Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Journals without End

Lined up on a shelf in the back of a closet in the middle bedroom, which is basically the ironing-cum-meditation room, you will see my journals—at least the ones that happen to be roughly the same size. I prefer the oversized journals, 8.5 x 11; they give my left-handed scrawl some room to operate. I've also got quite a few of those smaller moleskin journals, which are easier to take on a trip. And there are also a few oddball volumes, either leather-bound or cloth-bound and covered with little white dots. I even have a green alligator-skin journal, though I have no recollection of where that came from.

Perhaps that's the point of "journaling"—to improve our recollections.  If so, then it doesn't work all that well. But I suspect most people who write in journals do so not to remember things later, but to process things now. There is something about writing things down that solidifies experience, and especially those inconsequential moments when nothing is really happening.

A few days ago I came to the end of a journal that I started in February of 2014. The final entry reads, in part:

"It's been beautiful all day and I really don't know what to do about it. I was worried about the tomatoes I bought. They seemed a little soft when I pulled them out of the bag. In fact, they're the best tomatoes I ever ate..."

Yesterday I felt the urge several times to note some such state of being, vacuous emotion, or idle thought, but could not. I didn't have anything to write in. It was an odd feeling of hopelessness, as if I were about the drift off to some netherworld where absolutely nothing ever gets done.  

Don't get me wrong. "Journaling" is not something I do. The word connotes a determined and regular practice, like jogging or butterfly collecting. I would even hesitate to say that I "keep" a journal. It just happens that I write in a journal  sometimes. They can be painful and embarrassing books to look back on. Sometimes unbearable.

Just now I took a look at a journal from 1989, hit upon some rocky and emotional passages, and was on the verge of tossing the volume in the trash. Flipping to another page, I came upon a reference to a book called The Four Continents by Osbert Sitwell, where he refers to the ancient Cambodian habit of exporting kingfisher wings, and how that industry necessitated the construction of canals for which the country became famous. Osbert comments that the Khmer themselves are long gone, though the kingfishers continue to thrive.

This morning I ran some errands out near Ridgedale, one of which was to pick up a new journal. There are perhaps a hundred types on sale at Barnes and Noble  but nothing works better for me than a black Canson Art Book sketchpad with unlined white paper.

I never go into a bookstore without feeling a pang of nostalgia for my years in the book industry. I like book people, though I don't really fit in to that world. It's driven by an idealistic sense, which I share, that books are intrinsically inspiring, noble, and illuminating—not only what's written in them, but the books themselves, in a strange, almost fetishistic way. Unfortunately, undercurrents of disappointment and frustration are seldom far from the surface of the book world, because there's little money to made in it.

Perhaps that will be the first thing I write in my new journal: "Books are cool."  Somehow, I don't think so. More likely it will be something about vegetables, or the glorious weather we're having, or the strange sensation of wandering the aisles of Penney's looking for light-weight pajamas and saying to myself: So this is what shopping is like. Some people do this all the time.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

All Scientists Should Be Militant Humanists

An article appeared recently in the New Yorker in which an eminent scientist, Lawrence Krause, argues that all scientists ought to be militant atheists. The reasoning is clear in many places, but Krause's familiarity with religion is evidently meager and his faith in science unfounded. As a result, his conclusions are unsound.

Krause is correct to assert that science is an atheistic enterprise. That's just a one-word way of saying that appeals to a supreme being or to transcendental causes have no part to play in scientific explanation. That's true.

But being a scientist is not the same thing as being a human being, and anyone whose self-definition is limited to his or her methodology in the lab is likely to be a sorry excuse for a human being.

Why? Because as an approach to experience, science is categorically incapable of answering the big questions. Specifically, science will never tell us why we're here or what we ought to do next. And the attempt to scoff at such questions is likely to expose a shallow and largely uneducated mind.

Krause's article contains a number of valid points, but the entire piece is predicated on a sort of liberal tolerance (a position that I and many other readers of the New Yorker would fully endorse, by the way) that has nothing to do with science. It's a religious attitude, or better yet, an ethical and metaphysical one. The laws that the Kentucky clerk refuses to follow are based on such attitudes, though their validity rests not on divine revelation but on the constitutional system that instituted them.

Krause's blindspot is exposed, for example, when he describes the clerk's position in the following terms: "The laws from which they wish to claim exemption do not focus on religion; instead, they have to do with social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage."

Krause is evidently so unfamiliar with religions that he thinks they are merely a bundle of ideas—something that people think about. On the contrary, all religions are prescriptive in one way or another. They tell people what the universe is like, but also how one ought to behave in it. Some of these prescriptions are usually ritualistic and even superstitious, but many go beyond such "religious" practices to provide day-to-day rules of conduct. These are the injunctions and precepts that give religion its normative value, but also make it difficult sometimes for devout individuals to do their jobs.

I agree with Krause that the religion of the law trumps any personal religious views an individual might have. To think otherwise would be treasonous. Those who can't do a given job due to religious beliefs ought to be terminated— though they remain free, or course, to believe whatever they want to believe.  But Krause's basic differentiation between actions (politics) and ideas (religion) is unsound and misleading, because it's rooted in a view that intellectualizes, and therefore trivializes religious belief.

Everything becomes clearer once we acknowledge that the law of the land (politics, civil society) is itself a secular religion fraught with transcendental overtones. It doesn't conform to any specific sect or cosmology, but rather, advances a respect for individual freedom that's both deep-rooted and also brilliantly vague.

In any case, there's nothing scientific about it. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

State Fair 2015: Nature, Science, Art

We go to the state fair almost every year, but not for the food, the music, or the rides.

What keeps us coming back is the art, the animals, the informative nature exhibits, the crafts, the ingenious household gadgets, the agricultural displays, and the random encounters with the people who tend the booths.

And the colors everywhere.

It's fun to negotiate a familiar landscape that nevertheless changes year by year—a landscape unlike any other in the world, with so many wildly heterogeneous options that  no two visits end up being the same. A band might start playing, a parade might go by. One line might be too long, another might be conveniently short.  The log-rolling contest or the Pheasants Unlimited booth might catch your eye.

Someone in the education building will hand you a fan with a picture of the Pope on it. Someone in the Eco-building will give you a plastic device to time how long you spend in the shower. (Try to keep it under five minutes, please.)

All seasoned fair-goers have a strategy. Some make long journeys to the fairgrounds from the suburbs by bus, others know about secret parking stalls on the nearby St. Paul campus.

We usually approach from the west on East Hennepin, coming across Northeast Minneapolis on city streets past Surdyk's, Brasa, Eli's, the Cream of Wheat building, FinnSisu ski-sauna shop, and the old Gibbs Farm. We park in the Camel Lot (making sure not to get in the lane that gets sent down to the grandstand parking) and walk into the fairgrounds from the north, where the atmosphere is mellow and  we meet up with many of the things that interest us most before our legs get too worn out.

I don't know much about tractors, but I like to see the antique models on display on the fringes of the kiddy farm. They evoke that era when anyone who wanted to work and had some land could give farming a try.

Across the way are the hot tubs and the miniature cabins for sale.

I volunteered this year to tend the Citizen Science kiosk for an hour in the Eco-building, on the strength of having monitored the water clarity in Bassett Creek, which runs near our house, for the DNR all summer. During my sixty-minute stint I met a woman from Virginia, MN, whose mother might have taken a civics class from my grandfather. Her husband happened to a microbiologist and former president of the Minnesota Academy of Science. I also met a young man whose mother monitors the water quality on the St. Croix from the Stillwater bridge once a week. One middle-aged man I talked to, after learning about how the Viceroy and the Monarch butterflies relate to one another, asked me to explain why we only have one hummingbird species in Minnesota, while in Arizona they have ten.  And a woman from Wisconsin asked me to explain why she found a gray tree frog in her Weber grill the other day.

I'm pretty good at making things up, but that one put me to the test!

Several visitors asked me where they could buy milkweed seeds to support the migration of the  monarchs.(Prairie Restorations?)  By the time my hour was up, I was thoroughly  impressed by the levels of curiosity and awareness exhibited by passers-by.

During all this time, Hilary was at the Handicraft Building, looking at quilts and mittens and rag rugs and architecturally designed furniture. This was a good thing, because that meant  I didn't have to look at them so much later.

Once my shift was over, we spent a few minutes examining the other displays in the Eco-barn, which included a stand offering samples of an organic hot mustard dip for corn chips, and displays promoting the virtues of rain barrels and LED lights. In the lawn in front of the building we scrutinized a locally manufactured Vistabule teardrop trailer similar to one that our friends Jim and Debbie bought recently. It's a cute little trailer—basically a bed on wheels with a kitchen out back—and a Prius pulling it will still get 29 miles per gallon. 

We sat on a bench in the sun eating some mid-morning snacks—a foot long hotdog and a pronto pup— and then wandered into the art building, which was a little hotter, a little more crowded ... a little less exciting than usual? Or was I just a little more tired from having stood around for the last hour talking to strangers.

The image just inside the door, commanding an entire wall, was a lithograph of a tank. Not a good choice.

But by the time we'd finished our circuit I'd identified a number of favorites.  The works by people I know where uniformly stellar—Craig Lassig's photo of a very tired Obama, Clara Euland's intaglio print of the moon rising above a highway, Fay Passow's lithograph of a forest in crepuscular light, Mike Hazard's photo of a Hmong woman harvesting carnations.

Other works that caught my eye in a special way included a painting/collage that reminded me of William de Kooning:

 A huge black-and-white photograph of a man getting a haircut while sitting amid the roadside rubble of a village in India; a print with an animistic flavor done in the Northwest Coast style:

 A painting with German Expressionist overtones probably had the most gravity of any piece in the show:

 A delicate rendering of ice fishing seemed to capture the allure and also the boredom of that winter sport:

I was intrigued by a lovely photograph of a little girl with binoculars standing on a big rock look off at something beyond the edge of the picture, while a huge body of water vanishes into the distance right in front of her; I also liked a tall, thin, stylized rendering of some teepees and horses; and a delightful musical score covered not with notes or words, but with scribbles.

We spent the rest of the morning fighting our way to the carousel area in front of the grandstand, where a panel of local chefs underscored the importance of using fresh ingredients--for the ten-thousandth time. We bought some crab cakes and gumbo at a Caribbean restaurant/bar offering live Peruvian music, and watched a video of some iron ore being blasted out of an open-pit mine in the DNR building.