Welcome to An Examined Life. Occassionally I delude myself into thinking that I understand some part of my life (or life in general) and I thought it might be a hoot to share those thoughts with whomever happens to stumble across this. I hope you find something enjoyable here. If I'm really lucky, I'll make you stop and think for a moment.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Five Years

There’s a pair of his shoes in the garage.
They’re black
So you couldn’t see the soot on them when I brought them home
It’s been five years now
Something white has begun to appear on the surface
But I still don’t know what to do with them

There’s a bag of his underwear in my closet
Most of his clothes went to Goodwill
He got a lot of clothes from thrift shops
So I think he’d appreciate that
But Goodwill doesn’t take underwear
And it didn’t feel right to just throw them away
And I still don’t know what to do with them

Soot was everywhere
On everything
It came home with me when I brought his things home
It got on my hands and on my clothes
And it took six washings to get it out of his clothes
Traces of it still linger
In the garage on the shoes and the jacket hanging there
And I can still smell it on warm days
It’s been five years and it is still there
And all it takes is a line in a TV show
Or a phrase in a song
And I can feel it
On my hands
In my heart
In my failure

Monday, July 24, 2017

Happy Birthday, Amelia

Amelia Earhart was born 120 years ago today.

This entry can trace its origins to thoughts I was having right after the events of 9/11. The word “hero” was used a lot then and it still seems to be used more than I remember it being used before 2001. At the time, the term hero was used – rightly so, I think – for the first responders. Since then, anyone who does anything even remotely remarkable seems to be a hero. I’ve even see the word hero applied to dogs (see http://www.herodogawards.org/) and cats (http://www.pawnation.com/2012/08/15/hero-cat-alarm-clocks/). As one who studies human cognitive abilities that really bugs me, but I digress. Back in 2001 I began thinking about heroes and, when I did, three names consistently came to mind: Jean Luc Picard (captain of the Starship Enterprise, played by Patrick Stewart), Jimmy Brock (the sheriff in the series Picket Fences, played by Tom Skerritt), and Sam Beckett (the time traveler in the series Quantum Leap, played by Scott Backula). It troubled me that my heroes are all seemed to be fictional characters.

For a while I flirted with the idea of investigating – as a psychologist – what made people call other people heroes. I did a quick search of the psychological literature and came up with very little. As I recall, the little I did find referred to Jung, which seemed like a colossal waste of time (don’t get me started on Jung – or Freud – I’m on a roll here).

I did a little searching online, as well. The word hero is believed to come from a Greek word that meant “protector” or “defender” and is a cognate of a Latin verb which means “to preserve whole.” Overall, the meaning seems to be “protector” and that certainly applies to first responders. It also applies to my fictional character heroes; they can all be seen as protectors. Larger than life, but protectors. They were characters that I could aspire to be like.

But, they’re fictional and that still bothered me. There were real people who I admire and who I, to the small extent that I can, endeavor to emulate. Harry Chapin and Pete Seeger are two musicians I admire. Alan Boneau, Bob Holt, and Jay Wilson are teachers who inspire my teaching. John Lipp taught me a lot about how to be a leader. But I don’t think of them as heroes.

And then there’s Amelia Earhart.

My interest in Amelia is the result of a somewhat long and convoluted process. I am, in my leisure time, a model railroader (see my Piedmont Subdivision page). Scrolling through eBay one afternoon, however, I stumbled across a listing for a kit from AHM’s All the World’s Aircraft series. It purported to be an HO scale model of Wiley Post’s Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae. I’m not sure why (except maybe the novelty of finding an HO scale airplane - there aren't a lot of those), but I bought the kit. Sometime later I decided to assemble it and went online to do a little research. I learned a great deal about Post and Winnie Mae, but then I found a review that mentioned that the kit was undersized. So, I looked up the wingspan of a Vega and measured the model. Sure enough, it was too small. As I recall, the actual scale of the kit was about 1/100 (HO scale is 1/87).

My interest had been piqued, however, and I started looking for a larger scale model of a Vega. I found an eBay listing for a 1/48 scale Winnie Mae by AMT. It was cheap, so I clicked the “Buy It Now” option and snapped it up. When it arrived, I was a bit disappointed. The airframe itself seemed OK, but the decals were badly yellowed and missing many of the markings that were plainly visible of photos that I found of Winnie Mae. Worse, the “clear” parts had a pronounced pink tint to them. Nothing I ever found mentioned that Winnie Mae had pink tinted windows.

I decided to focus on the easy problem first; I went online to find replacement decals. I discovered Red Pegasus decals and their set for Winnie Mae. Right below them, however, was listed a set for Amelia Earhart’s Vegas. I’m not sure why, but I ordered both sets.

I still wasn’t sure what to do about the windows. I considered ordering another AMT kit, but I wasn’t sure how to ensure that I’d get one with clear parts that were actually clear. As I pondered that, though, I found myself reading more and more about Amelia Earhart. At this point, I’ve read about half a dozen biographies and Amelia’s book For the Fun of It (I’m trying to stay away from all the books arguing for the various theories about her disappearance). She grew up with an alcoholic father and her family often struggled financially. She spent a big part of her life not really sure what she wanted to do. And then she did some absolutely amazing things. Her Lockheed Vega is in the Air and Space Museum in Washington. I’ve seen it. It’s 27 and a half feet long and has a wingspan of 41 feet. She flew it across the Atlantic. Alone. Then she flew it across the United States, the first woman to fly solo and nonstop across the US. She was an outspoken advocate for equality for women. She didn’t just talk the talk, though. She told women that they could and should do anything that men could do and then she went out and showed everyone that it could be done.

Dictionary.com notes that in the Homeric period of classical mythology, a hero was “a warrior-chieftain of special strength, courage, or ability.” Picard, Brock, and Beckett all certainly had special strength, courage and ability.

And so did Amelia Earhart. From what I’ve read, she’d argue this point with me, but she was – she is – a hero. Happy birthday, Amelia.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What I Don’t Understand About God (Part 4)

Not long ago I discovered that one of my Facebook friends – a former student named Sean – had actually replied to a couple of my earlier posts on this topic. The last time that anyone commented on one of my posts was back in 2012, so I’d gotten out of the habit of looking for comments. So, first off, an apology to Sean for taking so long to respond.

Sean’s response was one of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking responses that I’ve ever received on these issues (but that’s typical of him). He recommended a book on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas that will be, as of my next Amazon order, added to the Monster (There’s a time-eating monster in my basement composed of books that I want to read. It’s growing at an alarming rate.)

One of Sean’s assumptions (which he clearly labeled as such, thank you) was that God is all-good and perfect. From there he proceeds to the idea that when God created Adam and Eve, the only way that they could be different from God (who is all-good and perfect) is if they were in some way defective. I have a problem with that. It says that Adam and Eve were doomed from the start. No matter how well-intentioned they might have been, no matter how obedient they tried to be, they were going to fail. Taking them to task over that failure seems unfair to me.

I am something of a maker myself. Among other things, I have built model locomotives and written a few computer programs. More often than I would like (but less often as I’ve developed my skills), I don’t get things quite right: the drive train in the locomotive isn’t lined up just right and the locomotive doesn’t perform as desired or the code isn’t quite right and the program does some unexpected (usually undesirable) thing. The responsibility for those failures doesn’t belong to the locomotive or to the program. They’re simply performing as I built them. As their maker, I am responsible for their flaws. I can either go back in and try to correct them or I can learn to live with them. God’s response to Adam and Eve’s flaw – to hold them and all of their descendents responsible and punish them all (Genesis 3:16-19) – seems really unjust to me.

All of this led me to reread the story of the creation of humanity. My understanding of the story before now was that God created Adam and Eve. They lived in Eden – a paradise – where they could do pretty much whatever they wanted except to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They disobeyed that one commandment and as a result were driven from paradise into a world of sorrow, pain, and reality TV.

Rereading the story was an interesting experience.

So, God created Adam and plunked him down in Eden as a gardener (Genesis 2:15) and tells him that he can eat whatever fruit he wants, except for the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:16). Interestingly, God appends what turns out to be a falsehood to the commandment: “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” We find out later that not only does Adam not die right when he eats the fruit, but that he lives a good long life.

Then Adam suffers from a bit of mission creep. God now asks him to add taxonomist to his job description and he has to name all of the critters that God creates (Genesis 2:18-20). Let’s skip over the fact that this order – make a man first and then all the animals – contradicts what was said in Genesis 1 (plants and animals on days 4 and 5 and man on day 6) and just move on. Since none of the animals was a “suitable helper” for man, God created a woman (Genesis 2:21-24). Chapter 2 closes by noting that they were naked and were not ashamed (to which I respond, why should they be?). Given later material, the intent here was to show that they did not know good from evil, right from wrong.

Chapter 3 starts with the serpent speaking to Eve. The serpent asks about what fruits Adam and Eve may eat and in Genesis 3:2-3 she replies, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” Once again that falsehood has been stated and the serpent calls it out: “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:4-5).” Twice now the author of Genesis writes that God lied about the effects of eating the fruit.

We all know what happened next. Eve took the fruit, gave some to Adam, and they ate it. Thus, they broke God’s one commandment. But, think about this carefully. Yes, they ate the fruit they were told not to eat. But, what fruit was it? The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Prior to eating it, they would not have understood that eating it was wrong even though they had been told not to; they didn’t know the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong. To illustrate the change, the author notes that they now knew they were naked and covered themselves (Genesis 3:7). So their “sin” was committing an act that – within the logic of the story – they did not and could not know was wrong. How is punishing them for that act just? Even flawed human systems of justice get that: we treat children and those with diminished mental capacity differently.

And, as I noted above, God didn’t just punish Adam and Eve (and the serpent), the ones who actually committed the “sin.” He punished all of their descendants, too (Genesis 3:16-19). I just can’t understand how that qualifies as good or just.

Now, the way I’ve usually heard the story is that Adam and Eve were driven from Eden because they broke God’s commandment. That’s not, however, what is reported in Genesis. Chapter 3 closes this way:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.

So, Adam and Eve were actually driven from Eden to keep them from becoming immortal (which, incidentally, contradicts one of Sean’s claims about prelapsarian man).

I want to close with one thing I do understand. I understand Eve’s motivation. “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise [emphasis added], she took from its fruit and ate… (Genesis 3:6). She sought wisdom, she sought knowledge. I cannot fault that, the same seeking is at the root of why I do what I do. To learn, to discover, to – in John Denver’s words – “be part of the movement and part of the growing, part of beginning to understand…” What higher purpose could there be? To tell the truth, faced with the choice, I’d have eaten the bloody fruit, too.