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Relative Value

Relative Value

by Marco M. Pardi

Each person is born to one possession which out values all his others——his last breath.” Mark Twain. 1897 Following the Equator.

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together…all things connect.”

Chief Seattle

All comments are greatly welcomed and will receive a response.

Long before I entered the military I learned that insurance companies have tables of values for the loss of certain body parts and/or functions. Lose one hand: X many dollars. Lose both hands: X-plus many dollars. And so on. They even have it down to fingers and toes. Later, I read about pin-up models getting their breasts insured. Insured against what? Could someone run off with them? Would cup size determine Petty Theft versus Grand Theft? Scanning some of these tables I wondered who came up with these and on what basis did they assign value. I remembered schoolyard discussions about what one super power one would choose (I still prefer invisibility), and a few discussions about what parts or functions we could do without (Hell, no). So I wondered, How do dollars replace a hand? Moreover, how do they replace eyesight?

I supposed that in some cases the money was intended to go toward rehabilitation, or even a prosthesis if possible. Later, that started me wondering about people who sell their organs, such as a kidney. Do they simply settle for market price, haggle, hold out for high bid?

When I joined the military, during the early build up of the Viet Nam “War”, I got a dose of the ultimate balance of value: possibly giving one’s life for one’s country. While not a new concept, the actual possibility was laid at my feet for the first time. I was never a “team player”, although I did play football in high school. I don’t recall ever being concerned about who won or who lost a football game; my only interest was in the legalized one-on-one combat I could engage in with different colored jerseys. I certainly knew of military heroes, but never planned on being one. Country was abstract, life was interesting and here now. It seemed to me throwing one’s self on a grenade was an act of wanting to be a hero without realizing one would not be around to accept the applause.

At CIA headquarters, at Langley, Virginia, there is a bronze statue of Nathan Hale (“Saint Nate”, as he is known within). It’s a copy of a Bela Pratt casting done in 1912 and actually quite good. As you know, he was hanged by the British as a spy on September 22, 1776. He is best remembered for his final speech in which he declared his regret for having only one life to give for his country. He was 21 years old, and did not live to see the country he was dying for.

I was not in the Army, and my assignments were for the most part solitary. But as the war ground on I learned that, per capita, Black soldiers were taking casualties at rates orders of magnitude higher than White soldiers. It turned out they were being put out “on point” and in other forward positions far more often than Whites. I read some Army soldiers’ comments opining that they were “more naturally camouflaged”. Of course, booby traps and well laid ambushes don’t see that anyway. But I now wonder how Black Lives Matter would have viewed this unofficial, but common practice.

I’ve always idealized rational thought, being able to obtain all the evidence, weigh it and make an informed decision. At the same time I feel I always tried to incorporate an understanding of feelings into my calculus. And so, when my daughter was born and I saw her for the first time I was absolutely overwhelmed by my feelings for her. Still am. If someone had taken us captive and said, Your life or hers, there would be no hesitation on my part beyond demanding that she never know I had agreed to forfeit my life so she could live. And that has never changed over the years. But before anyone takes this partial evidence and reaches a conclusion I would ask one question: Does anyone for one moment think I could live knowing I had bought my life with my own daughter’s? Does anyone really think I would choose to live in the worst hell I could imagine? (Okay, that’s two questions, but you get it.) And speaking of super powers, I always said, Anyone who even thinks bad thoughts toward my daughter will suffer a most hideous, painful and prolonged death.

Of course, that’s my daughter. How about someone else’s daughter? How about a spouse? We might glibly voice our choices, but would we honor them? So as those ripples emanate out further across the great pond of life where does our commitment decrease, where do we say, I’m not getting involved? We each certainly do have our limits; there’s no sense denying it. How often have we heard the term Good Samaritan used over a grave site? And the world goes on as before.

One of the more extreme examples of setting values can be found in the subject of abortion. But let’s be clear: This is not about whether all abortions are good or all abortions are bad, or some are good and some are bad. It is about how one imputes value and acts upon it. I will stipulate at the outset that I do not consider a fetus younger than survival age outside the womb to necessarily be human. It may have the potential to be human at some point, but while simply in development there cannot be a claim of its humanity. Furthermore, having been exposed to many grim hours of teratology in undergraduate and graduate school, and during my 23 years with CDC, I have deep reservations about some classes of entities delivered at term.

What I am referring to here is the decision, undeniably taken by some, that from the point of conception a fetus is deserving of protection up to and including the murder of someone who might abort (“abort” simply means stop) it. Demonstrably there are people who impute a higher value to a fertilized egg than they do to a highly trained and educated physician who, as part of his/her practice, provides abortions to women who may very well have been given sound medical reasons for obtaining one. As so many cases have demonstrated, these people then go on to assassinate the physician. One must assume that, like throwing one’s self on a hand grenade, they envision themselves as heroes in the eyes of their god or at least their peers as they are inevitably caught and sentenced to prison. We shouldn’t doubt that this fantasy is also fed by aspiring politicians who press for the death penalty for abortion doctors, prison terms for staff, and even prison terms for the woman obtaining the abortion.

On reading this one might connect to the jihadi suicide bombers, supposedly seeking martyrdom and divine approval. Of course, there are many who believe that and act on their beliefs. But the little publicized fact is that an admittedly unknown number of these individuals do this because they have been assured their families will be killed if they do not. And if they do go through with it their families will be cared for as compensation. Or so they are told. So, rather than flee and possibly save their own lives at the expense of others they go through with it.

So where does this leave us if we are not thinking about abortion or planning a jihad? Some people say they could not take another person’s life even if they are within the circumstances legally recognized as defending one’s self, family, or home. They do not and will not own a gun. Is this a case of misplaced or unbalanced value?

Remember the “tough love” craze of not so many years ago? This gained much of its strength from the Alcoholics Anonymous concept of “enabler”. An enabler was someone who covered for a drunk, calling in sick for them, making excuses, etc. Enablers were then labeled “co-dependents” and told they were as sick as the alcoholic. The remedy was encourage the alcoholic to get help, but if he/she continued to refuse, to let the alcoholic pay the price for his/her behavior. I have shut the door on alcoholics I tried for months to motivate, even taking them to hospitals or detox centers. They were sick people, yet I valued their friendship when they were sober, or at least dry. There came a time, though, when I wondered if I was misplacing value. In one case it was an uncomfortable decision to make.

A final example of relative values dates back to the immediate post 9/11 era. The CIA, DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), and the FBI jointly developed a program known as HIG – the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. But the CIA and DIA employed the more controversial “enhanced interrogation” methods where the FBI concentrated on building rapport with the detainee. This came at a time when a popular FOX program, “24”, was airing brutal interrogation techniques in its drama.

After abuses came to light, and three days after the inauguration of Obama as president, Obama issued Executive Order 13491 – “Ensuring Lawful Interrogations”. This limited techniques to those already approved and listed within the Army Field Manual and followed the philosophy that the more brutal the questioning the more unreliable the answers.

But the Republican Party fought hard to block every breath Obama took. As Senate leader Mitch McConnell said, “Our Number One priority is to ensure that the Obama presidency is a failed presidency.” Of course a failed presidency, of either party, could be disastrous for the entire country. But the lines had been drawn, and are there even more clearly today: Country doesn’t matter, Party does. I wonder what Saint Nate would have to say.

Write blogs, sign petitions, or see what’s on television? Time to get my values straight.

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Hand Me Down

Hand Me Down

by Marco M. Pardi

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

William James. The Principles of Psychology. 1890.

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

By now many readers know I have a daughter and three grandchildren. Actually, the term grandchildren seems misleading. The oldest is just finishing an advanced degree before entering medical school, the next is now a college Sophomore, and the youngest will enter university in the Fall. When I look at them I don’t see children.

Yet, I wonder what they see when they look at me. I try to think back to when I was their age and how I perceived someone my age. Both my grandfathers died before I was eight years old, so grandfather is not a good marker for me. I also grew up in circumstances which meant that I never learned how to be around small children; I relate to adults.

But I decided many decades ago that biological lineage is not the primary determinant of how I judge a person. I was raised that way and found it utterly alienating. I judge (and I use the word in a benign sense) on factors such as wisdom, empathy, understanding, and other elements of what we call character. The problem is that, living roughly 1,000 miles away from them, I get very little opportunity to display what character elements I may have. Two of the most uncomfortable questions I find myself pondering are: Do they know me, beyond the categorical title of grandfather; and, Do I know each of them, beyond the categorical title of grandchild. What if I were asked to write an essay about each of them, or they about me?

Of course I also recognize the huge gulf which rapidly evolving technology has opened between us. I can synchronize and tune multiple Weber carburetors while they zip along on electronic devices I do not know how to even turn on. I’m sure they would ask, What’s a carburetor? But that’s just an anachronistic tidbit, not a character trait. It’s also not a necessary skill for navigating our rapidly changing world.

Traditional cultures place high value on their elders, even encoding them in their legal systems. The loya jurga, encoded in the Pashtunwali, or Pashtun code of laws in Afghanistan is an example of elders gathering to render a judgment. Until the rapid post WWII Westernization of Japan elders were held in the highest esteem. Recent decades increasingly find them parked in nursing homes and “senior homes” not much different from our own.

So what exactly is the role a grandparent plays in the current Western family? Not so long ago when calamitous events such as severe weather or prolonged drought threatened we looked to our elders and asked, Did this happen in your lifetime? How did you handle it? Now we tune to the Weather Channel. Yet, as we increasingly recognize the intersection of climate change and economics/politics, where do we look? The nation wide infiltration of school boards by one particular political party is increasingly bringing severely biased textbooks into classrooms and gag orders onto teachers. Even the use of the term Climate Change is banned in some school districts.

If the parents are too consumed with their own (justified) needs to pursue their careers and support their families to be able to review their children’s text books and challenge school boards at meetings should the grandparents, with more time on their hands and much deeper experience step in? If a grandparent understands the science behind climate change, but the parents have neither the background nor the time to study it or perhaps fear for their careers, should the grandparent step in and discuss it with the grandchildren? How about a grandparent who has intimate and scholarly knowledge of Fascism, and how the United States is galloping headlong into a system which will disempower and subjugate its own people and destroy the environment while making a few very rich people very much richer? Should the grandparent speak up?

If it is true that those children who survive to the middle to end of this century will look back on their predecessors and ask, WHY?, shouldn’t we who know better speak and act now?

Aaah, I can imagine the eyes rolling and the, There he goes again, from the readers outside the United States. Well, for those who might think otherwise, the U.S. is a world problem not a colloquial problem. Although Fascism is not yet the formally admitted name for the American system, the operating principles are well in place. There are three differences between Mussolini’s system and the U.S.: Mussolini is on record as having called Hitler and his Nazis “barbarians” for their treatment of the Jews and other minorities. Trump commented on the Charlottesville, Virginia White Supremacy march by saying, “There are good people on both sides.” And, Mussolini took active steps to address environmental problems, such as draining the Pontine swamps and thus greatly reducing if not eliminating malaria in central and southern Italy. The regime which has Trump as its spokesman is dedicated to rolling back or eliminating every environmental regulation it can in its ruthless attempt to enrich itself. Finally, Mussolini brought the Vatican to heel. The secular Vatican empire, cloaked in religion, was rendered largely impotent in its contest with him. The U.S. regime, cloaking itself in “pro life”, is attempting to render abortion illegal and contraception nearly impossible to obtain while at the same time slashing or eliminating all forms of help for women and children. The end result will be people too desperate to protest working conditions and only too glad to enlist in imperialist military services. The regime is not pro life; it is pro birth….as in cheap labor and cannon fodder. The Fundamentalists are just too myopic to see they are being used.

And I would say the same about those outside the U.S. who deny that American economic, environmental, and political policies extend beyond its borders.

In the past few days the Mueller report has been “summarized” by Trump’s Attorney General and we are told “no evidence has been found that collusion (with the Russians) took place” and Mueller deferred action of Obstruction of Justice to the DOJ. Of course, the regime touts this as total and complete exoneration, even though the statement from Mueller explicitly says it does not exonerate the President. In my view, any first year law student would recognize that “no evidence has been found” does not mean there is no evidence; it means no evidence has been found. Any student who had my Critical Thinking course would also have immediately seen the fallacy in the regime’s position.

If this kind of false narrative is allowed to soak into the seedlings who are our youth what should we expect our garden to grow?

Okay, so I’ve ranted again. Should I not? Should I find a jovial shuffleboard court and pass my time until my time passes? I’m sure some would love nothing more. But some readers of my columns are grandparents. What’s your position? For that matter, one doesn’t have to be a grandparent to have an opinion on this. Even if I did not have my own grandchildren, why would I not speak up for those children out there who, in my view, are becoming victims and pawns in a deadly machine? Why should I not Hand Me Down?

Growing Up

Growing Up

by Marco M. Pardi

The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt.”

Max Lerner. The Unfinished Country. 1950

All comments welcome and will receive a response.

My companion dog, Plato, was taking me for our morning walk today when we encountered a neighbor and her companion dog, Boudreaux. Boudreaux is actually female, and has long loved Plato. Plato and I are on good terms with the whole family.

As we walked we talked about where, other than Georgia, we would like to be. Suddenly my neighbor asked, Where did you grow up? I was a bit taken aback. People more often ask, Where are you from? Actually, I was equally surprised at my own reaction: I didn’t quite know how to respond. I wanted to ask, What do you mean by growing up? But I trotted out a list of places in chronological order, assuming that at some undetermined place I had grown up.

The question seems to presume we are all in agreement on what constitutes growing up. Does it literally mean reaching your adult height? I’ve known a range of people, from military dependents who moved every couple of years to people who willingly lived their entire lives in the small towns where they were born. Yet nothing in that knowledge of those people tells me about their growing up. Was it when they first had sexual intercourse? If so, what does that say about the child who was preyed upon by an adult? Was it when they first realized religion is a man made construct for money and power, with little or nothing to do with whether there is a god? Was it when they first held a job which enabled them to be “self sufficient”? Was it when they first took a human life? Are we talking about places or events? If it’s events, why do places matter?

Nearing the eve of my first marriage I mentioned to some associates (I was a Research Associate at the time), older professors of Clinical Psychology, that I was getting married. One woman look down her formidable nose at me and said, “Well, that ought to mature you.” What? Four years in active military, several non-military clandestine ops, and being in my mid-twenties and I was not “mature”? Strange, I thought decisions such as marriage were made by mature people, not by people still growing up. Then again, maybe that showed I really wasn’t grown up.

So how do we reckon being grown up? Can we declare it ourselves, or do we need to get the Imprimatur from a Clinical Psychologist? I have never been impressed by milestones, especially those erected by other people. I’ve known children who were “wise beyond their years” and adults, like our current President, who were or still are the tallest brat in the daycare.

Some traditional cultures still mark the development of sexual maturity as the advent of adulthood, growing up. But there’s a very good reason for that. Pregnancy can bring huge consequences for the group as a whole.

Having worked several years in the clinical epidemiology of sexually transmitted diseases, I can opine that the onset of sexual activity does not necessarily herald what I interpret as “grown up” behavior.

Most cultures have some form of Rite of Passage marking transition into adulthood, though they may not be labeled as such; driver’s license, drinking age, voting rights, draft eligibility, etc. are some examples. But these are external markers. We assume a person who reaches them in fact qualifies for them. How do you feel about the chronological right to purchase a firearm, even obtain a concealed carry license?

Yes, I know that in some cases, such as driver’s license. there are tests that must be passed. But seriously, do you think these filter out the kids who will go out and street race that day? A background check for a firearm purchase illuminates (hopefully) past infractions and/or mental health issues. But are you willing to bet your life that no new circumstances will spark an inappropriate reaction?

In too many cases we act as an after-the-fact culture; a person who, have reached a marker, has been granted permission for a certain behavior such as driving or owning a firearm does something which harms or kills another person and we wring our hands and say, Oh, I guess you were not grown up after all. But our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.

And speaking of victims, we often read of childhood sexual abuse victims or child refugees as “having their childhood stolen from them.” While no one should deny that their life experiences have been horrible, does that mean they have bypassed childhood and become adults? Are they grown up? Or are they a different kind of child? People who actually work with these children affirm to us it is the latter; these children are still children albeit with additional challenges on their road to growing up.

I used to flippantly say the next stage after maturity is decay. But maybe maturity is a temporary plateau from which we can launch very substantial changes, intentionally or not. How often have we heard of a couple having “grown apart”? I’m sure some partners would see the changes in their partners as decay, but maybe it’s a continuous process of growing up. And if that’s the case for both the partners it can’t be surprising that so many grow apart.

I was 27 when I began teaching college. A few years into it I was also offered and accepted a one year appointment to teach at an ultra conservative private college nearby. My classes were Marriage & the Family. A couple of months into the first semester at that college my wife filed for divorce and left for an unknown location with our small daughter. I did not use this event as a teaching model, or even mention it. But I suspect the more perceptive students noted a change in my demeanor even if I did not intend it.

But this event got me wondering: Do we judge maturity by a person’s experiences and knowledge, or do we judge maturity by the way a person processes experiences and knowledge? The former is an objective, if not very helpful measure. But the latter is fraught with subjectivity. It raises the question: Who are you to judge me?

I’m always puzzled by people I’ve not seen in a long time saying, “You haven’t changed a bit”. Is this a compliment or an insult? I say that because I see that temporary plateau I mentioned earlier as just that: temporary. Life is a growth process not a series of static stages. In my youth I found the Peter Pan story somewhat interesting, particularly since I had a hormonal response to Tinkerbelle. But the story seemed frightening in the same way as those stories about spending “eternity praising God and sitting on clouds”. Eternally static. What a true nightmare. The same holds true for those stories about the Genie and the magic lamp. As the saying goes, Be careful what you wish for. The unspoken follow-up to that is that you could be stuck with that wished for object or state or person forever. As a child I decided I would tell the Genie my wish would be to have the continuing power to obtain what I wish for. It was only later I realized I had better ask for wisdom, too.

I’m interested when I hear an adult ask a child, What do you want to be when you grow up? Just once I’d like to hear the child say, I may grow up but I will BE nothing in particular. I will handle life as it comes.

When I say I’m not done growing up it doesn’t mean I have to behave like a child. It means I’m continually discovering my ability to see and understand the world around me. But that doesn’t mean people will agree with my understanding. It only means it works for me, and that’s just fine.

How about you, Dear Reader?

Comic Relief

Comic Relief

by Marco M. Pardi

Humor must have its background of seriousness. Without this contrast there comes none of that incongruity which is the mainspring of laughter.” Max Beerbohm. “A Conspectus of G.B.S.”

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

In the 1970’s I watched a film titled, Mother, Jugs & Speed. It was a “black comedy”, featuring a strong cast of well known actors, which portrayed a struggling ambulance company competing for the lucrative Los Angeles contract. Mother was Bill Cosby, Jugs was Raquel Welch, and Speed was Harvey Keitel. Additional characters rounded out this exceedingly dysfunctional crew.

I don’t know if the film was a box office hit, but I watched it on television. I laughed so hard throughout the film I thought I might have to see it again in case I missed anything.

So, have you ever wondered how ambulance crews and funeral home personnel cope with the situations they see almost daily? I have some experience in both those areas. In 1959-1960, my senior year in high school, I was seriously in need of a way to avoid an extremely dysfunctional household. The small Southern town we had recently moved to had two (White) funeral homes. In many parts of the country funeral homes also provided ambulance service, and this town was no exception. Since this was a 24/7 need, as was collecting a corpse from a private home and taking it to a local doctor’s home for confirmation of death, or from a hospital or nursing home to the funeral home, crews lived upstairs in the funeral home. Perfect. Although I was a year too young to legally drive the ambulance I could be part of the two man team for either ambulance runs, body collection, or providing at-home oxygen and other palliative equipment and care. With no requirement of special training, I was hired immediately. My duties were evenly split between ambulance and collection with occasional support elsewhere. I was almost always partnered with “Harold”, a 6’5” beanpole and my 5’9” stocky frame. Mutt & Jeff.

One of my first lessons was the adoption of appropriate affect. We might be upstairs laughing at a tv show but when a family came for a viewing we were instantly somber. Sometimes that backfired. Harold and I went on a night time collection of a man who had died at home. With somber faces we were ushered into a front room with two card tables, snacks and drinks, lots of people looking at us, and a withered rail of an elderly man lying on a cot in his underwear, the bedclothes in disarray and his arms hanging off the cot. His smiling daughter’s first excited words to us were, “You missed it! You should have seen him kick. Didn’t know he had it in him.” It was then I noticed the cards on the tables were all face down. As soon as we cleared out the mess they were going back to their games.

But we had games as well. The prep room, where embalming, repair, make-up, etc was done, was a windowless room in the back. Entered through swinging double doors, the room had two side by side prep tables separated by a narrow passage to the instrument counter at back. The overhead lights were operated by a cord hanging down between the tables but to get to the cord one had to let go of the doors, which quickly shut behind you leaving you in the dark.

Pizza delivery was a new thing, but Harold already had a plan. He called and ordered a delivery while “Thomas”, another employee, went into the prep room, took off his shoes and socks, and lay on a table under a sheet, feet sticking out toward the doors. When the wide eyed boy arrived with the pizza Harold apologized for leaving his wallet on the back counter in the prep room and, of course, the boy eagerly volunteered to retrieve it. Harold kindly told him where the light cord was. We heard the doors creak open and swing shut …seconds before we heard a scream and the doors slamming outward. Thomas, the corpse on the table, had grabbed the boy in the dark as he passed between the tables. After the boy left, with a stiff tip as it were, we agreed it was fortunate the doors swung both ways or we would have been re-framing and re-hanging the doors all night.

It wasn’t pizza that got me a few nights later. We got an ambulance call to transfer a cardiac patient to a better equipped hospital. The ambulances were simply customized station wagons with red lights, sirens, and flat floor with jump seat behind the driver and radio seat. Harold drove and, on picking up a patient, I crawled in the back to sit with the patient. This night we picked up a monstrously obese woman who was in bad shape. No sooner had Harold hit lights and siren than she began moaning something repeatedly. Thinking I would get her last words for her family I leaned in closely. That’s when she cocked her head toward mine and projectile vomited what must have been a gallon of All You Can Eat into my face. I was so shocked I yelled, NO WONDER YOU’RE SICK. Harold was laughing so hard the ambulance began swerving and, while I fought to keep from falling on the woman he called ahead to the emergency room and requested several wet towels be ready. The nurses on the ramp were clutching themselves laughing as I slithered out the back of the ambulance with professional decorum.

That week-end we had a funeral to do. It was on the last of several days of hard rain. As the family departed the graveside and we rolled back the astro-turf covering the open grave we saw about a foot of water in the grave. That state did not require a grave liner in those days. When we lowered the casket into the grave one of the wet stainless steel rods on the mechanism fell off into the grave. Being the new guy, I was appointed to drop down atop the casket and slide my arm into the very narrow space and retrieve the rod from the water. After several attempts using two fingers I finally got it and, in exuberance, stood atop the casket and loudly said AAAAHH. The two grave diggers, approaching with shovels over their shoulders, saw me arise grinning from the grave. If the Olympics ever has a Shovel Throwing Event I know where to assemble a Gold Medal team. And they cleared tombstones like a High Hurdles event.

Some weeks later Harold and I ran an emergency call to a high rise office building in the center of town. We had to double park the ambulance in the street, lights flashing. The first sign of trouble was the elevator. Built for four very close friends, it required us to jack-knife the gurney to get to the 7th floor. Once there we discovered a large man in his office chair, purple blood pooling under his mandible and urine drying on his pants. Clearly dead. But we weren’t licensed to pronounce it so we had to load him and then jack-knife him into the elevator with Harold and me. Good thing Harold did not have that second hamburger for lunch. The ambulance had drawn a crowd so when the elevator doors opened and the gurney sprang out with a dead guy on it people fell back and gasped. We got him back on the gurney and rolled him out but then 6’5” Harold yanked his end up high to clear the parked cars and 5’9” Marco held as high as possible while a pair of shoes crept toward his ears. We almost dropped him in the street.

Some time later Harold and Thomas decided to liven up a slow day. Thomas lay on the ambulance floor while Harold and I drove casually out of town. Once in the clear we stopped and Thomas got on the gurney, I got in the jump seat, and Harold raced us into town with lights and siren. He killed the siren but not the lights and slid into a gas station by the pump. As the attendant came out he said, Fill ‘er up and check the oil. I “worked” on Thomas. I remember the attendant rattling the hose in the filler tube and asking, You sure you aren’t in a hurry? Harold counted out the money and we took off.

But this was small stuff. On a week-end I luckily decided to have one night at home Harold, Thomas and a couple of others got with the guy who was our regular mechanic. Built like a jockey, and with a jockey’s horse-like little face, he was a perfect fit for a prisoner’s coffin we had. Just a black pine box with nail on lid and silver looking handles, it fit nicely into the black panel truck we had for home oxygen delivery and burial equipment. The truck had the name of the funeral home on the sides, but not “funeral home”. So Harold and a couple of the guys put the mechanic on a prep table and, with wax and make-up, gave him scars and “stitches” on his face. They loaded him, in the pine box, into the panel truck with feet to the back doors and drove 25 miles south to a classic little town built around a square.

These were the days of drive-in restaurants with “curb hops”, usually high school girls in little skirts. They pulled in and, when the girl came for their order, ordered three hamburgers and three cokes. Harold explained the third guy was doing some work in the back and would the girl mind going around and opening the doors to give him his order. When she came with the tray of orders Harold paid her and she hopped around back and opened the doors. The mechanic sat up in the coffin and groped for the food, groaning ravenously. The car hop screamed, the food flew in the air, and diners on both sides spilled their Cokes. They made a quick getaway and probably would have made it back to the funeral home but they stopped at another drive-in for a re-run. Same thing. But this time their escape was stopped by a swarm of Sheriff’s deputies alerted to the roving ghouls. All the deputies thought it was hilarious, except one. And so it was they were cited for “Disturbing the Peace” and ordered to appear in court.

The next day, a Sunday, the owner of the funeral home was in his office with a copy of every major State newspaper on his desk. Prominently on the front page of each: “Ghouls strike in (name of town)”, or something similar. I’ve rarely seen a man so close to major stroke. It was interesting.

So, we had colorful characters, including the guy who had terrible Athletes Foot and soaked his feet in embalming fluid. It worked, but walking barefoot on the wooden floors he sounded like the Dutch Boy in his wooden shoes. But one point I must make is that I never once saw or heard of any mistreatment or disrespect of any of the corpses or any of the ambulance patients.

Still, I suppose some readers did not find the foregoing very amusing. I think humor, like jargon, is often specific to careers, workplaces, and other definable venues. How often do we find ourselves saying, Well, you had to have been there. Stand up comics succeed when they connect their humor to situations the audience can relate to, often situations that in themselves are not really funny. That gives rise to the saying, All humor is based in tragedy.

Although it is obviously naive to refer to the “American culture”, the country appears to be struggling through a period in which certain traditional humor is now off limits. We now rarely hear the once common trinity of, A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Minister walked into a bar………, or some variation thereof. We no longer hear ethnic jokes. George Carlin and Richard Pryor are gone, and not soon to be replaced. Now we often find ourselves wanting to tell people to: Lighten up. And we wonder if someday someone will remember the day we told that joke.

Life is too serious to be taken seriously. Have some fun and share it.

Knowing Mortality

Knowing Mortality

by Marco M. Pardi

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives forever

That dead men rise up never

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

Algernon C. Swinburne,

Garden of Proserpine” 1866

All comments welcome and will receive a reply.

When I was a child my grandmother had a large parrot who lived in a cage in her suite. I do not recall his name as we did not have him long. He had learned to somehow fling his copious excrement with disturbing accuracy. Nonetheless, I did learn that some parrots lived to ninety years and beyond. So that set me to wondering. My grandmother seemed to have been born old. Each morning as she awoke I suspected she had turned back her odometer during the night. So, who was going to outlive who? My grandmother lived to 94. I don’t know about the parrot.

In the years since I have had many more non-human companions than human ones. And right now my dog – a rescue of unknown provenance – is probably approaching thirteen. His hearing has diminished – or maybe he’s “heard it all already”. He ascends the stairs by “bunny hop” instead of the streak he once was. And he sometimes sleeps close to noon.

When he’s sleeping, late in the morning or in the evening, I often observe his chest. You know, to see if he’s breathing. And I wonder how I’ll feel if one day he’s not. So, while intellectual honesty prods me to recognize that I could die at any moment (as could any of us) the far greater likelihood is that I will one day be lifting him into my car for the trip to the veterinarian either for that last injection or for the single cremation I intend.

Speaking of who goes first, I always ensured that when I had to go on trips my companions were either boarded at a place they knew and liked or there was someone at the house who cared for them and had my authorization to obtain any veterinary care or final disposition as needed. Instructions were also firmly in place should I not return.

I have taken that last trip to the veterinarian so many times before with dogs and cats. Of course, it doesn’t work that way with horses. But you don’t want to read about what normally is done and I don’t want to write it. I will say I don’t do things normally. I pay for the use of a back-hoe to do a burial.

But why do we do it? Isn’t the avoidance of pain and sadness a lesson we learn in childhood? Are we suspending our rational minds and living in a forever world which will never change, never end? It has been said that having a pet/companion is like having an infant who never completely grows up. No matter how you feel you must still take them out for their walk. You must still feed them properly. You must take them to the vet for their shots and other preventive medicines. But you may find yourself again at the vet for illnesses. When out for a social life or simply running lots of errands you must watch the time for their walks and their meals. In having company over you must graciously but firmly establish ground rules, especially when children are involved. And, if you care enough about your companions to have them in the first place you must engage with them in enriching play and activities. Finally, you must reckon that in the growing up weeks and months there may be some damage, even destruction to shoes, furniture, etc. You will find yourself adjusting your lifestyle through a preemptive defense.

Yes, there are many Musts in having a pet/companion, and that’s where so many people draw the line. In fairness, there are valid reasons to not have one. Some people travel constantly for work, some people have severe allergies, and some simply can’t afford it. I’m pretty firm in saying one should never have just one companion. Imagine yourself as the only member of your species being kept in a home with a radically different species. The problem is immediately apparent with “pack animals” such as Huskies. They need each other as much or more than they need you.

But there is nothing like a furry paw gently pushing your book – or your cellphone, away from your face, and eyes saying, I’m here. Let’s play. In fact, there’s nothing like an insistent companion to get you out of yourself. Or out of the house. Neighbors have congratulated me on my daily walks. But I tell them, Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be doing this except that he (my companion dog) wants and needs it. I know a few of my neighbor’s names. I know the names of every other dog we meet. I wouldn’t know some of those neighbors had they not been walking their dogs.

Companions provide other benefits as well. Multiple well done studies have shown the correlation between lowered blood pressure and simply petting a dog or cat. This is no longer in dispute. And I needn’t go into the many examples of companion animals saving their humans in a wide array of emergencies.

Lately we have opted for boarding our companion rather than taking him with us on long trips. The car rides are harder on him. He stays at a kennel with lots of space and people who know and care for him. But sometimes we arrive home after the kennel is closed for the night or the week-end and the house, without him, is just not a home.

Yet, we know in the back of our minds, or the seats of our pants – wherever you do your thinking – that these days are numbered. All things being equal, the horizon is closer for our companion than it is for us. Yes, some day, we say.

I have often read, and I have heard veterinarians say, your companion will tell you when it’s time to go. That’s a nice idea to hold to, but I do have mixed feelings about it, as does anyone who has faced that choice and wondered, Is he telling me? I can think of one case in which I, to this day, feel I may have waited too long. But how can I know?

I have also read several well documented books, and interviewed well established and proven mediums, telling me companions have spirits as well as we do and they pass into the same form of existence as we do. In fact, my own experiences strongly support this. Oh yes, there are those people who sniff, That’s unscientific! My answer is simple: people who say that is unscientific immediately demonstrate they know nothing about science. Science is NOT just about cataloging everything which meets the eye. If that’s your goal, become a librarian. Science is not just about asking What Is; more important is asking What If. And the exploration of If, in this area, completely satisfies me that my companions have a spiritual existence just as I do. And no, that absolutely does not imply a God or gods or Chief Spirit. That’s a human projection, although I used to threaten a misbehaving Husky of mine that I was going to report him to the Head Husky.

For those who need references for the many hundreds of scientifically based studies in which non-human companion animals have featured, try Stanford University, University of California at Santa Barbara (they recently contacted me for support in this area) Arizona State University, Eastern Michigan University, and State University of New York.  You may also examine the Windbridge Institute and the Institute for Noetic Sciences. 

So, I do know that barring unexpected issues of my own, I will one day be making that familiar trip to the vet, or asking them to come to the house for a home ceremony and passing. I suppose I will cry my insides out. And if history is any guide I will always, always remember the good times and the bad because things don’t really get better. We just get better at handling them.

In that spirit of handling it, I will go to our community shelter and bring home another needful companion. Perhaps an older dog who no one else wants – and he knows it. I will not sit in a house without a furry companion. I will make a home again.

Call of the Wild

Call of the Wild

by Marco M. Pardi

The way to final freedom is within thy SELF.”

THE BOOK OF THE GOLDEN PRECEPTS.

Ascribed to ancient Buddhism.

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As I was borrowing Jack London’s famous title for this piece I flashed on a memory of an advertisement that ran years ago. A liquor distiller displayed a bottle of bourbon alongside a basket out of which were peering a litter of Siberian Husky puppies. The banner read, Call of the Mild. I thought that a very effective ad. You take the bourbon, I’ll take the puppies.

Of course, my mind immediately seized on the seeming contrast of wild and mild. Throughout my teens I was keenly interested in studying and understanding the behavior, indeed the world view, of non-human animals in the wild. Even then it seemed to me there were deep lessons for humanity there, but like daydreamers in classrooms we were too preoccupied with our own fantasies and self appointed status. While the Roswell “incident” spurred a quickly growing literature and film industry in “science fiction”, showcasing imaginary intelligent life elsewhere I felt we were ignoring a multitude of intelligent societies all around us because we were too unintelligent to recognize intelligence.

Just as I think we misuse the concept intelligence by vastly underestimating its forms and breadth, I think we misuse the word wild by misunderstanding its rules. We often read of wild parties, wild rides, and etc. with the implication the events were chaotic, unpredictable, even dangerously foolish. But anyone who has spent time observing non-human animals can attest there is nothing like that in “the wild”. Even play behavior is a form of varied training for skills necessary throughout later life.

So, what do we mean by wild? The easy, and most common answer is a plant or animal which has not been selectively bred over generations by humans to produce traits and behaviors desired by humans; they are not domesticated. In fact, many such domesticated species, especially animal, would not survive long after the withdrawal of human support; they have become dependent on humans. This is especially apparent in cases of large populations such as factory farmed animals. Were they to be released, the numbers vastly exceeding the available forage would doom most to starvation, many to malnutrition based disease, and a hardy very few to a limited lifespan.

What’s the take-away from all this? Not only is the human population nearing 8 billion and growing by the day, it is increasingly concentrated in urban centers which, in terms of natural support, are utter wastelands. True, rooftop gardens are gaining in popularity, and vacant urban lots are being exploited as neighborhood vegetable gardens. But these are paltry efforts in the face of oncoming climate change which will severely alter the distribution of rainfall and temperatures appropriate to the growing of food as we know it. Complicating things still further is the remarkable shift to living along seacoasts, a pleasing locale for now but soon to be taken back by the seas, as we already can measure. Clean air, food and water, not oil and gas, are the ultimate resources. As expanding concentrations of humans pour more pollutants into the air, land, and water and as the consequent climate change alters or destroys the usefulness of these resources we will increasingly see large populations migrating to those remaining areas assumed to still have useful resources. A primary justification for the Viet-Nam war was the Domino Theory, the idea that if Viet-Nam fell to the communists neighboring countries would soon follow. When Laos and Cambodia fell to the Pathet-Lao and the Kmer-Rouge the war hawks claimed vindication. Yet, it was not the fall of South Viet-Nam which brought those about; it was the bombing of the farmlands and paddies west of the Mekong river which ruined the land and drove the starving rural populations into the urban centers where there was little to no food to share with the populations already there. Did we learn from this? Look at Iraq, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen for your answers. Ask the people of Europe how they feel about the influx of migrants looking only to feed their families. Look a bit further back. Czarist Russia did not defeat Napoleon’s armies by force of arms. As the armies swept across Europe, living off the land, they marched deep toward Moscow only to find themselves on a burnt landscape walking among the rotting carcasses of livestock that could not be moved. In their retreat the Russians implemented a Scorched Earth policy. French numbers plummeted through starvation and disease. A basic look at “wild” populations would have brought home the message: Never let your numbers exceed their resources.

I’m not saying non-human animal populations consciously meter their numbers to their food resources. Perhaps they do, perhaps not. I am saying that those population numbers vary in direct relation to available food. Long before general malnutrition affects the population the excess young adults are pushed out and, in some cases, predators take the old, the sick, and the excess young. The only serious predator humans have is other humans. And these other humans have agendas far beyond simple access to resources. Christians in particular seem to feel they have a divine mandate. But the mandate has morphed from the biblical “being a good steward” to the materialist “dominion over Nature”. That these neo-materialists seem to have not even a rudimentary understanding of Nature makes no difference to their inexorable march toward their own Moscow. They will reap a scorched Earth, unfortunately taking us along in the process.

Our growing urban centers, along with their sprawling suburbs, are resource parasites. In order to meet the growing demand for food our farmlands are increasingly becoming chemical beds of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, our factory meat production consumes 85% of the antibiotics in this country. These pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and animals wastes run off into our waters including our aquifers. The Mississippi river delta spills out into an exponentially growing Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The fastest growing population there is a new species: oil drilling rigs.

There is renewed interest in terraforming other planets, such as Mars. This is just a 21st century version of “Go West, young man.” It is highly improbable, if not impossible that significant colonization of another planet can mitigate the disaster developing here. But if humans intend to survive on this planet they must immediately address what we must now call a World Emergency. Unlike the “National emergency” now declared by the Republican regime in its effort to build a monument to Trump, this emergency is real. We must take steps to reduce population growth, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and free ourselves from the oligarchs and the theocrats who dominate our societies, enslave the people financially and spiritually, and destroy the planet. We should decentralize our cities into manageable villages connected by electric transit. We should re-examine our educational system in order to stress ecology, ethology, and critical thinking beginning in the primary school system. We should educate and develop a workforce competent to efficiently produce renewable energy, free of fossil fuels. We need to break free of our own “domestication” which has entrapped us into narrow and limited thinking, doing the same things over and over as we obey the bidding of our masters. We need to stop imagining some future intervention that will save us, and get to work now. We need to get wild.

Oh, and if you read my column you should comment. We can’t converse if I do all the talking.

One day in class a particularly surly student challenged me with, If chimps are so smart, how come they don’t have cell phones? An ethological answer would have been too easy, and probably beyond his grasp. I simply answered, If humans are so smart, why do they have nuclear weapons?

False Peace

False Peace

by Marco M. Pardi

Peace, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.” Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) The Devil’s Dictionary. 1911.

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

Repeat readers know me as insistent on trying to establish the absolute bedrock of a concept before engaging in discussion. “False” is easily enough defined and agreed. But, “Peace”, well that’s another matter.

I conceive of peace in both an active and a passive sense. While in the U.S. Air Force I was in a Strategic Air Command Heavy Bomb Wing, also with ICBMs tipped with MIRVS. (Heavy = nuclear; ICBM = Intercontinental ballistic missile; and, MIRV = multiple independent re-entry vehicle). Most people know that military units have their distinctive patches and logos, from squadron level to the service branch itself. The SAC logo was a clenched armored gauntlet with an olive branch extending out the top and a lightning bolt out the bottom. Surrounding this was a banner reading, Peace Is Our Profession. Interestingly, it was emblazoned on each side of the nose of B-52 bombers – each carrying enough hydrogen bombs to bring “peace” to hundreds of square miles. During those years SAC had fully one third of its bomber force in the air twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. Part of the MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, philosophy, I saw this as an ironic example of active peace, comparable to a parent holding a hand over a child while telling it to behave.

How did we live our lives under the: now imminent – then remote – then possible likelihood of being vaporized as the Cold War could have turned Hot? We consoled ourselves with imagined narratives ranging from pseudo-psychological analyses of our “enemies” to fantasies that our side would prevail to revealed wisdom that the whole world is secretly ruled by the Illuminati and they would never kill off the unwitting slaves who keep them in comfort and power. False peace.

That the peace was false could also be seen in the plethora of proxy wars going on around the world through those years. The Korean Police Action (“Korean War” is legally a misnomer) saw the Chinese against the Americans and other signatory States such as Australia under the rubric Korean Police Action. The event was such that the U.S. military began seriously preparing for what was seen as the “eventual and inevitable land war against China”. In the late 1950’s, only a few years later Viet Nam was seen as a training ground for officers and non-commissioned officers who would be part of that war against China. While low ranking enlisted men, overwhelmingly short term draftees, were sent into Viet Nam on 12 month combat tours many officers were sent on 12 month tours which were split into 6 months administrative and 6 months in the field. The idea was to rotate as many officers through “Asian” combat as possible in training for the Chinese war. Of course, the damage done to the enlisted men by continuously inexperienced leadership showed in many ways, including the practice of “fragging” (killing with a fragmentation grenade) the inept officers.

This preparation showed in other ways. As American troops got larger and heavier the weapons got lighter and more powerful. Why? Because the proxy conflicts increasingly employed allies composed of lighter and smaller people. And, there was huge money to be made through arms sales to these people. We could say we were at peace so long as someone else was doing the fighting.

Toward the other end of the scale are the examples of inter-personal false peace. I am sure every reader knows of at least one couple in which one partner, or both, is living “a life of quiet desperation”. This may be from fear of financial ruin in a divorce, fear they are too old and unattractive to find someone else, or just fear of living alone. These are real fears and are not to be discounted. There are people who dream of going to their graves and pulling the dirt in after them. How many times, after someone we know divorces, have we thought, I never heard them argue?

So where do we find true peace? Is it to be found in distractions, new toys, shopping, religion, the ever increasing television programs? As a young man I took an interest in the monastic life though in the Buddhist tradition, not the Christian. Gods made no sense to me. This interest was no surprise. When I was six years old a Catholic nun asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. She probably expected fireman, policeman, etc. I said, Hermit.

Obviously, I never took the step of entering a Buddhist monastery, though I looked deeply into the philosophy and practices. Instead, an active life beckoned and I heeded the call – face first. And yes, during some very troubled years I found both the philosophy and the practices of Buddhism brought me peace. But I also found something else. I came to the firm conviction that just hiding myself away in a monastery (yes, I do know that one runs to a monastery, not away from something else) or even just sitting alone in meditation for extended periods each day (sorry, can’t do the Lotus position without disjointing my knees) will not bring me peace. In fact, I came to view that as selfish. At best it would bring me false peace.

I found that, for me, peace is to be found in sharing with others. I am not saying that I have the secret of peace to share, or even a guaranteed pathway to peace; I am saying that doing what I can to provide others with a venue for contemplation and, hopefully, deeper realization brings me peace. Admittedly, this requires a certain amount of vigilance on my part. Not only should I guard against trying to impose my realizations on others, I should also guard against unwarranted judgments on the merits of others’ realizations. But then there is the trap of moral relativism, the extension of validity to another point of view simply and only because it is held by another person and not on the merits of the point of view itself. As must be obvious to the readers of my articles there are ideas and behaviors I disagree with. Expressing my disagreement brings me more peace than retreating and listening only to myself. It is important to step forward and navigate the minefield of moral relativism; to say No when you feel No. Any of us who have quietly stewed at home, recalling an interaction with someone in which we did not speak our mind will know that peace is not attained through simple quiet. The turmoil and self-blame in your mind is louder and more uncomfortable than any outspokenness would likely have been.

Still, there is obviously a need for discretion in interacting with others. But all too often that need for discretion pushes us into interactions only with others who we expect will mirror our thoughts and feelings; the echo chamber effect. How often have we left such an interaction asking ourselves, What was gained by all that? When I was a prep school student I was asked to be on the school debating team. I did so, and the first thing I learned is that the “other side” will never publicly yield to your position. In fact, the point is not to convince them; it is to convince the audience. Thus, I had to learn to be at peace with what appeared to be a failure (the other side not yielding) and looking to the eventual judgment of the 3rd party – the audience.

This experience helped me to understand that I don’t have to convince everyone. I don’t have to achieve “total victory”. I can be at peace without that. The All or Nothing conflicts we see from the international to the interpersonal levels will not bring us peace no matter the distractions they offer in the interim. But staying withdrawn and silent is not the road to peace either. It brings us only False Peace.

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