War Defines Humankind

Years ago, in a National Geographic article, Jane Goodall was interviewed about some of her findings over the years about chimpanzees. Living in one particular group was a family of chimpanzees – one older female and her two daughters – that was different from all the rest. They were cannibal psychos that would eat other chimps’ babies if they could get their hands on them. Other chimps stayed the hell away from them.

I imagined how the situation might be among human beings. Chimpanzees do organize themselves into groups for specific tasks. The group that reminds me most of human beings is the males who band together in order to hunt. They go out in the forest and work together, often hunting red Colobus monkeys, shaking them out of the trees, and eating them. It takes a certain amount of teamwork. So the concept of group action is not alien to them.

But it never occurs to them to work together to deal with the problem of the cannibal psychos. Humans are very good at imagining the world being different from what it is right at this moment. At first, certainly, humans would stay away from a family of known baby-eating cannibals. But, eventually those psychotically violent people would catch one more young mother unawares and kill again. I don’t think it would take very long for a plan of action to crystallize in the human mind.

We would realize that, although it it was possible to drive this monstrous family far, far away from where our group lived, our ability to image the world that does not yet exist comes into play. It might lead us to realize we would just be passing the problem off on other people, who would have to learn the hard way about the cannibal family. We would realize that we needed to band together to hunt and kill the cannibals.

This is our blessing, this is our curse: partially mediated by our cultures, we know the difference between good and evil. We understand when a situation is unendurable, we must try to make the world conform to our understanding of good, and minimize or destroy evil. It is why war is possible among human beings. Even if we were able to create an entirely peaceful world, war will always be stalking around in the background, a human ability waiting to be called upon when needed, and it will be needed. As long as one person can make war and teach others to do the same, it will have to be possible for the rest of us to band together, to resist war and to make war.

This is who we are. We don’t have to love war. When it’s needed, we just have to be able to do it.

To Love War

It is not easy, nor can I recommend it, that one love war. It seems to true to me, although paradoxical, to say that in order to love war one must simply love war, but what I mean is that it requires particular skills and habits of mind. How can you be happy, although in a state of constant warfare?

To love war, you must first LOVE your own, and take your identity from them – they are MY family, MY neighbors, MY customs, MY country. These are the judgments you make in order to create your boundaries. And your own must agree and share these same boundaries, and keep themselves within them. Second, you must HATE everyone outside these boundaries. “Loving them less” won’t do. For attempting to trespass these boundaries, you must be prepared to eject your own from them, so that they will know they are no longer welcome inside. This is so that you may purely love your own and purely hate the others. They have a new status: ENEMIES.

You must be prepared to deal with your enemies if they, by force or force of argument, attempt to change these judgments or cause you to redraw the boundaries – this is an attack! You must counterattack. Keep in mind that enemies lack many essential human qualities, and therefore can’t be considered anything more than simulacra of people. Their suffering is nothing more than an appearance, so the quicker they are killed, the better. And the more stuff they will leave behind for you to take.

Always keep in mind how much they deserve their fate, and memorize the following quote:

““The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” – Genghis Khan

Also, keep this in mind when you study war. You will not be the only, or even the first, person, group, or nation to believe these things. And they have judged that you are an enemy, as you have judged them. So, time is wasting. You’d probably better strike first.

A Happy Telemarketer

For the past six years, I have been a business-to-business telemarketer for a New Jersey-based business newspaper, and an independent contractor rather than an employee. It’s a very small office, so while I work I get to hear the writers and other creative people doing their jobs. I like that. I also like that I don’t sell anything, rather I give something away – complementary subscriptions to this publication – in the hope that the newspaper will sell itself to the people who find it useful. A typical call:

“Smith Smythe Smits Schmidt and Smith. How may I help you?”

“Hi, I’m Vin, I’m calling to confirm a mailing address for NJBIZ, which is a business publication. These are complementary issues and we will be mailing them to PO Box 1001, Smithville, NJ 08201… If that is correct.”

Between 70 and 85% of the time, the person on the phone confirms the mailing address, and I set the wheels in motion to get a 12-week subscription to that address. On average, I make 140 phone calls in a four-hour shift, and speak to between 50 and 60 people

Sometimes people say to me “Oh, we are a very small business, so there’s no need to spend the postage.” If they seem to be in a mood to listen, I might tell them the truth, which is that our advertising rates are based on how many subscriptions we send out every month, regardless of whether they are paid or free subscriptions. They really are doing us a favor by accepting a free subscription. Sometimes they sound dubious, wondering to me why we would be sending them free subscriptions, but I tell them that the best advertisement for our publication is the publication itself – only if they see it, will they know if it will be any use to them at all. And I habitually add to the end of each successful call, “We hope you will like our publication.”

I have really learned to listen to the people on the other end of the line, and I make subtle or not-so-subtle changes to my patter. If the person who picks up the phone speaks softly, I speak more softly; if they sound assertive, then so do I. Sometimes, in smaller companies, the person who answers the phone sounds to me like the business-owner. To them I get to the point and speak very quickly, because they already understand what I’m doing and why I am doing it, and they sound impatient for me to get to the end of my patter if I take too long.

Sometimes I get on the phone, I speak to someone who has a rare combination of being pretty sure that they have no need of my publication, and aren’t angry at me for calling. They speak very courteously to me, a lowly telemarketer who has interrupted their day. To them, I might say: “well it sounds like, for you, NJBIZ.com might be the best solution. That’s our website, and if you go there, maybe you’ll discover that you will like NJBIZ. There’s a lot of free information on that site. Also, if you like what you see, you can get the same free subscription that I would give to you over the phone.” All I have done is given them a different thing for free, which I already was intending to do.

When I do that, the person on the phone thanks me, and it sounds like they really mean it. I didn’t see what I was doing as going above and beyond the call of duty. All I had done was continue to serve my original purpose, which was to publicize NJBIZ. Nothing was really different, but it was as if they considered me a prince. It took me a long time to see what they might be thinking. I didn’t react angrily when they said no, and hadn’t alienated them by hanging up abruptly, I had listened to them and taken their concerns seriously. I guess I had treated them like princes.

The New Jersey office will be losing its telemarketing function at the end of the year – the parent company has decided to do all telemarketing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It has been a good job. It allowed me to work when my strength permitted, and when weather permitted. For me in winter, that is like gold. Also, it’s a very good job for a frustrated actor. 50 times a day, the curtain goes up on the new performance of Vin, the Happy Telemarketer, who likes his job and who even likes the people he speaks to on the phone. If things go badly, the phone call ends and the curtain goes down. But a couple of minutes later, the curtain goes up again. I really have enjoyed working this job. I’m going to miss it, and remember it with a smile.

Thoughts about the 30-Day Blogging Challenge

I mentioned before that I had a figurative slush pile, which consists of many ideas I’ve been thinking about on and off – thinking that I would love to write something about them. In the past few days I have used up a couple of them for the blog. But the question in my mind is “what happens when the 30 day blogging challenge is over?” Will I, having used up much of my slush pile in 30 days feel like I have to keep writing? Will I develop a habit to keep on writing? Will writing to a daily deadline improve my ability to write quickly, without spending over much time on having the perfect wording for everything? Because I do that a lot. I go over and over things even while I’m writing. There is no such thing as a first draft to me, but a draft sentence which I then start working on immediately.

So tonight, in order to break myself of that bad habit, I’m writing with a deadline of 40 min. Upon writing this I am about halfway through that time. It took me a while to decide what was reasonable for me to write in this time period. Commentary on the progress of the challenge seems to be just the perfect thing.

This is day 12. Up till today, I have written about:
11. The uncountable stories of humankind which I got to thinking about through the town of Deans;
10. My family relationship to the lentil;
9. 10 books that have stayed with me;
8. my weird breakfast food;
7. thinking about some of the implications of an omniscient God;
6. the beginning of my trip to the dentist which happened the very day I wrote it;
5. writing about my personal slush pile;
4. the extravagant promises that lovers make;
3. the network of connections in your life like a living brain;
2. an impressive episode of Northern Exposure that I remember;
1. and the building of the sonnet from a non-sonnet.

Of these, only 4, namely #10, #8, #6, and #5, are things that I first thought of writing and wrote for this challenge. All the rest were things that I had been thinking about writing for a long time. Who knows how much of my slush pile I might burn through?

I hear my timer going off – must dash – good night.

I Ain’t Never Been to Deans

Deans is a place that exists. All my life I’ve been passing by the road sign that has a left turn arrow next to the word Deans, but I have never taken that turn. The sign is the only reason I ever knew it existed at all. Looking it up on the Web , I learned that Deans, New Jersey is an unincorporated area somewhere in South Brunswick Township. Google maps can tell me how to get there, taking Henderson Road, which becomes Deans Lane, which meets up with Georges Road, and that’s about the center of Deans. Apparently, I have been tantalizingly close to that center, between 1 and 2 miles. There are roads all around it that I have traveled on and roads all around it I’ve taken part of the way to Deans.

Being that this town, as well as I, exists in central New Jersey, south of New Brunswick, life is probably pretty much the same as it is in my town. But there are all these places I’ve never been, and people who live there know all about them. I’ve never been to Davidson Millpond County Park, or fished in the Millpond. I don’t know what Pigeon Swamp is like, nor who is the Tarnofsky they named Tarnofsky Lake after. I have never been, nor have I ever sent anyone to Eagles Landing Day Camp. Never dropped off a package at the FedEx there. I couldn’t tell you anything about the Tris Pharmacy. But there is a point to this recitation of ignorance.

I don’t know what life is like for someone who lives In Deans, and they don’t really know what life is like for me, exactly. They have all these stories in their minds about their lives and the lives of people they know, as do I. But why would I want to drive down Deans Rhode Hall Road? They would know. In my town, would they know whether they want to visit the Walgreens or go down to Somerset Park pharmacy? I know, but they don’t.

All around us there are countless stories that are going on right now, in South Brunswick, in Deans, in Franklin Park, in Somerset, and in New Brunswick. All over the world there are towns, and villages, and cities, all filled with possibly millions of people, up to 7 billion on Earth. I think of Midwestern farm towns, and Saskatchewan farm towns in Canada, villages in southern Italy and northern Spain, and countries that have nomadic herdsman who know of towns but do not live in them. Places where they grow rice in paddies are different from places where they grow hard winter wheat in dry fields. There are wars going on and people adapting to that. And permeating all of these things are the stories.

Pay attention to any person you see. They have a story that begins where they got up that morning, and the history that guided some of their actions from before that. They have an idea where they’re going, and they live in a home that you do not live in because you are not them. You have these stories to, and every single person in every one of these completely different places they have stories that only they know, and that we might have trouble understanding unless we go there.

You, and I, and they, have difficulty thinking about the every day lives of people one town over, much less half a world away. At any rate, we can try. But our human kind are extremely gifted in refusing to process such information. So easy for us to redefine people who are as real as we into nonhuman things whose welfare or rights or pains we need not care about.  It takes a lot of mental work to imagine the humanity of people whose lives are distant and very different from our own. But they are as real as we, and we are as real as they. And they are all like us, and we are like them.

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”  – Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon, “Naked City” (1948).

And that’s just one city.

The lentil.

The lentil and my grandmother are inextricably linked in my mind. After she came to live with us, I got to see the kind of things she cooked for herself, and they often included lentils. For example, she would cook sliced celery in chicken broth with a clove of garlic, and then add to it some already-cooked lentils. Or maybe she would make some ditalini pasta and lentils together in broth. there were many other things, but this piece is about lentils. And grandma.

I remember, as a child, coming home from school hungry, and she always said that she had accidentally made too much, and would I please have some, because it will only go to waste. I was too young to think about one thing in this transaction, which to me as an adult, is incredibly obvious.

My grandmother had been cooking from the time she was six years old, so she could hardly have made such a simple error. She had also been poor growing up, so again, being aware of not letting food go to waste from the age of six. So again, it is highly unlikely that she made such a simple error. My sister and I had some of the best after-school food of anybody.

And we got to see our grandma every day.

10 Books That Have Stayed With Me

A friend of mine posted a challenge to 10 friends on Facebook, which was about books they had read, and then invite 10 more of your friends to do the same – sort of an intellectual chain-letter. I started, but it took me longer to explain my choices than I thought it would. By the time I was half-finished, it was too late to continue this on FB.

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard – they don’t have to be the right books or great books of literature, just ones that have stuck with you in some way.”

Lord of the Rings – I read this over and over, but I read Tolkien’s appendices on the languages of Middle Earth and the Elvish writing even more times.  In English, there are multiple spellings for each sound (as in way and weight), while his writing systems attempt a 1-to-1 relationship between sound and spelling (as in weigh and weight).  The difference was mind-expanding, and I developed a long-time interest in reforming the spelling of English, and it started here.

Quiddities, An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary, by W.V. Quine – my favorite entry is about how English spelling does not need to be reformed, because there is, in spite of appearances, an internal logic and consistency to our current system.

The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle – the tale of three unlikely companions: a unicorn, seeking her lost kin; Molly Grue, drawn to help the unicorn in the quest; and Schmendrick, an inept magician who “couldn’t turn cream into butter”, but might be the unicorn’s only hope. It is very much a fractured fairytale, going from the sublime world of myth to the ridiculous everyday world, and then back to the sublime. Over and over.

A New Guide to Rational Living, by Albert Ellis – for instance, when something happens to make you angry, it can be described as A (something happens), B (your thoughts about whatever it was that happened), and C (you get angry). When you find that the response of getting angry does not make sense, the thing to pay attention to, and possibly modify is at letter B. Sometimes your thoughts concerning the thing that happens actually are irrational.

Time Enough for Love, by Robert A. Heinlein – Lazarus Long thinks about his own nearly 200 years, in which he was a soldier, a spacecraft pilot, a pioneer, a medic, etc. Also within it are excerpts from Heinlein’s “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, a guide to life from the oldest human being in the universe.
“Be wary of strong drink, it can make you shoot at the tax collector..and miss.”
“Formal courtesy between husband and wife is even more important than it is between strangers.”

The Chronicles of of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, (and also the Second Chronicles, as well as the Last Chronicles) by Stephen R. Donaldson – Written over the past 30 years, I call it an anti-fantasy. Covenant, the “hero” is seriously ailing recluse and furiously angry. Transported to “The Land”, a place where healing can be found in the earth itself, he believes that it and people he meets there are figments of his diseased imagination. He tells everyone of this belief. And he really is a dick. In spite of this they view him as a reincarnation of the one person who could possibly save them from the evil Lord Foul. If Thomas Covenant had only read book number 4, above, he might have been have been less of a dick.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams – like all good science fiction, it is commentary on this world and its ways. For instance, concerning The President of the Galaxy: “Very very few people realize that the President and the Government have virtually no power at all, and of these very few people only six know whence ultimate political power is wielded. ”

The Gormenghast Novels (Titus Groan / Gormenghast / Titus Alone), by Mervyn Peake – Gormenghast is a gigantic, decaying, tradition-bound castle in the middle of nowhere, ruled by the Earls of Groan. The “Titus” of the title is will one day succeed his father, 76th Earl of Groan. It is full of characters (and names) that I find impossible to forget – the current Earl, Sepulchrave; the Lady Groan, constantly accompanied by 50 white cats; Mr. Flay, servant to the Earl, and his murderous feud with the chief cook, Abiatha Swelter; family physician Dr. Prunesquallor, among others; and Steerpike, whose ambition sets the plot in motion.

The Earthsea Cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea / The Tombs of Atuan / The Farthest Shore) – Ged, or Sparrowhawk, is as the title says, a wizard. In his world, such people are known as mages. A mage knows the “true names” of things, which, coupled with his innate abilities, allow him a range of powers, from creating illusions all the way to powerful magics that might save the world or destroy it. One of things a mage can become is a Dragonlord. One day, as Ged goes out to fight against dragons, his friend asks him, “What makes a mage a Dragonlord?” If the dragon will speak to you first, before trying to kill you,” says Ged, “you are a Dragonlord.”*

Shadow of the Omnivore by Paul Shepard – the one book on my list I have yet to read. The writer is a respected intellectual and a pioneer in a field called Human Ecology, looks at the role of humankind in the natural world. I couldn’t get into it, 14 years ago, because it’s written in “Professor-ese”. This writing style seems to be asking the question: “Why use a one-syllable word and a simple sentence when a four-syllable word and a complicated sentence will do?” But this book is coming along with me until I read it.

Dammit.