Thursday, July 06, 2017


The first look out of the window in the morning,
The old book found again
Enthusiastic faces
Snow, the change of the seasons,
The newspaper
The dog
Taking showers, swimming
Old music
Comfortable shoes
Taking things in
New music
Writing, planting
Being friendly.

Bertolt Brecht: “Pleasures”

Wednesday, July 05, 2017


Sometimes a word or a concept jumps out when I see or hear it repeatedly over a short time.  So if I were still a popular culture journalist, I'd be all over "kindness."  Is "kindness"a thing?

Maybe, but in any case I've noticed it more recently, as the formulation of a virtue that is newly prominent.  For me it probably started with President Obama's last talk with his last group of young White House interns when he counselled them: "Be kind, be useful, be fearless."  Such a homely word as "kind" was striking, especially as advice for ambitious young people.

Maybe it's because kindness is not usually on the list of attributes for those who want to be successful.  Ruthless or (more gently) "focused" is more likely.  It seems weak or at least too idealistic and spiritual, as in the "loving-kindness" that the Dalai Lama talks about.

But it seems to be getting better press lately.  A research project found that the key to actual lasting relationships is in fact kindness and generosity.   Last year it was revealed that Harvard considers evidence of kindness as important in prospective students.

Bill Nighy says in an interview somewhere that in theatre and on movie sets, nothing is more important for a project's success than kindness.  And for absolute cosmic affirmation there's the recent speech by a Time Lord, the Doctor: in the season finale which was also the last regular episode for Peter Capaldi as the Doctor:

“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone … or because I hate someone or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind." 

Clearly a lot of recent emphasis on kindness, including the Doctor's, is in reaction to the current regime in the White House and our apprentice dictator's policies as well as his words.  In an Independence Day Maris/PBS/NPR poll, about the only thing that the bisected American electorate could agree on is that civility in public discourse has fallen into a black hole since he took office.  And when Make American Kind Again makes it onto demonstration posters, it qualifies as a thing.

In an era of grandiosity, kindness is the most modest of virtues.  It's not as lofty as love, nor as searing as compassion.  It's not as abstract as altruism or as thoughtful and emotive as empathy.  It's not as formulaic as courtesy or fairness.

Although kindness can be reflected in public policy and social norms, it's an attribute for any individual under any circumstances.  Anybody can be kind, in any given moment.  An act of kindness may pass unnoticed. Yet it can make such a difference.  You see this in Dickens---his characters can be evil or weak or mean or dishonest in a dozen ways, but his good characters are good most often because they are kind.  Dickens' central characters survive the forms of evil because they cross paths with people who are kind.

What Dickens knew and our social "scientists" are learning is that kindness is just as much a part of human nature--with a vital role to play in our evolution--as the usual characteristics associated with survival of the fittest, and even the phrase "that's human nature."

But as the Doctor said, each act of kindness is not about winning.  It's just where you stand in life, who you are.  It is above all the act and commitment of an individual.  When it operates socially, in concert with others, it becomes the basis for civilization, which I maintain is all in the phrase "you'd do the same for me."

The present chaos is a preview of the future if as a society we can't deal with new dangers and conditions without hiding in denial and acting out helplessly and violently.  But even if as a society we don't straighten out--and we might--everything, including survival of anything we'd care to call human, will depend on virtues as large as courage, but also as simple as kindness.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Definitions of Independence

The Fourth of July: Independence Day. As a country today however, we are in some ways dangerously and stupidly dependent.

We are far too dependent on a vulnerable Internet and satellites (especially GPS) for far too much, without alternatives or adequate redundancy.

 We are way, way too dependent on other nations for our food and goods.  We are especially dependent on the smooth operation of complex transportation systems over great distances that are vulnerable in any number of ways.  Political instability, natural disaster and other foreseeable but ignored circumstances in key countries could set the entire house of cards tumbling down.

All of this is unnecessary in its scope and threat.  Laissez faire is how the attitude is described: leave it to the massive corporations maximizing profit to determine our dependence.  The sound of those French words suggests what is at the heart of it: laziness.  We are too lazy, too distracted to take sensible measures and precautions to protect our independence.  We could have local food sources and more manufacturing within the country, but we don't even discuss it except in the bullshit of the liar now in the White House who doesn't know how to approach the problems and never intended to anyway.

But in other vital ways, our independence depends on understanding our dependence on the whole: on the natural systems of the planet, and the international efforts that are necessary to address threats to everyone's life and liberty, far into the future.

The Fourth of July weekend is considered the first big holiday of summer.  And in most of the world, it is hot.  It is very hot.  In too many places, it is dangerously hot.

It was hot already in early June.  In Europe, the June heat waves were linked directly to the climate crisis.  Until recently, scientists could not attribute individual events like a heat wave to the climate crisis, although such events were predicted in climate crisis models.  But now they can.  And last month they did.

A new study suggests where in the United States the climate crisis will have the largest effects, but for the moment let's stay with Europe.  The heat there has the full attention of government leaders, and some statements by German chancellor Angela Merkel did not get the attention they deserve, because they were quite ominous.

In advance of the G20 meetings, in which our apprentice dictator is scheduled to take part, Merkel took a step farther than her previous suggestion that Europe needs to look to its own affairs without expecting outside help.  Her new statements are a warning--at these meetings and in general, Europe is going to be dealing with what they need to do to confront and address the climate crisis, and anybody who isn't interested in that agenda will simply be ignored.

On this issue in particular, Europe is declaring its independence (although more than willing to listen to Governor Jerry Brown and other state, city and regional U.S. leaders who are serious people with serious ideas about addressing the causes and consequences of the climate crisis.)  And if they were willing to indulge the a.d. on anything, his last series of appalling tweets have given the Europeans plenty of motivation to simply turn their backs on him.

That's not the only likely drama of those meetings.  Regarding the U.S., it will be how much damage our a.d. will do, childishly miffed by being ignored by all but his mentor in Russia, Putin, with whom he is meeting (though as usual without much of an agenda or reason to meet.)

Meanwhile, thousands of Americans have declared their independence from their own president and his regime, with rallies over the weekend in dozens of cities (but especially in L.A., NYC and San Francisco) in support of his impeachment.

I wrote back in January about mourning for the presidency, but it's worse now to be watching the presidency being drawn and quartered in the public square.  The integrity of the government, such as it was, is also being torn limb from limb, as the president and his family profit from office and openly corrupt government officials--notably the EPA--do the bidding of corporations.

These are ugly, sickening sights and sounds.  Contemplating the history and hopes associated with Independence Day may remind us, however grimly, of the country we should have.  For these days the only independence is resistance.

Update: On this Independence Day the big news is North Korea's first successful test of a missile capable of reaching the U.S., although not yet the lower 48. (This Times piece linked above is a good short summary of the total situation, which would test even a very good president.)  Another Times piece notes that analysts believe that even with this test, North Korea is several years away from being capable of launching an ICBM with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching a U.S. target.

The a.d.'s response was alarmingly disengaged, with a joke most a stand up comics would reject.  His past bluster has not only been ineffective, it shows him up as a bluffer with little credibility. 

  This is shaping up to be the critical situation that was bound to happen sooner or later.  It brings into sharper relief his unfitness for office--as in this oped entitled The greatest threat facing the United States is its own president, and contrary to some I have no more confidence in the foreign policy people of  his regime.

Final Update: To round out this Independence Day: When NPR tweeted the Declaration of Independence line by line, some supporters of the apprentice dictator trolled them for anti-a.d. propaganda.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Head Lines

In recent years it's become my tradition to hike the Trinidad Head on my birthday.  It's not the only time I do it, but it's become a ritual of that day.  It's the first time this year though, and the first time since President Obama declared the Trinidad Head a National Monument, along with other features on the Pacific coast.

Hasn't changed anything--the trail is still rocky and narrow, which is reassuring in a way. This year on 30 June it was cloudy but bright when I started, and I could see the fog coming in as I headed up.

By the time I reached my favorite bench, you couldn't see the ocean anymore.  I went on to the top just to make it official.  My windbreaker and glasses were wet by the time I got back down.

A Spanish ship sailed into Trinidad Bay in June 1775, named the place Trinidad because it was the feast of the Trinity, and sailed away.  The Yurok lived near here, and they were left in peace for another 75 years.  But once the 49ers came, it took only a decade or so before their way of life for thousands of years was destroyed forever.  Their descendants are nearby.