Wednesday, April 2, 2014

. . . Realities and Perspective

They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing -- what that means is that when you think you know enough to make a decision but you are not an expert on the subject, unless you are very very lucky you still end up with a half-informed opinion.

When I first started in Uni I very badly wanted a degree in Computer Science but, alas, there was no such thing at the time.  The reality was that the discipline had not yet been created, so anybody who was seeking a degree in the Computer Sciences had no choice but to either choose a Math Degree or an Engineering Degree program, because those were the only cookies in the jar that allowed a student to take computer courses.

It was about this time that the powers that be concluded that the universities were churning out men and women who, while they possessed a degree in hard sciences, and were very capable in the careers that they chose, but otherwise save for the small percentage of students who sought a well-rounded education on their own, very few of the people in possession of graduate degrees were able to converse over the dinner table on subjects other than professional, and for some reason that was thought to be a bad thing.

To address this shortcoming additional requirements were added to all of the science degrees, requirements that included courses from the humanities, and from some of the creative schools under the university system - schools that ordinarily you simply did not see a math or engineering major unless they were lost or picking up a boyfriend or girlfriend.

To help the students navigate the shoals of the new system, much of the burden was shifted to the counselors / advisers who help the students to create a workable schedule for each term.  My guide was a rather youngish prof in the philosophy department, and it probably will not surprise you to read that a lot of the coursework he recommended for me for the rounding-out phase of my education was in his school.

He also guided me towards film and theatrical courses -- not acting per se, but the writing and comprehension side.  As it turned out that was pretty good advice, because in addition to obtaining a far better appreciation for and understanding of theater, opera, and film, I also gained an appreciation for life and living it -- a subject that both the humanities and philosophy schools sort of specialize in.

One of the focus points for both performance arts and philosophy is understanding death.  Now for most people death is a very simple subject - it is what happens when you are not alive.  Everyone has to be dead at some point in life, that is just the way things work, but how you die and, perhaps more to the point, coming to terms with and accepting death, well now that is a different matter entirely.

My primary interest was the study of epistemology, and I really got into the stage -- discovering that while I don't have much use for modern musicals with the exception of Stephen Sondheim's stuff, the stage has a lot to say about death, particularly opera...  And so do the philosophers.

In the process of doing the learning thing, I came up with my own take on life -- and death -- for a paper I wrote whose title was "I am The World" and whose basic premise was that life as we know it only happens because I am alive - that everything around me, up to and including the world and everyone and everything in it, were created by my consciousness.

The point to that is simple: if I die, the world ends.  So you guys better keep me healthy.

I learned that this was not exactly an original idea - it had been discussed and dissected by some of the great philosophers you see - but I did not know that when I wrote the paper, and my prof liked it.  She said that I introduced some new perspectives on the idea that were interesting.

The thing is at that young age and despite my doing really dangerous things - riding motorcycles, flying, parachuting, bungee jumping, free-climbing, fencing, and a bunch of other activities and interests -- I had no plans to die.  But that is really sort of the point, because to the young death is a tragedy that visits others, not you.

As I aged and as my body began to betray me by not being resilient and bouncing back from injury like it used to,  my attitude and ideas about death began to transform into something a bit more intimate.  Later in life I discovered that the Freemasons have a lot to offer both in teaching and their own philosophy - offering an approach to the subject that is unique and worthwhile.

Death is On My Mind

Lately I have been thinking a lot about death, and the thoughts are not pleasant.  They come unbidden, caused - I know -- by threat under which the life of someone that I care deeply for and love is now in play.

Being confronted by the very frail and temporary link between the living and the dead.

I don't want to think about that.  I don't want it to happen.  I don't care to rationalize it.  I have no intentions of making that process easy even if I could.  The proposition of death these days just makes me angry.  I see it as waste.  As unjust.

I feel strongly that it is unfair if only because I am selfish and want the living to live so that I can continue to talk with and relate to them because why?  Because I find it far more pleasurable to be with the living than I do to reminisce about them.  The here and now is for today, the past is only a comfort when it is a shared past.  And that opens you up for all sorts of pain.

I discovered Dylan Thomas at a young age - probably younger than most fans and fascinated come to know that Welsh poet and philosopher.

I discovered Thomas directly as a result of a comment the brilliant author and philosopher Robert Heinlein made in a letter he wrote to me (in answer to a letter I wrote to him) as part of an exchange that I suspect endured as long as it did due to the fact that I was very young and precocious -- and the idea of having a fan that young who clearly understood what you were saying has to be something of an opioid for a writer.

The result of this was an ongoing exchange of correspondence that lasted the better part of 1977, all of 1978 and the first third of 1979 that was prompted by a letter I wrote as a result of my reading his book Stranger in a Strange Land about which I made an observation in my letter that seemed to catch his attention.

I don't remember exactly what the issue was, though it had something to do with the sharing of water, that I do recall.

I had observed that the protagonist in the story, Valentine Micheal Smith, would be in the unique position of being able to quantify and qualify the taste of water in much the same way that oenophiles do wines.

In the dicussion that followed Heinlein made a comment that referenced Dylan Thomas, a poet about whom I knew nothing at the time.  The result of that was -- I was 11 at the time and it was a period in my life that was very trying due to health issues -- during a regular episode of illness, I wandered the shelves in the large room in my mother's house that we called "The Library"  looking for a book to read because I was stuck in bed. 

It might legitimately have been said to be a library when my mother's mother was a child, but by the time I arrived in the world it was no longer the room in which the children of the family were educated by a tutor, but rather a space full of shelves upon which books are stored.

It was a remarkable room.  The entire outer wall was floor-to-ceiling French Doors, its walls covered by built-in shelving that was full of books but alas, had no secret passages.  In the center of the French doors very near that side of the room was an immense globe that sat in a specially-built harness with brass fittings and wheels.

The globe depicted the world as it existed in 1790, the notations and names in Italian, and among the fascinating notations on it -- even more fascinating being an Australian in Australia -- was the routes of three of Captain James Cook's voyages and a selection of discoveries in the Pacific that were made as a result of those voyages.

Globes in that era were not the sort of fixed object that they are today -- every decade or so they were updated, with panels of paper representing the newly defined world and discoveries being pasted over the section beneath.  There were actually men who made a living servicing globes, if you can imagine that?

As a child and because I suffered very bad asthma (an illness whose source would not be discovered until I was nearly an adult) that room was a very important focus in my life.  The illness I suffered was very serious -- potentially fatal -- and as a result I was coddled far more effectively than I was happy about, and it was into the world of books that I retreated when the illness was at its worst.

Even a light event resulted in my being placed in an oxygen tent in my bedroom, there to suffer in silence, with the company of books.  A very bad event would see me hospitalized -- an event I tried very hard to avoid even to the point of marginalizing my condition as much as I could to prevent being carried off to casualty where there was never a doubt of my being admitted.
 The cause was mold spores -- and while I am still sensitive to mold spores today, now that I understand the risks posed to me, I am careful about exposing myself, and while I still need to carry with me an EpiPen (an emergency epinephrine delivery system used to treat Anaphylactic Shock Symptoms) I am sure that this entire issue goes a long way towards explaining my irrational fears of suffocation...

On our globe the huge bright boomerang-like shape of Australia was labeled “Nuova Olanda” and the only notation on that large span of nothing was the Italian words for the half-dozen settlements that dotted the east coast, and a scattering of notes on the west cost, with the central portion blank because it was at that point completely unexplored. The cartography imprecise, it depicted Tasmania as being part of the mainland, shown as a peninsula jutting down to the south.

This blankness fascinated me to no end, as did the depiction of the Society Islands chain as a well-organized if too close collection that was far better understood to the cartographer than the vast emptiness that was the continent of Australia.  Like Oz, the PNG and Borneo were also blank slates -- though in their case green blank slates -- and the Philippines Islands were depicted as being far larger than they actually are, and in the wrong place.

India engulfed its legitimate lands today, but also the entirely of Tibet and its mountains, as well as all of southeast Asia.  Anything it seemed that was not part of China, was part of India!

I found Wales on that globe - and I knew the boundaries of New South Wales like you know the shape of your yard.  My imagination made the best of that as I tried to translate what Thomas might have made of our new world?

Dylan Thomas the Welsh Poet

So with Mr. Heinlein having focused my attention on the name Dylan Thomas, it was only natural that I sought out that name in the shelves of my mother's library, and there I found it.

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on October 27, 1914 in the town of Swansea, in South Wales.

He was born to a father who was an English Literature professor at the local grammar school, and to a mother who was a mother first and foremost. Like me he had health problems, and like me he read a lot. I started to see so many commonalities between us that for a moment I even imagined that I might be destined to be a poet myself... I got better.

On the shelf was a book whose title was “In Country Sleep and other poems” that was well-worn, having been read by several generations of the family it seemed to me. I knew that it was a book purchased by my grandmother because it was rebound in the style of library binding she used and that made the books all appear to be part of a set when they were not.

In the book is a poem that, even as 11 when I read it for the first time, it resonated with real impact:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.