Wisdom is proportion.
Last night’s dream.
My wife and I are talking in the kitchen of our apartment, which is on the second floor and overlooks a neighbor’s yard. I peer out the window and notice said neighbors moved out, leaving behind a great deal of debris and…
…their alligators. Two alligators, whom I shall refer to now as Littler Alligator (about 8 feet long and piebald) and Huge Alligator (about 10 feet long and glossy green).
What the heck? What is wrong with people? How could they just abandon them that way? My wife and I are both very indignant.
I’m watching out the window, and, to my worry, Huge Alligator is ramming its body against the fence separating the neighbor’s property from our driveway. Sure enough, it smashes through, and is right below our apartment…
…and jumps up two stories and smashes through the window into the kitchen. I didn’t know alligators could do that!
I yell to my wife to call 911 and run to fetch the bullwhip. I guess if you live in a neighborhood with a lot of alligators, you better have a bullwhip. I lash the animal several times, trying to drive it away, until it catches the whip in its mouth. OK, if that’s they way you want it. I use the whip as a fishing line and drag Huge Alligator outside. There it spits out the whip and dashes away.
Sigh. I guess I have a responsibility. Can’t just let these massive killer reptiles run loose. I grab a large butchers knife and began to search around. No sign of any police support yet.
Across the street lives a family in a trailer, and underneath the trailer is a crawl space. Knife at the ready, I get down on my hands & knees and squiggle under there.
Bingo! The trailer family’s alligators are down here, on leashes, eating their dinners. Sure enough, Littler Alligator and Huge Alligator are down here too, trying to steal the poor leashed alligators’ food.
But Huge Alligator spots me, and I guess it’s a grudge now, because it charges right at me. I stab at its face a few times, withdrawing as best I can outside, where….
Sirens and lights. Animal Control is here–finally! I am unable to restrain a note of annoyance in my voice as I tell them where the alligators are. There we go; not my problem any more.
Sheesh. Why do so many folks around here have alligators?
And so to wake.
On Tuesday, our youngest child participated in Crossing the Bridge, the Girl Scout ritual of advancement. At the beginning of the ceremony, as at all Scouting ceremonies, a color guard brought in the Flag. All stood. I stood.
Then all, led by the girls, recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I did not. I do not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, nor to the country for which it stands.
What is a country?
A country is a geographic perimeter, a line in the earth. On one side of the line certain things are instituted, on the other they are not. The earth itself is indistingushed. The line is entirely mental, even when it is marked by warning signs and border crossings. Within that perimeter are parameters: parameters of law, of capital, of economic condition.
A country is an assemblage of officials, both elected and appointed. There are tens of thousand who guide their days, and receive their livelihoods, by and from concrete entities representing the United States of America. Those men and women who act with a certain insignia on their sleeves may be said to be the fingers of the United States.
A country is a habit of thought.
In the early stages of the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson ordered the signal ENGLAND EXPECTS THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY. He believed this statement would create a praxis, that it would cause his sailors to act in a certain manner. Two hundred years earlier, this would not have been the case. In the St Crispin’s Day speech, Shakespeare places in King Harry’s mouth many things to inspire his troops. Love of country is not among them. England makes no appearance as an entity, only as a location. In the interval between the two statements, the nation-state appeared. People, mostly in Europe, began thinking there was a “country” to which they belonged, and that this
“country” was a self-evident reality. They acquired those habits of thought, the associations, the words and names to be invoked towards action.
What is my country?
I am an American, a citizen of the United States of America. I was born within the boundaries of the United States, child of two citizens of that country. My grandparents and great-grandparents were likewise citizens of the United States, and now in turn my children.
To be an American is a fascinating thing. Of course, all countries and all peoples are fascinating. But the United States of America is a unique object, in current history, in all of human history. In many ways, the U.S.A. is the age encapsulated. I was born into the richest and most powerful nation in the world, rich and powerful in a way that no nation has ever been, in ways that no nation has ever before had the capability. The Unprecedented Era is the product of the United States, like a Model T or a Zenith television.
I live within the perimeter of the United States. I exist under its laws, under the authority of its officials. More importantly, I act out its habits. The Fourth of July is no ordinary day for me, nor is the first Tuesday in November. I feel a personal resonance with the Revolution and the Civil War, and can imagine those actions in landscapes I know. The generations of my family match the arcs of American history. I can find a place for my loved ones and myself in those events.
I will not say the Pledge of Allegiance because it is unnecessary. The United States of America has my connection; it has no need of my allegiance. I cannot escape my country. If my country does right, I shall, within my power, try to aid it. If my country does wrong, I shall, within my power, try to stymie it. For I am an American, and I believe alongside Abraham Lincoln that it is not so important for God to be on our side as we to be on God’s.
It may be that we are in the last years of the nation-state, that the improved communication & transportation technologies that enabled its birth are undermining and will finally eliminate the concept. It will join the empire and the monarchy in the past. One could make the case that my refusal to say the Pledge is evidence of that decline even within me. But not yet. The words, the flag—I know them. If I forbear the habit of the Pledge, it is in practice of other, more important American habits. That is where I find myself, at the point in history in which I exist, and from there I shall continue in my small way.
Quite some time ago, I stated on this blog my intention to write panegryics. But I didn’t. Until now.
When I first met Paul Starr, by the Island Inn steps at the Viable Paradise writers workshop, he intimidated me. Here was a polymath: translator, author, musician, editor, programmer. A snappy dresser and a master of sarcasm. For sure, I thought, he’s going to consider me a schmuck. Now, looking back, I realize I never had anything to fear. For above all these things, Paul Starr is a man of great & humane heart.
Paul and I have in common a deep love of Japan. Mine is merely amateur, whereas his is professional. He lives a profession that didn’t really exist thirty years ago: translator of manga and light novels. He is a bridge, transporting the pop culture of one cultural sphere to our own, connecting creators and readers across oceans of incomprehension.
But he doesn’t stop there. Paul is nothing if not audacious. From the ground up, he conceived and founded two SF&F anthologies that then turned into a periodical: The Sockdolager!. He did so because he continually saw people whose writing he respected producing stories that were too idiosyncratic to sell, stories that deserved a platform. It was a noble aim. Out of his own pocket, he kept it going for nine issues, a respectable figure by the standards of the SF&F small press.
In addition to supporting the creativity of others, his own is relentless: music, fiction, postmodern web sites. But my favorite among Paul’s works are the nonfiction essays at We Had To Cross. The pieces consist of moments, both internal and social. They are confessional, detailed, unsparing, introspective, and compassionate. They appeal to the common trapped nature of humanity, asking the reader to recognize that we’re in the basement together. There’s not a lot of room for free will in Paul’s writing, which I like. The undertow of existence makes frequent appearances. Two essays in particular, “Jack in Texas” and “On Target,” stand out. Each is a photograph from America in our time, a detailed portrait of people and places that typically don’t get much attention.
To read Paul’s work is to hear his laugh, his sardonic lilt, and the joy of his voice when he’s talking about something for which he has sincere enthusiasm (and there’s a lot of those). It’s the voice of someone whose willing to talk about difficult things, because he must, they bubble out. Guilt and anger are no strangers to him. He’s a man with a lot of scars, a man who can’t appreciate himself, which makes folks want to appreciate him all the more, to make up for it. Because there’s so much to appreciate.
Looking back at our first meeting on the steps, it’s funny how wrong I was. It has been a joy realizing just how wrong, and how great a soul is Paul Starr.
This morning in conversation arose the Waste Isolation Pilot Program dilemma. Given that this lethal radioactive material has to remain isolated for ten thousand years, how do you create a nonverbal warning sharp enough and strong enough to convince the humans of ten centuries hence not to disturb it for any reason?
Ten thousand years is longer than the earliest aspects of agricultural civilization. We have not a single symbol or concept in common with the humans of that era. How can we communicate across such a vast gap? Many greatly ingenious and talented people have made proposals. Eventually one will be chosen.
And we will never know what happens.
It’s ten thousand years in the future. There is no plausible chance that we or anyone with anything in common with us will last to see how this endeavor plays out. It’s not even a question of “history will tell,” because by that point history won’t be history.
We can spin as many scenarios as we like, with as much detail and variety as we want. But we will never receive an answer. It is beyond us. The wall is impenetrable, and always will be.