Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Truth as metaphor

Some 2000 years later, I'm still haunted by the question that Pilate posed to Christ. "What is truth?"

As I stated in an earlier post, I believe that truth is unknowable.

Certainly, our attempts to empirically describe truth --the scientific disciplines --are inadequate. Mathematics, physics, natural history, et alia are founded on assumptions that invariably prove to be inadequate or erroneous as our understanding of the Universe increases. (Remember, just a few short centuries ago, scientists believed that all matter was composed of only four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.)

In the end, empirical knowledge of the Universe will always be imperfect and incomplete. Our human brains are finite, after all.

But humanity does have a tool with which to describe truth, and that is metaphor.

While empirical truth is short-lived and imperfect, metaphor is extemporaneous. Metaphor, by its nature, must be interpreted. Interpretations evolve as knowledge advances. Enduring metaphors, then --metaphors that withstand constant examination and reinterpretation --are as close to eternal truths as humans can conceive.

Referring to another post that I wrote about 5 years ago, I believe that, at their core, this is what the great faiths of the world have to offer humanity. The stories, the mythology that comprise these faiths (which are the distilled wisdom of thousands of years of human experience) --whether Christ's crucifixion, Mohammed's mountain moving, or Rama's battle with Ravana --are not descriptions of actual events, but metaphors that suggest truths that run deeper than human perceptions.

There is not, nor could there ever be, empirical evidence to prove, for example, that Moses parted the Red Sea in order to effect the escape of his people from Egypt 3500 years ago. To believe the literal truth of the story is preposterous. But what if the Red Sea story is a metaphor? What lesson might be taken from the story?

And if metaphor is mankind's highest expression of truth, then art is the pinnacle of human achievement. Because all art is metaphor, yes?

Here's a few short, famous metaphors to consider. What do you think? Might these qualify as eternal truths?
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. --William Shakespeare

I am the good shepherd, … and I lay down my life for the sheep. --The Bible, John 10:14-15
All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind. --Khalil Gibran

Monday, January 28, 2013

Best time of day

God, what next?

A bullied child in Tigard took his own life. A deranged man bought a border collie puppy, took it home, got drunk, and stabbed it to death with a kitchen knife. Another boy's been missing for two-and-a-half years. They're posting age-advanced likenesses on trucks in Oregon and Washington. All of this was on the local news.

Even in our own little world, Maty's and mine, uncertainty and apprehension loom. She's been under the weather and I've been worried. When I'm worried, I'm surly and impatient --sometimes even cruel. There has been too much snarling and snapping at our house lately. All of it mine.

Maty was home from work today. When I got there she was wrapped in a blanket on the couch watching Lifetime Channel movies. The laundry was running in the basement and the house was warm and clean. When she saw me, her face brightened despite my sour expression.

"Let's look for my ticket," she said.

So, I grabbed the laptop and sat down next to her. Together, we poked around for a deal on airfare to Dakar, where Maty is going this summer. Then I showed her some photos from yesterday when I had birthday breakfast with my family.

Then we talked about my upcoming trip to China and her's to Senegal. We sat close; she put her head against my shoulder and watched while I googled. We could hear the slap of the rain on the sidewalk.

Soon enough, I felt like an ass for worrying, for losing faith. What a foolish thing to do! Of course everything will be alright. Of course we'll overcome! No matter what, we've got a lot to laugh and be happy about. We're living a marvelous tale.

That Maty. Somehow, she always gets me back there.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Birthday wish

I wish my thoughts were long, long thoughts,
Like sunset shadows cast on lawns
Or chasms spanning dusks to dawns

I wish my thoughts were vast and wide
Like filmy slicks spread on waters
Where inky squids birth inky daughters

I wish my thoughts were tried and true
Like timeless music with no beat
That everyone would know by heart

But Leonard Cohen I'll never be
So God please be good to my wife
Give what peace can be had in this life

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Eased the Civic out of Fred Meyer's parking lot, orange-tinged opaque plastic prescription bottle in pocket. On the passenger's seat, her absence and a 4 ounce bottle of Hibiclens.

The rain was my excuse for not walking. It has only just returned to the Rose City after a spell of cold, clear weather that left frosty bristles on the furze near the river. A deeper excuse is that I'm feeling surly and resentful and f*ck it all anyway. Here's hoping that the recent frosts claimed many slug eggs. That they precluded the existence of many springtime mosquitoes.

But I did get smiles from two people. The first came from the cashier at Walgreen's. She was a jokey gal with a gleam in her eye and an overt willingness to be friendly. Surprisingly, the second smile came from the young man behind the counter at Freddie's pharmacy. He was another matter. He didn't bother to look up from the computer monitor while I gave him my information, but tersely directed me to "Have a seat" before turning away. So I was surprised to receive a broad, amiable grin from him when he called me back up, prescription in hand.  Who knows? Maybe he got a call from his girlfriend, the cashier at Walgreen's.

On the way out, a woman, her shoulders sagging against the weight of two fully-loaded brown paper bags, set off the security alarm just in front of me. She stopped short and I nearly stumbled into her. "Oh, excuse me," she said. Her expression revealed mild apprehension, as if she were expecting a dirty look. But I wasn't that kind of angry. "Not at all, ma'am," I said. I tried to shoot her a reassuring smile.

As I eased the car out into the intersection of SE 38th and Main, I wondered about the implications of attaching significance to every human encounter, no matter how trivial.

And it occurred to me that lonely people are seldom in a hurry.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Inauguration 2013

Actually, President Obama's second term began yesterday. Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath of office in a small private ceremony at the White House on Sunday.

Today was spectacle. And it was quite a show. The pageant's seduction pulls at you even through the television. I can only imagine how it would be to be standing in the cold on the national mall, one of some 800,000 eye-witnesses to the event. Powerful magics are at work. It takes a willful soul not to get caught up in the moment.

Washington is the President's town. He has an agenda. He has the confidence of his party. He has the support of the public. His opponents are in disarray. The historical moment is ripe.

How encouraging, then, were these words from the Inaugural Address?
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.  We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.  The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.  That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.  Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage.  Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty.  The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm.  But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.
For a proud liberal like me, these words play like a symphony: an acknowledgment of our responsibility toward each other and toward humanity; a dismissal of the prejudice and fear that impedes us; a humble pride in our nobility.

Godspeed, America.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hayseed sheriffs proudly display their ignorance

Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller looking mighty proud

No sooner had Vice-President Biden made his recommendations regarding federal gun policy in the wake of the recent gun-related horrors across the country than local-yokel dingbats --excuse me --duly-elected county officials in Linn, Curry, and Crook Counties, right here in Oregon, felt it their duty to pen letters to the President. The sheriffs of each of those counties informed the President that they will not  enforce any federal gun regulations that they --those sheriffs! --deem unconstitutional.  Those sheriffs!  (Read about it here.)

Leave aside the fact that neither the President nor the Vice-President have proposed anything unconstitutional (least of all confiscating weapons from law-abiding citizens). The reaction from the three county officials in question, Sheriffs Mueller (Linn County), Hensley (Crook County), and Bishop (Curry County) bespeak an ignorance of basic civics that is startling. (You can read the President's proposals here.)

Within the text of the letter written by Linn County's Sheriff Mueller is this key paragraph:
Any federal regulation enacted by Congress or by executive order of the President offending the constitutional rights of my citizens shall not be enforced by me or by my deputies, nor will I permit the enforcement of any unconstitutional regulations or orders by federal officers within the borders of Linn County Oregon.
On the one hand, it is mighty encouraging to think that the good folks in Linn, Curry, and Crook county are served by such knowledgeable sheriffs. Constitutional scholars aren't a dime a dozen, you know?  Imagine!  On-the-fly constitutional interpretation by tinhorn errand boys. What could go wrong?

But, on the other hand, you know, if we really want to adhere to the US Constitution, it might be good to remember that interpreting it is a duty that falls to the federal courts. It's written in there. As Jeff Manning, of the Oregon Department of Justice said: "The fact is the constitutionality of rules is determined by the courts, not by sheriffs."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book review: Wicked Portland

The most recent selection for the Five Friends book club was Wicked Portland by Finn J. D. John. Finn is a local author and long-time friend of Will Johnson, so we had the pleasure of discussing our selection (Monday night, at the Horse Brass Pub) with the author himself.

Wicked Portland is an examination of Portland's early days as a "wicked" frontier seaport.  Finn assays the Rose City in its nascence, at times confirming, at other times debunking the myths that abide. Was Portland really the most notorious shanghai city on the Pacific Rim? Who were the players that ran the town in that somewhat lawless era between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century? 

I thought I detected a certain affection in Finn's descriptions of the young city. (He's a local, after all.) He lays forth the composition of Portland's denizens: upright, respectable New England entrepreneurs, salt-of-the-earth Midwestern farmers, hard-working and oppressed Chinese immigrants, and rough-cut, sleazy gold seekers, lumberjacks, and sailors. Portland, as he describes it, is an amalgamation of all these elements. Together they created a city with a veneer of respectability and a thriving underground of sleaze (much as it exists today).

The book is chock full of colorful personalities: Boneyard Mary, the lady of the evening who made her home on a mothballed steamboat and who was the prime suspect in an unsolved murder, Jonathan Bourne, Jr., the mining magnate who used his (questionable) influence to procure a seat in the Oregon state legislature, and then the US Senate.

In a nod to today's "wired-in" technology, Wicked Portland includes QR codes which you can scan with your mobile device for more information on a particular topic. I found these codes to be more of a distraction than anything else. (Probably due to my mulish clinging to "old ways.")

But I especially enjoyed the old photographs of Portland that abound in the book. Viewing photographs and artistic depictions of Portland in the late 1800s provides a depth of understanding that any self-respecting Portlander should crave. My great-grandfather, Jesse Metzger, was born in Gresham in the 1870s, so the photos allow me to see Portland as it must have appeared to him, eight decades before I was born.

Although Finn's book is well-researched, he makes generous allowance for the ambiguous nature of truth. Some of the stories in the book source a fellow from Depression-era Portland with the colorful name of "Spider" Johnson (so far as we know, no relation to our own Will).

The ~150 years of Portland's existence is hardly significant on an historical scale. But time corrodes truth like rust on iron. As Finn acknowledges, the truth is mostly unknowable. But Wicked Portland lays a stake in the ground, a headstone for the once-and-still wicked City of Roses.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Seven years married

Funny. Even after 7 years of marriage, I'm still mystified.

Back in 2004, Maty left her home in Burkina Faso's capital city, Ouagadougou, to come to America. When the opportunity presented itself, Maty was working in her mother's Senegalese restaurant --keeping books, cooking, waiting tables. The chance came out of the blue and in the typical African way: someone knew someone who knew someone else. There was little time to consider. Maty had to decide: would she go or would she stay? That's the way these things work in Africa.

Within three weeks, Maty, knowing no more than a dozen English words and with no real idea what awaited her, was on a plane bound for Portland.

She brought little beyond the goodness of her heart and the words of her father who, in those last days in Africa told her "I have little advice I can give you. Only this: that you should pray. And that you must trust God."

That is as much as I know about it --about how the cosmic gears churned to bring about this love of mine.

So, ever since the day I came to know her, I've been perplexed. Why would a young woman leave her home and family for an uncertain future in a faraway land?

It could well be that my lack of understanding is because of my extreme good fortune in having been born and raised here, in the land of peace and plenty. I've always lived in Oregon. My family and friends have always been close. There is security in that. If the bottom ever fell out on my little life, there are people to whom I could turn for help.

Maty has tried (many times) to explain it to me. She says there was never any doubt that she should come here. For many millions around the world, the Promise of America is a beautiful, unattainable dream. To refuse her chance at that promise would be to decline a blessing from God.

And even though I don't completely understand, there is an element to her explanation that resonates.

When we met, I was 43 years old, divorced, and resigned to the probability that I would spend the rest of my life without a partner. So when my own Golden Promise arrived --the promise of an honorable, beautiful young woman to love and to be loved by --I quickly realized that I'd be a fool to decline.

It's turned out to be the single best decision I've ever made in my life.

Happy anniversary to my love, Maty Bombay Cariaga.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Solace for doubters

In winter, Portland huddles under a blanket of heavy slate. The leaden strata smothers the city, mocking the hopeful visions afforded by fleeting, bright summer.

Winter is a dark time. Dark times foster introspection and doubts, as with the sailor in Father Flynn's sermon:
A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down, and only one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail, and being of a nautical discipline turned his eyes to the heavens and read the stars.

He set a course for his home, and, exhausted, fell asleep.

Clouds rolled in, and for the next 20 nights, he could no longer see the stars.

He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. And as the days rolled on, and the sailor wasted away, he began to have doubts.

Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death?

No way to know. The message of the constellations, had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance?

There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe, and I wanna say to you, doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.

When you are lost, you are not alone.
It's winter in Portland.

And if it is bright and clear today, we can be sure it won't stay that way for long. So, fellow doubters, take your bearings and set your courses while the light lasts.

And please believe me. You are not alone.

As Jackson Browne put it:
Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don't let the uncertainty turn you around
(the world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you'll never know

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Right-wing heads exploding

"I'm here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms! Doesn't matter how many lemmings you get out there on the street, begging for 'em to have their guns taken. We will not relinquish them. Do you understand?! That's why you're going to fail, and the establishment knows, no matter how much propaganda, the republic will rise again!"
Thus spake right-wing radio talk show host and "Second Amendment advocate" Alex Jones on Monday night, while debating CNN's Piers Morgan. (You can view the segment here.)

Unhinged? Perhaps. But Jones' rant is also revealing.

It's not just the "guns" issue. There's a whole list of things that send Tea Party people into a frothing rage: the GOP defeat on the "fiscal cliff" issue, the reality of Obamacare as the law of the land, the inevitable movement toward federal recognition of same-sex marriage, the national realization for the need to legitimize undocumented immigrants.

So, what's behind all this rage? Deeply-held convictions?


Take Jones' rant above and substitute "1860" for "1776" and "South" for "republic" and I think we're getting to the gist of the matter.

Right-wingers are driven into paroxysms of rage and hysteria out of frustration. They see that demographic changes and the diminution of the white, Christian majority that futurologists have long foretold are real. They despair that the conservative "Golden Age" (which was always a myth anyway) is gone forever. So now that it is dawning on them that they are destined to become less and less relevant in national debates, their frustration manifests itself in threats of violence and armed revolution

Meanwhile, the Republican party (as distinct from "conservatives") continues its national meltdown. Until the GOP can regroup and find a leader who is acceptable on a national scale, we're going to hear more of this kind of talk.

But nothing will come of it. Aside from the absurdity of the idea that gun-toting yokels could overthrow the federal government, I don't think people like Jones have the courage of their convictions. In the end, they'll sit back, punch the remote button, and settle in with their pork rinds and NASCAR races.   

Last year's election is a gift that keeps on giving.  Enjoy the show, progressives. 

Monday, January 07, 2013

Another mass shooting

Scene from the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting.  Not the one that happened in July, but the latest one that occurred last weekend.

Five days into 2013 and we've had another mass shooting. Four dead, including the shooter.

This is the fifth mass shooting in the last month. 

  • In Tulare County, California, on December 10, 2012, a gunman killed himself and 5 family members.
  • The next day, December 11, 2012, Jacob Tyler Roberts opened fire in a shopping mall in Clackamas, killing 2 bystanders before turning his weapon on himself.
  • Three days after that, on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman killed his mother, then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 26 people, including 20 first-grade children, before killing himself.
  • Ten days later, in Webster, New York, on Christmas Eve, a gunman set his house on fire, took position on a nearby berm, and ambushed and murdered two responding firefighters before killing himself.
This latest shooting occurred on January 5th, in Aurora, Colorado. Authorities haven't yet released all the details, but it involved a five-hour stand-off with police. The shooter, a so-far unidentified male, was holed up in a townhouse where he had killed three people. Police eventually shot and killed him.

This was the second mass shooting in Aurora in the last 6 months. Back in July another deranged killer opened fire in a movie theater, killing 12 and wounding 58.

Remember how, after 911, the entire nation was on the brink of hysteria at the thought of hidden terror cells within the United States? Well, Osama bin Laden is dead. Don't we all feel safe now?

How many mass shootings will we endure in these United States in 2013?  Five?  Ten?  Two dozen?

If we're not going to do anything about them (and, please, Mr. LaPierre, spare me the cockamamie bullsh*t about arming school teachers), can we at least lay off the mournful fakery?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Guns in America

There are an average of 11 gun deaths per day in the United States.  At least 6 mass shootings occurred in the United States in 2012.  Would anyone care to guess how many there will be in 2013?

In 2002, there were over 9,000 gun-involved homicides in the United States.  Compare that with the numbers of such homicides in Japan (47), Canada (144), or the United Kingdom (14) which all impose restrictions on gun ownership.

These numbers offer stark evidence of the need to address gun violence in the United States.  Listed are what I believe to be good common sense measures.  Some of these measures have already been taken.  In those cases, we need to do more to enforce them:
  • Register all gun sales
  • Prevent convicted felons from obtaining guns  
  • Ban the sale of extended ammo clips, armor-penetrating bullets, and semi-automatic assault rifles
  • Require that gun-owners obtain a firearms safety license (just as we require folks to pass a safety test to obtain a drivers license). 
I've been around guns much of my life.  At my dad's house on Klamath Lake, in Southern Oregon, we had a gun cabinet, right next to the refrigerator.  It was never locked; the cabinet didn't even have a lock.

Within were several shotguns (two 12-gauge and a 20-gauge), a couple .22 rifles, two 30.06 hunting rifles, a vintage .303 British rifle from World War II, and several small-caliber pistols, as well as pellet guns and bee-bee guns.  The closet also contained ammunition.

The Cariaga household was always full of kids.  The kids had access to the guns.  We used them to hunt geese and deer.  Sometimes we'd shoot them for fun, practicing our marksmanship on varmints or beer bottles.  We shot them from the deck just off the living room that overlooked Klamath Lake.  

I say all this to establish that I'm not afraid of guns.  I don't "blame" guns for the four mass shootings that have occurred in the United States in the last month.  I blame people.

So-called "Second Amendment proponents" claim that having guns in a household serves to protect that household from violent crime.  But, according to a study (which you can read here) by the New England Journal of Medicine, the opposite is true.  That study found that "keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide... Virtually all of this risk involved homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance."

Anecdotal evidence reinforces this finding.  The first victim of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, was his mother, Nancy Lanza.  Ms. Lanza was a gun enthusiast who took her son to target practice at the shooting range.  Acquaintances said she was proud of her gun collection and would boast of it at a local watering hole.  On December 14, 2012, her son used one of those guns to kill her. He shot her twice in the head as she slept.

But I can get a touch more personal with the anecdotes, if you prefer.

More than once, growing up, I saw guns brandished in highly volatile situations.  Passions ran high in the Cariaga household.  One dreadful night a weapon was discharged inside the house.  The bullet passed through the wall of the kitchen and into the basement.

Like I said, I'm not afraid of guns.  I'm afraid of people. People can't be trusted with guns.