TABOO

Congress shall pass no law that abridges the freedom of speech. By and large our legislators adhere to that mandate as stated in the first amendment. At present the biggest threat to that freedom is not posed by Congress. It is a group of self imposed restrictions initiated by the populace. It is almost as if a new amendment to the constitution is being drafted. That amendment states that each citizen has the right not to be offended. Don’t step on anybody’s toes. Remove all offensive words, potential insults or politically incorrect comments or be ostracized. The list of unacceptable words grows yearly. As a result, our language possibly becomes more bland and less interesting.

More egregious than word censorship is the practice of making certain subjects taboo. At present the California assembly is considering a bill condemning biased, hateful speech intended to stoke fear and intimidation. What a wonderful idea! However, the legislation is directed toward groups critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Such criticism is deemed as anti-semitic harassment of Jewish students at State universities and should not be allowed. If such legislation is passed It has the potential of stifling all serious discussion regarding racism and sexism on university campuses. Making people feel good will take precedence over open discussion in search of truth.

To judge speech as being biased or hateful is highly subjective. Some might regard Rush Limbaugh’s use of the word, “femenazi” as objectionable. Others might see it as a clever neologism that accurately describes some hyper-militant feminists. In a country as diverse as ours, different groups regard a whole host of differing ideas as repugnant. I can visualize fundamentalist Christians being highly offended by lectures on evolution. This is particularly true if a professor denigrated the six day creation theology held by many evangelicals. Disbelievers in the human contributions to global warming would not be given a voice. One could not ridicule political or irreligious ideas. And so on ad infinitum. I would also suggest that progress rarely arises from agreement or from making everyone feel good. Dissent might truly upset people. However, it plays an important role in the creation of progress.

I hope that I am able to function as a gadfly and that the above comments are sufficiently controversial to stimulate further thought. In the meantime I would urge my readers to revel in politically incorrect phrases before the thought police catch up with you. I would also encourage them to be willing to accept the negative (and sometimes hateful) responses aroused in others by the use of offensive ideas or language. With freedom comes responsibility. And keep in mind the caveat of my mother, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.”Taboo

Posted in Commentary | 1 Comment

COMPLEX COMPLEXES

In a previous blog I suggested that Freud and Jung were the great myth makers of the twentieth century. Yet, their works have permeated our contemporary culture and infiltrated our vocabulary. Both Freud and Jung have left us with a legacy of words that are frequently used in every day speech. An inordinately neat person becomes an anal personality. Suspicious persons are labeled as paranoid. The frequently used term, “complex”, arose from the pen of Jung. Complexes range from inferiority to oedipal to little man complex to many more. Some people believe that the use of words borrowed from psychology lends an aura of sophistication and authority to their comments. This might be a basis for the popular use of psychological terms by people that have limited understanding of the concepts behind the word.

Some words often get bandied about without clear definition. The word, “ego”, might be one of these. What is an ego trip? What does it mean when we say that someone has a big ego? Both of these phrases seem to have a negative connotation portraying ego as something bad. How many people using the word “ego” realize that it is simply the latin word for “I”. Every person in the confessional hears the word used when a holy man arrogantly pronounces that he has absolved the sinner of his sins by saying, “ego te absolvo” (I absolve you of your sins in latin.)

How did the word, “ego” creep into the argot of psychology? Freud postulated that the mental structure of the mind was divided into three entities. One entity represented the primitive, pleasure seeking, instinctual, animal-like impulses. He called that entity the “id.” In opposition to that part of the psyche was an entity he called the superego. This entity judged and curbed the inappropriate impulses of the id. In everyday terms it acted as the force of conscience. At times it could be too harsh and too restrictive of the impulses. Acting as a moderator and referee between these opposing forces as well as promoting suitable interaction with the environment he called another entity “das ich.” In German the word, “ich” means the self or, “I”. Freud’s english speaking disciples translated the word for self as,“the ego.”.Rather than having a negative connotation, a well functioning ego was vital to the psyche. It resolves the conflicts between the demands of the inner emotional life and the realities of the outside world. Ego strength is important and healthy. When we use the word ego to describe someone on a power trip, the word narcissistic would seem more appropriate.

Posted in Commentary | Leave a comment

COME HOME

Allow me to expose you to a bit of Americana. Most evangelical protestants have participated in the religious experience called the altar call. After preaching about the prodigal son, the clergyman implores his congregation to come forward to the altar and dedicate their lives to Christ, to repent of their sins. The transient nature of life is emphasized. Now is a unique occasion to renew ones relationship with Christ. Such an opportunity may never present itself again. Death might strike one down before he has another chance to renew his vows. A swell of musical chords and sentimental hymns augments the ministers exhortations. The congregation sings, “Come home, come home, Ye who are weary come home.” Often the congregants manifest tears and quiet emotional outbursts. An amazing number of the parishioners will respond to the preacher’s call to the altar. A powerful preacher such as Billy Graham was able to persuade thousands to come forward and accept Christ.

What causes a person to respond to a religious plea highly charged with sentiment and emotion? One might dismiss it as a minor manifestation of mass hysteria. No doubt it has some features in common with teen agers swooning at a rock concert or a million people coming to see the pope. However, I believe there are other forces at work. From time immemorial humans have learned to appease the gods. This may take forms ranging from the sacrifice of virgins to ripping out a beating heart from the chest of a living victim. The apparent purpose of these rituals is to alleviate the terror humans experience when facing their own death. The promise of living forever and joining Jesus in paradise is a very powerful and reassuring message. The corollary experience of spending eternity in the fires of Hell is both frightening to the worshipers and most unpleasant.

Many of the hymns sung during altar calls implore the sinner to come home. It is as if the true home of the believer is not in this life but in the next. Do humans have an innate longing to return to paradise? After all, life is short, nasty and brutish according to Hobbs. The Buddha agreed when he postulated that all life is suffering. Do we have unconscious longings to experience the peace and serenity of Nirvana? Is it our lot to feel an existential void that can only be remedied by the bliss of returning to our heavenly home?

The genesis story suggests that when Adam and Eve bit the fruit they were expelled from the garden and could never return. Their punishment would be sorrow and death. This allegory also suggests that once we bite our mother’s breast (are weaned) we never can re-experience the unconditional love that was ours as infants. We are expelled from Eden. Christianity promises that a return to ecstasy and perfection is possible if we follow its creeds and demand.

Posted in Musings, Philosophy, Religion | 1 Comment

KILLER APES?

My wife and I frequently receive invitations to large gatherings such as fund raisers for charities or celebrations of special events. Generally speaking I have little fondness for such galas. A relatively short time after the onset of such festivities Vern’s law kicked in: Decibels are directly proportional to alcohol consumed. The noise level precludes any meaningful conversation. However, we recently attended an event which seemed to defy my negative expectations. I sat between an historian and a man well versed in anthropology. We dined with wines of fine vintage and horseradish crusted saddle of lamb. The topic of the recent spate of mass killings arose. Our distaff partners suggested that such events are a “guy thing.” Most of us agreed. The conversation broadened to discuss the role of guns and the natural history of violence. Allow me to share some of the ideas discussed as well as some other information gleaned from subsequent reading.

Agreement existed that the mass slaughters occurring in the twentieth century suggest that humans have a propensity for violence. Only a thin veneer of civilization keeps these tendencies in check. The anthropologist offered another explanation. Prior to the onset of agriculture, wars did not exist. With the advent of farming, people were able to store their excess produce. Conflicts arose over struggles for possession of those material resources, especially food. The corollary suggests that pre- agricultural people did not engage in group violence with other tribes. Conflicts between various tribes of the American plains Indians would lead to question that view. Also the ritual battles between groups of New Guinean natives to avenge the death of a tribesman seem unrelated to the acquisition of property. Studies of the war-like Yanomamos in South America indicate that the primary motivation for raids and group conflicts was to abduct, recover or avenge the abduction of women. Two anthropologists, Walker and Bailey, have concluded that primary motives for killing in inter-tribal strife were revenge, capture of women and children and, less often, theft of material goods. Our closest mammalian relatives, the chimpanzees, engage in intergroup violence. Their behavior seems unrelated to shortage of food or other resources. One can raise the question as to whether, like our primate cousins, we are just a higher form of killer apes, that violence resides in our genes. Maybe we would and do, engage in battle over a single beautiful woman. Maybe a thousand ships would be launched to recover her.
Sadly, I don’t think we are the noble savages as postulated by Rousseau.

Posted in Commentary, Musings | 1 Comment

WRITER’S BLOCK

Was I too harsh in my comments about the muse that abandoned me? At times words gush from my keyboard as water from an open hydrant. The experience having a drought of ideas or productivity gnaws upon my sense of self worth. I hear the admonishments of my parents. To them, laziness was a sin. They believed that the idle mind was the devil’s workshop. I frequently sang that old hymn about seeking salvation, “Work for the night is coming.” At this late age I still attempt to assure myself that it is OK to be non-productive. I reassure myself that even Saint Paul had periods where the things he wanted to do he failed to do. These failings of the Apostle were always fraught with a nagging conscience.

In my previous communication I raised the possibility that I might learn something from not being productive. Many people have expressed some admiration in my apparent ability to accomplish and multi-task. Little did they know about my skills of procrastination. Confronted by demands I would almost always comply. However, I frequently resisted until the last minute. I recall many dexedrine laden nights of cramming for final exams. I even have incorporated the anxiety of those experiences into a recurring dream. In these night visions of my younger life I am scheduled to take a final exam. With some desperation I am unable to find the location of the test. I unsuccessfully attempt to discover where to go. Then I realize that I don’t even know what the course was about. Even the demons of the night refused to give reprieve from the programming of early childhood.

One of the impediments to sharing my thoughts is a demand I place upon myself to say something important or relevant. My son encouraged me to write these blogs because he felt I had much to contribute from the vantage point of my many years. By and large I have enjoyed the experience and feel that sharing whatever wisdom I might have is a contribution. However, I must allow myself to write ideas that are not profound and even stupid or trivial. I’m certain that my readers would allow me to be inane from time to time. I assure them that I would gladly be inane if I could be hilariously funny at the same time. In a more serious vein I must acknowledge that both the profound and the inane are part of my identity. To show only some side fails to portray the real me.

One facet of my thoughts I want to avoid at all costs. I insist upon not being repetitive. Sometimes my children suggest that I need a new script writer. Their comments have validity for some of the jokes I tell. In other things I try not to repeat myself. Repetition is a common practice of many persons in their dotage. Lacking new experiences older persons have only their past to draw upon. They often inflict upon others repeated narrations of the same past memories and exploits. I pray to the literary Gods to help me avoid that trap.

Posted in Commentary, Musings, Reflections | 2 Comments

CAN’ T WE ALL GET ALONG?

My wife raises chickens. She orders them from a mail order catalogue. The catalogue illustrates the large variety of different breeds that are available. Within less than twenty four hours of placing an order the baby chicks arrive in a large box. At present we have a bantam variety and a full sized variety of the same breed. From the time of hatching they have been raised separately. They enjoy free range during the day and are able to mingle. However, they do not. At dusk each group separates and gravitates toward its own roost to spend the night. This sense of separateness is so strong that the flock might peck to death a newly introduced chicken that is not of their group.

We also have a dog that really belongs to my daughter. It is the antithesis of the many dogs that have enriched our lives over the years. Most of those have been big animals. In contrast, Biscuit is a small animal with a underslung lower jaw. However she is big of heart. Once she attacked a coyote twice her size. Far and away she is the best watch dog we have ever had. Day or night she goes into a spasm of loud barking if another human or animal invades our space. This is especially true if a strange car comes up our long driveway. She distinguishes between the strange vehicles and the cars driven by our family. If a family car approaches her she quietly goes out to greet it. Like the chickens she has awareness of who is a part of her clan and who is not.

I am suggesting that, at a very primitive level, animals are able to distinguish between their group and an outside group. This is not a particularly novel idea. It is readily seen in prides of lions or packs of wolves who defend against intruders. Does the same behavior exist in humans? Rodney King posed that poignant question, “Can’t we all get along?” I’m going to suggest that the answer might be a resounding no. The primitive tendency toward tribalism might be so powerful and deeply rooted in our evolutionary past that humans are doomed to remain in conflict with those who are different from ourselves. The incredible cruelty toward someone different was portrayed in the movie “42”. It is the story of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in professional baseball. Pitchers would throw bean balls to strike him in the head, attempting to seriously injure him because of the color of his skin. This behavior seems akin to the behavior of chickens pecking an outsider to death.

On a larger scale we can look at the Sunnis car bombing Shiites in Iraq. On a daily basis we read about murderous conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Hindus and Muslems and acts of terrorism between groups that hold different beliefs from those of their enemies. Even in our safe haven of America we are experiencing terrorism from radical religious groups who despise each other’s beliefs. This raises the question as to whether our nation remains a melting pot or is degenerating into a conclave of non unified groups of different languages and cultures. This is a question that, I believe, will continue to nag us in the future

Posted in Commentary, Musings | 1 Comment

WHEN MY MUSE HAS FORSAKEN ME

My muse has cruelly abandoned me. It almost seems that she has become my enemy, a green eyed, fanged monster who blocks my intent. What does Erato want from me? It is not that I lack ideas. Dozens flit through my brain every minute. However, none seem worthy to put into print. I feel that I have little to say. Others have already expressed my thoughts in a fashion more elegant than I am able to muster. The only advantage to being frozen in creativity forces me to introspect.

I admire Woody Allen. As a septuagenarian he continues to create a movie on a yearly basis. There is a great similarity of content and underlying themes in his works. Yet, in each production he is able to express his tired, old ideas with a fresh new twist. As I examine the many blogs I have written in the past several years I am learning something about myself. Most of my comments tend to be pedantic and didactic. They lack lightness and levity, characteristics that I believe I possess. It reminds me of an earlier stage in my life. As a clever young professor I tended to impart my mastery of information in many fields to show others how brilliant I thought I was. I even had the temerity to lecture to my psychoanalyst. In a blunt fashion he would cut through my bullshit by saying, “Vern, stop being a fucking professor.” Perhaps my writer’s block indicates that I have not mastered his advice. Perhaps in my writing I demand to deal only with weighty or important topics. I insist that my style of writing reflects skill and mastery of the language. I want to be relevant. These demands have the ability to squelch spontaneity. When I am unable to meet them I am tempted to throw in the towel and refuse to share the way I see the world. Yet, the feedback I get from my readers seems to indicate that that I still have something to say from the vantage point of almost ninety years on this earth. If my writer’s block arises from demanding too much of myself the solution seems apparent. I can achieve greater comfort by lowering expectations. I’m certain that my muse would not accept such a solution.

Posted in Commentary, Musings, Reflections | 2 Comments

INTEGRITY VERSUS DESPAIR

I have often quipped that Freud and Jung were the great myth makers of the twentieth century. Both proposed broad theories of human behavior that were highly speculative and rife with conjecture. Yet, myths often convey powerful allegorical truths. The fact that the ideas of these psychologic pioneers have persisted attests to their power. Concepts such as introversion, extroversion and anal personality have infiltrated our vocabulary and are used often. Freud’s idea is that adult behavior is influenced by early childhood development; that children pass through through an oral, anal and genital phase. Containing some merit, but does this deal with the fact that our personalities continue to develop and emerge throughout life as we confront new challenges. The dynamics of maturing and of meeting the challenges of later life have been expounded upon by Eric Ericson. His final stage of development is with how one deals with the end stages of life which bring up the conflict of maintaining the integrity of our being, versus slipping into despair.

We live in a society where a man is defined by what he does. Many of us have experienced roles that involved various responsibilities and multi-tasking. At the zenith of my professional life I held the position of president of the medical staff of a large general hospital. Simultaneously I was medical director of a psychiatric hospital, a practicing clinician and director of a large psychiatric clinic. Although, at times, I chaffed under the pressure, I definitely enjoyed the challenges involved. I’m certain that this is true for a great number of men who love their work but get overextended in their endeavors. I bring this subject up to contrast the hectic whirl of working life to the lack of structure and the excess of time presented by retirement. For many, retirement comes a shock. The feeling of being unproductive forces many men to reevaluate their lives and their purpose. Questions arise. Has my life been worthwhile? Have I made a difference? Am I still useful? If so, in what way? Am I a burden to my loved ones? How much of my personal “bucket list” remains unfulfilled.

Of course, many men enter retirement with reasonable vigor and good health. For them this stage of life allows more time to travel, golf or pursue other diversions. As their body becomes more frail they also are forced to succumb to the contemplative life instead of a life of doing. More and more they live in memories of the past.
The questions previously posed become more intense. What purpose do they have in continuing to live?

I have no answers to these existential questions. Those who have prepared themselves for engaging in passive activities may weather this storm with relative ease. For others it might be turbulent with financial problems, pain, debility and impending death.

The Buddha suggested that all life is suffering. For pampered persons in Western cultures this concept seems foreign. Yet, to accept this idea may help in navigating the inexorable ravages of time. Plato further commented upon the ills of aging. He said that those with a calm and happy disposition will hardly feel the pressures of age. It might be possible to nurture these features through meditation and other vehicles such as psychotherapy. Keeping connected with family and friends is a powerful antidote against despair. It is important for old codgers to remember that they have important symbolic value to their children. Our progeny usually value our presence and usually do not want us to leave this vale of tears before our time. This last stage of psychosocial development can be a phase of quiet contentment. The battles of life are over allowing us to bask in the glories of our past.

Posted in Commentary, Musings, Reflections | 2 Comments

A TRIBUTE TO DEAD WHITE MALES

A phrase that is often bandied about is, “dead white males”. Usually the term is used to disparage the contributions made by caucasian males in the past. In reality there is much to criticize about the masculine gender of humans. They brought us wars with a savagery unheard of. Machine guns, poison gas, germ warfare and atomic bombs have been their legacy. Slavery and colonialism can be attributed to them as well. Yet, do they deserve to be dismissed or belittled?

I would like to suggest that without the contributions of Dead White Males we would continue to be mired in the pre-industrial backwaters of time. Children would continue to die prematurely without modern sanitation and antibiotics. Mortality of women in childbirth would remain high. We should thank scientists such as Pasteur and Semmelweiss for making modern obstetrics and surgery possible. Without dead white males, trains, planes, cars, modern transportation and rapid communication would not exist. Mail would be delivered by pony express.Teen agers would ride to the prom in horse and buggy. We would remain ignorant about our natural world and the nature of our universe. Neither would we enjoy the benefits of modern medicine. We accept all of these modern conveniences without question. We must admit that most of the creators of our modern age happened to be male and caucasian. Hopefully we will not blame them for that fact.

Let us not forget the great works that elevate our spirits. What an impoverished world we would have without the genius of great white authors, musicians and artists. Credit must be given to the philosophers of the enlightenment who so powerfully influenced the political structures of our modern world. No one would argue that the creators were predominantly male. By and large we would have to admit they were Caucasian. Special tribute should be given to Ashkenazim Jews whose contributions in science, music and other fields have been disproportional to their numbers.

There is a present tendency to honor various ethnic groups. In government we have the Black Congressional Caucus. We celebrate Black History Month and have affirmative action for many minority groups. Yet, if we proposed that there should be a White Congressional Caucus, we would be confronted with outrage. Likewise, celebrating a White Male History month would offend many. Yet, white males are a minority in our country and definitely in the whole world. As a minority they deserve all of the recognition received by other minorities. Because they have contributed so much to our progress and national fabric they should be acknowledged and not denigrated. Perhaps having a white male celebratory month would remind us of their historical and present importance. I have recently been informed that June seventh is National Donut Day. If the lowly donut merits special recognition should not the movers and shakers of our civilization be equally honored?

Posted in Commentary | 1 Comment

FATHER, ON THIS FATHER’S DAY, I SALUTE YOU

Father dear Father. Words hardly begin to express the love, gratitude, admiration, and respect I have for you; I feel for you.

On this father’s day, What more could a son ask for than a father such as you? I know you’ve touched many, touched them deeply, all in their own special way. And I, your first born, am no different.

It’s said that the whole is greater than the sum its parts and such it is, with you, for me. Though the richness of my memories far transcend what I write here, let me share but two short stories of your wisdom, and your actions, actions that profoundly moved me.

First, I’ll never forget when your father, grandpa, died. I loved him dearly and his passing was a deep loss for me. On that day of his funeral, I told you I did not want to go: you honored my wishes. I remember being alone in the house, reflecting on grandpa, all that he meant to me, and my sense of loss. In those moments I was complete with him and to this day hold fond his memories in my heart, unmarred by the shocking face of death that would have accompanied seeing him in a casket. Thank you dear father for granting this little boy at the age of ten, such a huge gift.

Second, I’ll never forget that afternoon at the age of 15 and a half when you asked me if I’d like to go out driving. My heart leaped with joy, for what 15 and a half year old boy with his learners permit wouldn’t jump at the opportunity of driving, no matter who offered it?

What transpired, transcended a mere opportunity to drive, a driving lesson. You see, that drive turned in to an adventure for when I asked, where to, you said where ever you want.

For four to five hours we drove, and talked: up through and over the San Bernardino mountains, over the backside, and down into the high deserts through Victorville. A son’s delight, the quintessential example of quality time, a validation of a young man, validation that every young man wishes of his father.

Yes GREAT ONE, should there be something beyond this, no greater joy would I have than to burst forth to the other side, shoulder to shoulder with you, like the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and conquer that great unknown abyss that we call eternity.

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY to my father, a man who stands tall among men: I carry your heart in mine….

Love,

Buddy, Your First Born…

P.S. And a little ditty for your enjoyment and pleasure:

Posted in Musings | 1 Comment