many more birds, research continues to make windmills safer. Image credit: Phys.org, click to read article

Recently on a thread about clean energy, I read this:

You never hear environmentalists talking about windmills killing birds #DirtyLittleSecret

This “gotcha” happens a lot in online discussions, where someone assumes the other side ignores their own problems.  I provided several links to environmentalists doing exactly that going back more than a decade; it’s a pretty hot topic and the subject of a lot of research. And a strange thing happened: the other fellow actually read them, and thanked me for the information.

More examples:

“You never hear atheists complaining about Islam, only about Christianity!” (Yes it’s true that in the US atheists complain about the theocrats closest to them, but I’ve read a lot of atheist discussion online and Islam definitely gets its turn.)

Oct 2017 march in London against ISIS
From massive Oct 2017 anti-ISIS march in London. Image credit: Guardian, click to read article

“You never hear Muslims protesting terrorism!” (Oh man, where to start. Mass demonstrations against terrorism, Islamic leaders issuing Fatwas against terrorism, Muslim anti-terrorist op-eds, and much more.)

“You never hear liberals going after their own for sexual harassment!” (There’s too much truth in this one, but it’s changing. And not a moment too soon, given the patchy record of white male leaders in our country. And I have seen a few conservative OpEds calling for change.)

“We’re not even allowed to say Merry Christmas!” (Nobody said you can’t say Merry Christmas. That’s not a thing.)

…and so on ad nauseam.  The worst thing about the “You never hear” gotcha is it tries to find moral cover in the idea that no one really cares about anything, that only tribalism matters.

It is true that tribalism matters. Our country is a feedback loop where ideologies split so close to the center line that neither side can afford to give an inch for a moment, for any reason at all.

But what if it didn’t matter so damn much? What if we could acknowledge worthwhile thinking on the other side? The acknowledgement would an act of rebellion in itself, tossing threads of communication across the divide.

A more relevant point is that it’s a waste of social opportunity to argue against a point of view that is not real or at least which your correspondent does not hold.

Our lives are shaped by belief in the human soul

When an airplane crashes, the FAA somberly reports that “154 souls were lost.” Most religions have some doctrine of a transcendent personal essence that survives beyond death, perhaps to enjoy the eternal presence of God, the suffering of His absence, or another round through an endless cycle of re-birth.

The soul is often held to be the substance of personhood. In the United States, a seemingly eternal battle is fought over the personhood of human zygotes. Some white nationalists assert that neither black people or Jews have souls at all. Most people in the West take their own personhood for granted, never stopping to wonder if (as Buddhism claims) the self might be an illusion.

The soul is also a foundational concept behind punishment and blame. Personal responsibility for one’s own misfortune requires that there be a self to be personal – a “person”.

So you have a self? Your likes and dislikes, your gender, your religion, your ethical holdings – these are you? Are you sure?

What would it mean for “you” to grow up in a majority Hindu or Islamic country? Or a century when women were held responsible for the sins of mankind?

What does it mean to be “masculine” or “feminine”? If the set of expectations for men and women’s behavior is handed down by culture, then how much of your gender was simply assigned at birth, and not part of your “soul”?

Hang on tight, because we’ve been on paved road this far. Now we turn the wheel out into the wilderness…

The people who did things in the past that were culturally acceptable at the time, but not now… does your belief in the self influence your opinion of them? Are you a better person than they were?

Once you strip away culture, what’s left? Do you, for instance, dislike pumpkin? Could be the expression of a genetic allele that influences the development of your taste buds.

Once you strip away culture and biology, what’s left? What’s YOU? What’s the soul in there that deserves accolade for compassionate deeds or judgment for wrong behavior?

“OK, wait a minute”, you say. “I’ve been through thousands of experiences and that shapes who I am.”

OK, fine and good. Those would be the “culture” mentioned earlier. But it means that personhood can be an emergent property of body, brain, and experience. Does it emerge all at once? When? And how much?

We have not even got to the metaphysics of transcendence yet.

NOTES:

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  • This post isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive view of any religion’s view of the soul or the self. Or even the distinction, if any, between the two. It’s about the widely-held cultural belief that there is some kind of abstraction underlying each of our visible persona. That belief affects our daily lives in countless ways.