Simple Wisdom

On another blog of mine I had been posting a series of short pieces of simple wisdom. That blog began as “Evenings in Paradelle” and I intended it to be shorter weekday posts while this blog are the longer Weekends in Paradelle posts. That blog became One Page Schoolhouse and has occasional posts that I hope inform readers.

Some of those short posts included Zen koans, quotations, and aphorisms. (I don’t see quotes and aphorisms as the same thing.) Some of the posts were migrated to this blog.)

An aphorism (literally “distinction” or “definition”, from the Greek) is an original thought, spoken or written in a “laconic” and memorable form.

The Aphorisms of Hippocrates is one of the earliest collections which includes aphorisms like this one:

 “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting,
experience misleading, judgment difficult.”

There are aphoristic collections (AKA wisdom literature) such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, and in the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, and Oscar Wilde. There are anthologies like the Oxford Book of Aphorisms.

There is even an anthology of Ifferisms – aphorisms that begin with the word “If.” Some samples:

“If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  
– The Bible (Matthew 15:14)

“If we have not peace within ourselves, it is vain to seek it from outward sources.” 
– François de la Rochefoucauld

“If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.”  
–  Friedrich Nietzsche

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”   
– Scottish Proverb

“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”  
–  Booker T. Washington

Some examples, like those below gleaned from a Wikipedia entry, do seem indistinguishable from the kinds of quotes you find in quote books and on posters and bookmarks.

Good art seems ancient to its contemporaries, and modern to their descendants.
— Plutarch

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger’s misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend’s success.
— Oscar Wilde

No good deed goes unpunished.
— It said Clare Boothe Luce but I’m pretty sure it was Tacitus

It is better to be hated for what one is, than loved for what one is not.
— André Gide

I’m going to add my own spin on the definition of aphorism. When you pull a clever line out of essay, poem, novel or other work, that’s a quotation. When someone sits down and writes an original short, memorable line that makes sense when you read it but it makes even more sense when you read it again and think about it, that is an aphorism.

I am going to nominate here some aphorisms written by James Richardson. He is an acquaintance. (A quaint phrase for someone who you can’t call a friend because you don’t know them that well, but have met and know better than many of your Facebook and Twitter “friends.”)

I could add a list of them here, but they are not best consumed in handfuls. To me, the best of them are like Western koans.

If you view a kōan as an “unanswerable” question, then you may not even want to seek an answer – but people DO answer koans. Rather than see them as unanswerable or even meaningless, look for an answer. Don’t get hung up on the “correct” answer because that is a dead-end. Koans do have some traditional recorded answers” (kenjō), but don’t be fooled into believing that they are anything more than additional questions.

Richardson’s aphorisms are not usually questions, so they don’t have answers. They are quotable. They require additional thought and explication.

Here are four of Jim’s aphorisms. Consume slowly.

The road reaches every place, the shortcut only one.

Shadows are harshest when there is only one lamp.

Each lock makes two prisons.

All stones are broken stones.

You can find more of James Richardson’s aphorisms in:
Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms  
Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays  
Life as Viewed in a Mirror: a Bok of Poems and Aphorisms

Also worth a read is Jim’s By the Numbers which was a National Book Award Finalist. 

Being a Pilgrim

pilgrim on road
Image by Jose Antonio Alba

For most of my youth, if I heard the word “pilgrim” I thought of those English settlers we studied in school who came on the Mayflower and established the Plymouth Colony and had the first Thanksgiving. But a pilgrim had long before that been a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.

Coming from the Latin peregrinus, it meant a traveler (one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. The person wasn’t necessarily holy. The place was holy. Traditionally, this was a physical journey (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the person or a particular religious belief system.

In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage became broader and sometimes figurative. It could refer to the experience of life in the world. It sometimes meant a period of exile or isolation. It could even be an inner journey from non-belief to beatitude.

Many religions still espouse pilgrimage as a spiritual activity. Hajj, the great Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), is an obligatory duty at least once for every Muslim who is able to make the journey.

As in the Middle Ages, modern Christian pilgrims might go to Rome, where according to the New Testament the church was established by St. Peter, or sites in the Holy Land connected with the life of Christ (such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Sea of Galilee).

Places associated with saints, visions, and miracles, such as Lourdes, Santiago of Compostela, Canterbury, and Fatima, also get pilgrims.

I haven’t been on any pilgrimages associated with any religions. When I was in Kentucky I did go to the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton lived. His book, The Seven Storey Mountain, had meant a lot to me when I was in college. Nothing was open to the public that day – which I suppose is a kind of message from the universe. (I also love that their website is monks.org). But it was Merton and not the place or their beliefs that made me want to go there.

In the summer between high school and college, I took a road trip north in search of something and one of my stops was that Plymouth of the Pilgrims.

Pre-pandemic we went on what my wife called the “dead writers road trip” as we made our way to visit friends in Maine. We went to Walden Pond and visited places where Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Herman Melville had lived. As with Merton, it was the people that drew me to those places, but I did feel something in being in the place. I can’t really describe what I felt looking at Melville’s desk and his window view of hills like a whale and Emerson’s bookcase and the Alcott girls’ writing and pictures on their bedroom walls or in walking into the “House of the Seven Gables.” Did I feel connected to those people, to the past, or to their writing and the images contained therein?

I studied for a time as a Zen monastery but the place did not feel “holy.” A pilgrimage in the Buddhist world might be to the historical Buddha’s birthplace and childhood home (Lumbini and Kapilavastu in Nepal), place of enlightenment (Bodh Gaya in northern India), and the place of his death in Kushinagar, India.

What do pilgrims hope to find or experience in these places? Does being in a holy place make you feel holy yourself? There is no reason why it should make you feel holier than before you arrived. I have seen the maxim that “life is a journey, not a destination” attributed to several people, generally Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it seems mostly true. The journey is surely where change occurs, but for pilgrims reaching the destination is an essential goal.

For much of my life, being out in Nature has felt like a sacred place. “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Henry David Thoreau. I’ve seen that misquoted as “In wilderness” which seems like almost the same thing, but it’s not.

I don’t need a huge wilderness to feel that sacredness. That is something that immediately appealed to me about Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when it came out in 1974. Her nonfiction narrative was based on her journal writing about the little part of the natural world near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Dillard was 29 years old. It is still one of my favorite books.

I wrote another essay here about the word “anchorite” and the ideas expressed in the opening of that book. “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

Annie Dillard wrote about what she saw in her walks she saw. Obviously, that included animals, birds, and plants, but her observations also led to reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she had twenty volumes of journals.

My own little plot of land is 157 acres between two suburban communities and its edge is a twenty-minute walk from my house. It’s no virgin woods. Parts of it were once occupied and there are always walkers, runners, and cyclists somewhere on a trail. But I know the hidden, tangled places where people don’t seem to go. I know the several unnamed creeks that flow through it and eventually enter a manmade reservoir nearby. I have planted young trees in some places where others have fallen and have watched them over four decades grow. There are some large glacial erratic boulders that I like to sit on and have a drink or snack.

The place feels old. Ancient. I have no holy or religious associations with these woods, but I feel more connected to the universe here. The word “spiritual” seems too weak but I don’t know the word that defines it.

In Dillard’s small book, Holy the Firm, she writes about two years spent on an island in Puget Sound. Like a monk in her cell, she had a solitary window. Her company was a cat and a spider. The book is only 66 pages long but took her 14 months to write. It’s spare, which is fitting for a pilgrim who is asking herself big questions about memory, time, sacrifice, reality, death, and God.

One piece of writing advice she has given:
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I don’t want to open my safe and find ashes.

Those Pilgrims we studied in school had leaders from religious congregations of Brownists (Separatist Puritans) who had fled religious persecution in England for the tolerance of 17th-century Holland. They weren’t that different from Puritan Calvinists, but they believed their congregations should separate from the English state church.

I have felt like a pilgrim for many years. My friend, Scott, says we are both seekers. I suppose I am also a separatist, though I’m not in any literal exile. I feel quite exiled from any organized religion. This past pandemic year I feel exiled from people and most of the world. My pilgrimages have been nearby and internal. I’m reaching for connection with what I call the universe. I’m no Dillard, so I can’t really describe it. Maybe that indescribability is what is most appealing.

On the Path

April 8 is the day Buddhists celebrate the birthday of Buddha. Gautama Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of Kapilavastu in India in the sixth-century B.C.E.

Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra).jpg
Seated Buddha; circa 475; Sarnath Museum (India). This figure, his hands in the dharmachakra mudra gesture of teaching, refers to the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath, where the figure was found. CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I first encountered his story when in Siddhartha. a novel by Herman Hesse. (In the novel, the Buddha is referred to as “Gotama.”) Though it is a novel and not a religious tract, it put me on a path to learn about this man who is revered as the founder of Buddhism and his teachings.

He is worshipped by most Buddhist schools as the Enlightened One because he transcended Karma and escaped the cycle of birth and rebirth.

He taught for around 45 years and built a large following of both monastics and laypeople.

What I learned through Hesse’s novel was that the Prince was raised in luxury with no view of suffering. He married. He fathered a son. It was a normal life for a Prince in India at the time.

When he was 29 he decided he wanted to see the world outside the palace walls. In some short trips outside the palace, he encountered suffering for the first time. It shocked him to see people starving, ill, or crippled. It also amazed him that people often seemed to be calm in the midst of all their pain and sickness.

He left his palace life, wife, and child and for six years he traveled the country. He studied meditation. He lived the life of an ascetic with severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence.

At age 35, he outlined the basic tenets of Buddhism. He wrote that the Four Noble Truths are: the nature of life is suffering; suffering is caused by human cravings and desire; there is relief from suffering in the state of Nirvana; and Nirvana is attainable by following an eightfold path to self-improvement. But a philosophy or a religion cannot be reduced to a few paragraphs or even to one book.

Dharmachakra.jpg
The eight-spoke Dharma wheel symbolizes the Noble Eightfold Path  (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

The word Siddhartha is from Sanskrit siddha (achieved) + artha (what was searched for) and is translated as “he who has found the meaning of existence” or “he who has attained his goals.”

It was several centuries after his death that he came to be known by the title Buddha, which means “Awakened or Enlightened One” His teachings were compiled by the Buddhist community in the Suttas. They contain his discourses and the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic community (sangha).

I recommend Hesse’s novel to people not because it will turn you toward Buddhism but because following Gotama’s path with him may bring you some insights. It won’t bring you enlightenment.

Actually, Hesse deliberately tries to through you off the path. No spoilers here his fictional Siddhartha disrespects Gotama but achieves enlightenment because he does not worship Gotama like a god. I find that people who know of the novel but haven’t read it think it is a historical novel about the origins of the Buddha. It is not.

Much of Hesse’s writing is West meets East. He was a Western man changed by the mysticism of Eastern thought, and it became a guiding force in his books. In 1946, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Glass Bead Game.

Element 115

Simple Periodic Table Chart-blocks.svg
Periodic chart by User:Double sharp CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

My high school chemistry teacher made us memorize the periodic chart and would periodically give students an oral quiz. “Kenneth, tell us family 1A.” Then, I was supposed to recite 1A, the alkali metals – hydrogen, lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium. I thought this was such a stupid exercise. We had a large chart of the periodic table on the wall but he had turned it to the wall. I had read that a reporter once pop-quizzed Albert Einstein at a press conference asking something like “What is the atomic number of rubidium?” Einstein supposedly replied, “Why would I memorize something I could easily look up?” I wanted to tell my teacher that anecdote. I never did. I memorized – and have since forgotten all of it.

The periodic chart changes. I read that elements with the atomic numbers of 113, 115, 117, and 118 were added to the periodic table by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). The one that interested me is Element 115. It has an interesting history.

Back in  1989, Bob Lazar was known as an Area 51 whistleblower. He claimed that he examined an alien craft that ran on an antimatter reactor powered by element 115, which at the time had not yet been synthesized. He said that the UFOs possessed by the government in Area 51 were powered by Element 115. His claims were not taken seriously by the scientific community.

In 2003, his claim gained more attention when a group of Russian and American scientists managed to create the elusive element. In 2016, it was confirmed after numerous tests which verified its existence. It was named Moscovium and is an extremely radioactive element. Its most stable known isotope, moscovium-290, has a half-life of only 0.65 seconds. That means the element decays in less than a second and so it cannot be utilized for anything.

The scientific version doesn’t match Lazar’s version. In 1979, IUPAC recommended that the placeholder systematic element name ununpentium (Uup) be used until the discovery of the element is confirmed and a permanent name is decided. The name was used in the chemical community on all levels, from chemistry classrooms to advanced textbooks, but the recommendations were mostly ignored among scientists in the field. They called it “element 115” (symbol E115 or just 115).

Lazar dismissed the early findings surrounding Element 115, stating that he was confident that eventually an isotope from the element would be found that matched his initial description. He was subjected to a polygraph and maintained that UFOs that the government possessed were built and piloted by extraterrestrial beings. His claim was that they were made out of one single piece (no welding points) and were made from a material unknown on Earth and powered by Element 115.

Since I do want to believe that we are not alone in this universe, I’d like to find out that spacecraft exist at Area 51 or at some facility and that they are made of some unknown material and powered by some incredible technology. So far, no proof.

Area 51 sign
A warning sign at the Area 51 border stating that “photography is prohibited” and that “use of deadly force is authorized.” image via Wikimedia

 

War of the World

comic cover
Yesterday I wrote about our fascination with alien technology that began in the 1950s and is still very real. Today I write about another frightening aspect of that alien thread that runs through our culture and society and seems particularly relevant in this current period.

H.G. Wells (born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, England, 1866) is known as one of the fathers of modern science fiction. I loved many of his books including The Invisible Man, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. He published dozens of novels, story collections, and books of nonfiction, most of which were not explicitly sci-fi.

I have written before about H.G. Wells and how he was very much interested in history, biology, and socialism. He certainly had a vision for the future of mankind which was optimistic and pessimistic and it found its way into both his fiction and non-fiction.

I don’t know which version of his The War of the Worlds I encountered first – comic book, movie, or novel. I found my comic book version in a box of Classic Illustrated Comics that I loved reading in my youth and that had a great influence on me as a reader and paging through it made me think of the “war of the world” we have been fighting with our own planet the past year.

In almost all the adaptations of Wells’ novel, the aliens are defeated not by our weapons but by what Wells described as “putrefactive bacteria.” His Martians are clearly well advanced in technology but are ignorant of disease. Wells’ narrator theorized that they had eliminated diseases in their world and so were unprepared to deal with germs, bacteria or viruses on Earth.

I clearly remember watching the 1953 film adaptation on television more than once as a kid. The Martians shown resembled the UFO aliens that were being reported throughout the 1950s and 60s.  they were short, brown creatures with two arms and three-fingered hands and had one cyclopean eye.

That movie chose not to have the aliens use humans as a blood supply in order to live. The movie Martians seemed to have no use for humans and just wanted the planet itself and humans were in the way.

For the alien invaders in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film adaptation, they are never called Martians. It wouldn’t make any sense to have superior intelligence coming from what we know to be a red and probably dead planet.  Spielberg chose to have their home, as with his E.T., be some unidentified darker part of the universe.

Following earlier adaptations, these aliens are defeated because their immune systems can’t fight off the multitude of microbes that inhabit the Earth. But it is interesting that the closing narration of Spielberg’s film says that humanity has earned the right to the planet by virtue of naturally coexisting with the rest of its biosphere.

That ending note reminds me of when I actually studied The War of the Worlds in a literature class.  I learned that it can be seen as part of a group of “invasion literature” which appeared at a time when anxiety and insecurity concerning international tensions between European Imperial powers were on the rise. This insecurity would escalate towards the outbreak of the First World War.

Before World War II, the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles of The War of the Worlds took hold of a population that had those same fears. In the American 1950s, fears of an “invasion” by outsiders and nuclear fears led to many books and films, such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the invaders looked not like aliens but like us – but they were not us.

Wells was a follower of Thomas Henry Huxley who was a proponent of the theory of natural selection. Mankind versus the Martians is very much survival of the fittest. The Martians’ longer period of evolution gave them superior intelligence.

And the novel also suggests Wells’ beliefs about race as described in Social Darwinism. The Martians are exercising their “rights” as a superior race over humans.  Wells said that the novel was loosely inspired by the news of the genocide subjected to Tasmanian First Nations people by British imperialists.

He says in the first chapter of the book:

“And before we judge them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

His anti-colonialism sounds noble but I have read that taken as a whole Wells’ writing is not so pure with passages of anti-semitism and a fascination for eugenics.

Those Tasmanians he references are the Aboriginal people of the Australian state of Tasmania. For much of the 20th century, they were thought to be an extinct cultural and ethnic group that had been intentionally exterminated by white settlers. Though the elimination of them – “in spite of their human likeness” – was certainly attempted, people of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent still exist on the continent, probably in ni=umbers less than 25,000.

In Wells’ vision, are we the Martians? Are we at war with ourselves, or are some groups trying to eliminate other groups that they see as “alien”? Will we be defeated not by weapons and warfare but by microbes?

H.G. Wells’ questions are still viable and unanswered.

The Navy’s Alien Technology

ufo
Image by PhotoVision

I have been reading about UFO sightings, aliens, abductions, and alien technology my entire life. As a kid, it fascinated me. I did, like Fox Mulder, want to believe in all of it. It also frightened me.

Despite many denials by government agencies, rumors that we have been visited by aliens and that we have captured aliens and their advanced technology persist.

The Pentagon had said that it disbanded a covert program to investigate unidentified flying objects, but it seems that it still exists.

Recent stories have reported that the program was renamed and put into the Office of Naval Intelligence. Of course,  Pentagon officials will not discuss the program but it appeared last summer in a Senate committee report outlining spending on the nation’s intelligence agencies for the coming year.

That report said the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force was “to standardize the collection and reporting” on sightings of unexplained aerial vehicles, and was to report at least some of its findings to the public within 180 days after passage of the intelligence authorization act.

Drawing from U.S. patent US20190295733A1.jpg
Drawing from Pais’s patent application for a “plasma compression fusion device” Public Domain, Link

It also surfaced that there were some U.S. Navy patents that sound like “alien technology.” The patents were authored by inventor Dr. Salvatore Pais and refer to the “Pais effect.”

These latest stories don’t come from fringe science websites but from The New York Times and Forbes.  The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was thought to have ended in 2012 but it continues under its new name under the auspices of the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.

Back in 2017, the Times first reported on a secret project to study unidentified aerial phenomena. That was the time when some puzzling videos taken by Navy fighter pilots over the Pacific came to light and seemed to show unidentified objects ahead of the jets. Those objects maneuvered in ways unlike existing aircraft.

It would make sense for the military to want to know about any new aircraft technology. I would have guessed that this would be the purview of the Air Force (or the new Space Force?) but it falls under the Navy.

The Navy’s unusual patents seem to focus on energy production. Plus, the Times stories talk about “retrieved materials… not made on this Earth.” Those materials make me think of the many stories and “unexplained mystery” programs I’ve seen over the years about “retrieved materials” found at a crash site in Roswell, New Mexico. Does the government have an alien spacecraft in Area 51 or some other location?

RoswellDailyRecordJuly8,1947.jpg
Roswell Daily Record, Public Domain, Link

These patents include terms that excite people who have been claiming for a half-century that the government is hiding what it knows about UFOs. Technologies such as a “high temperature superconductor,” a “high frequency gravitational wave generator,” a force field-like “electromagnetic field generator,” a “plasma compression fusion device,” and a hybrid aerospace/underwater craft featuring an “inertial mass reduction device” certainly sound like alien technology.

Just to put some more juice into the public fascination with UFOs, let’s add that President Trump told his son Don Jr. in an interview that he knew “very interesting” things about Roswell and when asked if he would declassify any information on Roswell, he replied, “I’ll have to think about that one.” I guess he decided not to declassify.

MORE READING AT:
space.com
nbcnews.com
thedrive.com