Monthly Archives: March 2009

Gratefulness Unveiled

Posted by Mike

From the time we were able say even just a few words, our parents instructed us to say, “Please,” and “Thank you.” These common expressions of appreciation are ingrained in us as adults. The other day I was observing the workings of training in these arts of appreciation, in the form of my daughter and granddaughter. Anna has learned to say, “Thank you,” even sometimes without prompting, but to this observer her expression of this nicety lacks conviction, as it is rather flat, said completely without emotion, at this point a rote response given so as to prevent any kind of unwelcome correction from the direction of her parent.

We think of the “thank you” as an expression of appreciation, directed at the giver from the receiver as a recognition of the satisfaction and pleasure that the gift offers. The gift, or meal, or bit of assistance or whatever is something very real and tangible. The statement of appreciation is not in itself something tangible, that is, something that can be seen, felt, or touched, or a conveyance of any sort. Society expects people to be recognized for their generosity. People expect that too. If we weren’t recognized, we might stop giving! Why should I keep giving if it’s not noted by others? Perhaps they don’t want it, or don’t care, or would just as soon that I didn’t!

Is that all there is to it? It seems obvious that that in itself would be enough. I wonder, however, if there is a larger purpose to the universal expectation that gratitude is expected of a gift. Whenever I think about interpersonal  issues of this sort I like to imagine what it must have been like in a simpler tribal society. In such a society, the survival of each person was to some extent directly linked to the survival of everyone else. In such a small and closely integrated society, the actions of one person are likely to have some kind of impact upon the situation all of the others find themselves in. For example, if I am one of the hunters and I don’t go out and hunt on a particular day, my absence is likely to have a significant effect upon the group as a whole; likewise, if I am a food gatherer and am ill and don’t go out to gather food on a particular day, my absence in this situation too is going to be felt by the group as a whole.

Given the scenario of a relatively small tribal group and the impact of each member’s actions upon the group as a whole, it is likely that within that group there would have been frequent interactions between members, of exchanges of small services and goods, as a result of each members various skills, abilities, interests, talents, and accomplishments. In such a situation the expression of appreciation, the thank you, would have represented much more than the perfunctory often vacuous statement that it currently represents; rather, it would have represented and reflected and acknowledged the extent to which each member was dependent upon the others for their survival, and the responsibility that entailed.

In our post-industrialized society in which money is the basis for exchange, it is likely the exceptional individual who is aware more than occasionally just how dependent we all are upon the others in society for our survival even today. The use of money is a relevant factor here. It seems that if we have the money, and we pay for whatever goods or services that we want or need, then somehow we lose the recognition that we are receiving the benefit of the labor and effort of others. In personal services we have some awareness of this debt, which in current practice is expressed by the “Thank you” and perhaps a tip. In general, in our exchange of money for goods, awareness of our near-complete dependency upon others for our food, shelter, and clothing, and for our very survival, is lost.

I’m thinking that we need to find ways to strengthen our awareness of the tremendous obligation we all have to each other for maintaining the basic fabric of society and for providing each of us with not only the basic necessities, but with the rich cornucopia of nonessential benefits that we accept without question and use, often rather thoughtlessly, every day of our lives.

 When I was growing up in the post-depression world of the 40’s and 50’s, it seems that a lot of parents gave up the expectation that children would begin contributing to the maintenance of the family at an early age. Perhaps that reasonable expectation of even young children like Anna contributing would not only help in this process but have other benefits in improving the degree of responsibility owned by the current generation of children and adolescents. 

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”      –  Cicero (106-43BCE)

 

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”           –  Melody Beattie

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Mount Angeles Trail at Night

Morris Creek Basin and Elk Mountain

Morris Creek Basin and Elk Mountain

Posted by David

Last night a friend and I took a walk up to the bridge crossing at Ennis Creek along the Mount Angeles Trail.  There was still snow around from the heavy winter snowfalls. The trail goes through some second growth Douglas-fir forest, which made it fairly dark, especially without a moon.

The city lights were reflecting on some high clouds, so the snow was bright enough that we didn’t need to use our headlamp. It’s always enjoyable to walk at night without a light, and not particularly for the challenge. Walking lampless transforms most places giving them a new feel. Even though I had walked that particular stretch of trail many times, it all seemed like I had never been there before. The patchy snow, the muffled sound of Ennis Creek, and the almost-glowing tops of the trees gave the forest a quality like that of a dream—a good dream.

On the way up the trail, I followed Bryan. On the way down, Bryan followed me. We made a few observations that I would like to share with you.

The first had to do with walking in the dark. Just a few steps in front of us the trail was obscured by the dark shadows of the trees. With or without eyeglasses, the blurry trail seemed to fold into the darkness. What was remarkable, was that even though the trail lay hidden right in front of us, it was usually clear where our next step was. We could feel and perceive the next step fairly easily. How similar is our walk through time and space! The only really clear step is the next step and that’s the one we should be focusing on. Sometimes we try to have broader, grander ambitions, but oddly enough, those goals take our eyes off of the next step, which is what is most important. Focusing on what God has laid out for us today, it seems, is most important.

Another thing that Bryan noticed had to do with the Saints and their reflected light. The relected skylight on the patchy snow helped us navigate the trail. Where there was no snow, the forest floor was almost black. Where it blanked the forest all around, it made the whole forest glow. The Saints, present and past, do this for us. Their faith helps us make our way through the darkness. They reflect Christ’s light and help us focus our steps.

Lastly, the most important observation had to do with the trail itself. We would have been stumbling over limbs and rocks and running up into 4 ft-diameter fallen trees if it wasn’t for the trail. Without the trail, we would have never made it to the Ennis Creek crossing. Jesus has blazed our trail as Christians. Without his trail to the cross, we’d be lost, without direction meandering waywardly in space and time.

Oh, one more thing. Having brothers and sisters in Christ with us is essential. Bryan and I would have never made the hike without each other. Not that we couldn’t have, but we probably wouldn’t have. Our will and our faith is bolstered by each other. Make no mistake, there are times when we will be alone, but when we have our brothers and sisters, we must make room for them in our lives.

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The First Step to Counseling Others

Posted by David

When someone comes to me with a problem, I’m finding that the most important step in providing good counsel is to understand that I have ownership in their problem. You may ask, “What ownership do I have with so and so’s problem?”

We all are connected. In many ways we are all a part of the human organism. We affect each other in ways that we don’t understand. The frustrations that I provide one person affect another person and so on. Even the things that I don’t do or even hesitate to do that I know I should do affect others in ways that are damaging. What I’m saying is that on the grand scale, I have ownership in Mankind’s problem, even the ones occurring on the other side of the planet. We are all connected. The anger I spill out in a simple look of my eyes can spread like wildfire. It’s imperative that I know this simple fact when faced with a position to counsel another. If I say to myself, “His problem is his problem—I’m a neutral party,” then I’m missing the big picture and I’m missing the biggest part of reconciliation: repentance. In repentance, water is sprayed on the wildfire. I must repent for my part before I can do any good. In fact, the act of my repentance is part of what does some good. When we are faced with another person’s problem, we must seek forgiveness for ourselves first as part owners of the problem. Then we can become true intercessors.

Naturally, this becomes a burden for us, if done with the fullness of our heart. We are in a sense, shouldering the judgment owed to the other, which if truly felt and truly accepted will cause us suffering. However, this burden does not need to be heavy for us. Because the ultimate intercessor of Mankind is Christ, so our burden is on his shoulders and nailed to his cross. This is my recent Lenten discovery.

On the macro-scale, this is what Christ did for the world. He shouldered the judgment owed to mankind and allowed for reconciliation between God and man. But Jesus passed this role on to his church. We are to go throughout the earth and consume the wildfire of man’s sin, through our repentance first. We do this through interaction, intercession, and counsel with others. But we first do this through acceptance of our involvement. Even if I think I’m remote, distant, disconnected and neutral, I’m not. Your problems are my problems. The only important distinction is in choice. I can choose to ask for forgiveness. This happens within my will. We each have domain over our own wills.

Forgive us for our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.

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Helix Patterns

Eagles

Eagles

Posted by David

A few years ago I found a little treasure while playing around with some simple math in Flash. What I found was that naturalistic and artistic forms emerge out of the helix (a spiral). By using the following equation, one can find a great many of archetypal forms, as well as just some beautiful patterns.

x = cos(a) + sin(a)
y = sin(a) + cos(a

The simple equation I used sprays in a helix pattern a few hundred dots. The dots overlay each other, sometimes laying out in a traditional spiral form, but other times, the spray of dots produces beautiful interference patterns that resemble naturalistic forms such as shells, stars, taurus shapes, galactic-like structures as well as artistic forms such as rosettes, circles, triangles, crosses, etc.

Interestingly, I found the equation when I was searching for a mathematical pattern on which to base a painting about Genesis 1.2. So, instead to find a math-based tool that produced archetypal forms seemed to be no coincidence. It sure made me smile. What I was provided may have been the solution to a painting intended to describe the universe before there was light, before there was land, before there were stars, and before there was life. In the helix, it seems, may exist the precursors or archetypes on which life is based. Wait a minute, isn’t this similar to what Watson and Crick discovered in the chemical structure of the DNA?

I invite you to play around with the tool and see what interesting patterns you can find.

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The Mystery and Mood of a Major Seventh

Posted by Mike

The subject is experimental – an agreement, sort of. You see, I was instructed to write on this topic. So here we go – and this is going to be different from my other postings. Maybe you’ll see the real person behind the persona! But I’ll make no promises and give no guarantees.  I will say this – and that is that what I know about music you can write in the palm of your hand – and that with invisible ink! 

 The person in the family who was the musician was one of my great grandparents. That was Professor Louis George. He came to New Orleans from Prague and never returned home.  He must have arrived sometime before the Civil War. The minimal history I have is that he played violin in an orchestra that came to play in New Orleans.  At some point he settled in Houma, which is about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, and became the church organist, composed and taught music, married and had only one child, a son.  He died in 1887.  That’s about all I know – although I do have a picture of him, printed on the inside cover of a pamphlet of sheet music for a Catholic Mass that he composed and that was privately published by his son, my grandfather, who at the time was working for the newspaper in Houma. I remember when I was about 20, my uncle the dentist brought out the pieces of an old violin.  It had been Louis George’s.  There was a label inside that read “Stradivarius.” My uncle laughed and said, “Of course it’s not a Strad!”  A couple of years ago I discovered that there was another family violin.  This reportedly was owned by my grandfather, Louis George’s son.  Recently, in a very indirect way that violin has come into my hands. I had never handled a violin before I opened the case and held this one. They really are beautiful instruments.  It’s somewhat worn, clearly played a lot; and is still playable now. I tried to play it! Wow! How difficult it must be to learn. I wanted to know more about this particular violin, so I checked it out and found a label glued to the inside of the body that I could just barely decipher. It reads, and I may have the spelling a little off, “Antonius Stradivarius, Cremonenfis, faciebat anno 1720.”

 I’ll admit that I was a little excited by what I read there. However, I remembered what my uncle had said about the other violin. In addition, that family, although up and coming town folk – my grandfather became a dentist after his work in printing – was not wealthy, and having a Stradivarius was extremely unlikely. Following that discovery I did a little research on the Internet. Information on the Stradivarius family’s production indicated that virtually all of the Stradivariuses had been accounted for a number of years ago, and some of the unaccounted were believed lost during the Second World War.  During that war if you recall, the British firebombed Dresden and the entire city burned. Dresden was of absolutely no strategic value. Rather, it was primarily a center of learning and culture. There were a number of Strads known to be lost in the fire. It was the burning of Dresden that was the seminal event in the life of the writer Kurt Vonnegut. He was a prisoner of war at the time and was saved with other prisoners, as they were kept in a cellar that protected them during the bombing. The devastation and death that Vonnegut observed after he and the other prisoners emerged from their refuge had a profound effect upon him, and he reflected on aspects of that experience frequently in his writings. The prisoners were forced to help in disposing of the many bodies that littered the city after the bombing and the fires.

 Back to violins. Wikipedia has a very informative site on violins, including Stradivariuses. In that site there is a link to another article (www.afvbm.com/strad.htm), entitled, “So, you found a Strad!”  It seems that during the latter half of the 19th century, there were a number of factories in Germany and Eastern Europe that manufactured violins. Some of the violins were very cheap. Many of these had the very same label that I found on my grandfather’s violin. So… I don’t have a Strad. Do I have a cheap, or good, or nice, or excellent violin? The next time someone comes to the house who knows and plays violin, I’ll ask. Until then it likely will stay in its case until a grandchild has an urge to learn.

I’ve kinda got off topic with the talk about my violin – so I’ll see if I can get back to “The mystery and mood of a major seventh.” Last Saturday I unexpectedly had to drive to Orlando in the afternoon (after I had worked at the computer for half a day). I was tired and my back hurt, and I had this little essay in mind (it’s been on my mind continuously for three weeks!); so hoping for inspiration as I was driving I turned on the radio and listened to one of the local stations that mainly plays “classic” pop, I think from the 60’s through the 80’s, “THE NEW 96-9, THE EAGLE!” I find myself enchanted by the lyrics of pop music – Many of the lyrics are dynamic, creative, rife with images and metaphors that come alive; and some are prosaic and merely display a lot of energy: “I live in the fast lane – Coming attractions – She pretended not to notice – She’ll be wrapped around my finger – Baby it’s a little too early to know if it’s going to work. All I know is you look good in my shirt” – real writers must go crazy; having ideas running constantly through the mind…continuously cluttered with material for the next… – “Don’t hesitate, Cause your love won’t wait – Oh baby, I love you so. Want to be with you night and day – I can see the sunset in your eyes – Smoking in the boy’s room.” I’m driving down Orange Avenue in Orlando (finally) and behind this car; it’s an Azera. Interesting; I think I smell scents from the Orient….The reception was getting very fuzzy, so I find a local Country Music broadcast and listen for a while. Just based on that 2 hour experience I have this to say about the pop and country music that I heard: the pop music had a lot of charming and unique images and metaphors and a lot that were commonplace, but full of energy. The country music mainly gave concrete life narratives, full of crisis, strong emotions, and also full of energy. They both have their place.

 Unfortunately, I was no closer to the issue of the mystery and mood of a major seventh. I was thinking about mood though. I happened to listen in on a Spanish music station for a while. There is a chord sequence that is common in Cuban music. By itself it is nothing special. In the key of G it’s G minor, C minor, then D7th. But in Cuban music it’s the rhythm that makes all the difference. It’s the Afro-Cuban rhythm that gives that particular sequence of chords in Latin music the sense of strength, excitement and anticipation. We have nothing to equal it in Western music. Of course we have at times incorporated many of the unique African rhythms into some of our music, most notably in Gershwin’s work and in some of the big band music from the 30’s and 40’s. In listening to American pop, however, the rhythmic variations of Latin music have yet to creep in.

 Well, I think we’re finally there – after all this time. I’m sitting at the piano now and I’m playing a straight C chord, in fact, C, D, E chords. They sound very sturdy and solid. OK, now it’s C7, D7, E7. These have a lightness and one gets a sense of anticipation. Is that because in Western music we’ve learned that the 7th is a transitional chord, something that needs a resolution of some kind? Playing C minor, Dm, Em, I get a sense of mystery.  We may be getting very close to what we’re seeking! C minor natural 7 gives us discordance in addition to the mystery. CMaj7 and the other Maj7 chords? I’m holding my breath….Listening to a major seventh I have a feeling of completion – but also a sense of some something – an ethereal something else – an unknown quantity – as if there are angels flying about!

 

The image above is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Return of Spring.  Bouguereau lived from 1825 to 1905. He was a late French Romantic painter. The topics of his larger paintings were generally allegorical or classic. You will find a larger rendition of this painting at Wikimedia Commons under Angels. Just click on the thumbnail. We are fortunate in Jacksonville (Florida) to have two Bouguereau paintings locally at the Cummer Museum.

“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.”   –   George Eliot (1819-1880)

“Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”   –   William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

 

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Mount Olympus Beckoned, and I Responded

Posted by David

This is a two-part experiment. My dad and I have both provided each other blog topics. My topic is on the the beckoning call of Mount Olympus. This heavily-glaciated, relatively low-elevation mountain is located about 25 raven miles from where I currently live. Oh, one more thing, I’ve never actually climbed it.

hohcirque

Hoh Cirque on Olympus Massif, 2001.

But I have traveled its glacial flanks. Once on a five-day trip in late August, some friends and I hiked around the east side of the Olympus massif. We started at the Hoh visitor center, hiked up the lush rainforest valley and went over the eastern glacial lobes. We worked our way over to the headwaters of the Queets and back northwestward through the Bailey Range. After having to spend one night in a very tight position on rock ledges and krummholtz, we exited the wilderness through the Sol Duc Trailhead one valley over and to the south of the actual peak of Olympus.

That last paragraph told you very little of the experience. Can writing ever do an experience justice? What I’m going to write about is to try to convey the difference between the reality of wilderness (or the reality of experience) and what we read, hear or experience through words, literature or media of all sorts.

Nothing compares to living reality. Books, words, photographs or multimedia don’t even come close. Each time I go hiking in a beautiful place, I end up saying to myself. Oh, now I remember what this place was like. I can’t know it until I’m there again. I can’t even really remember it. There’s a built-in amnesia for those sorts of places. The epiphany doesn’t occur until I’m immersed in it. In the past, I called this experience wilderness amnesia. Places and experiences, and people for that matter, can’t be conveyed in an accurate manner through words or media. In fact, reality is not designed that way.

History and civilization has had the same effect on us human inhabitants, as does distance from wilderness. The further we get from our roots, our home, the more the amnesia sets in. The more we don’t know what it was like. The more we think, “this is normal,” when it is not. This amnesia sets in until the reality of our existence is so hidden, so foreign, so fragmented that we become blind. We go beyond the threshold, the horizon, of knowing reality.

The Three Crosses, Rembrandt (1606-1669), Drypoint and burin, 1653

The Three Crosses, Rembrandt (1606-1669), Drypoint and burin, 1653

As a Christian, I feel the same about the Kingdom of Heaven. Like wilderness, Eden was a place that is almost unfathomable for us humans. Unlike wilderness, Eden isn’t a place where we can simply hike into. However, as Jesus says, “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” so we can get glimpses. I’ve received fleeting epiphanies of the Kingdom of Heaven. The experience in wilderness is one of those fleeting epiphanies. The experience of truly loving relationships is another one of those fleeting epiphanies. God’s communication through prayer is yet another example of those fleeting epiphanies. Thankfully, these epiphanies help to keep amnesia at bay.

We are beckoned by these fleeting epiphanies, whether it be Mount Olympus or the Kingdom of heaven. The beckoning may even come through words, pictures and media of all sorts. But the beckoning itself is fully realized in experience. So, get out there and feel the beckoning call of wilderness, of the Kingdom, and of Life.

I’ve posted two images, in which I feel that fleeting epiphany. Look closely and study the images and maybe you to will feel the beckoning call also.

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Costs/Benefits

Posted by Mike

Have you ever thought that perhaps everything that we do, every move we make, has costs and benefits. I’m thinking about everything, from actions of limited value one way or another, like answering the telephone or washing the dishes, to acts that not only affect the decider, but that affect perhaps even millions of people, like going to war. In actuality the ratio is rather unfairly weighted, as there are costs associated with all action, but not necessarily any benefits.

Regarding costs, I’m not thinking necessarily of anything monetary, but of costs in terms of time used, energy used, potential losses. Let’s have a simple example: It’s Sunday afternoon and I want a cup of coffee, but discover there’s no coffee in the house. I’m determined to have some coffee, so I hop in the car and drive down to my neighborhood grocery, purchase my coffee, return home, and brew a pot. What are the costs here? Aside from the cost of the coffee, which we’re not considering as significant, there is the time and energy used, attention diverted, and loss of time, energy, and attention that could be used to some other purpose. The benefits? Having the satisfaction of being able to make that pot of coffee and drink it that Sunday afternoon. And I’m thinking that the emotional benefits in this case likely clearly outweigh the costs. Of course in virtually all cases, when you look at the costs and then look at the benefits of an action, it’s impossible to do a formal mathematical comparison; it’s often like trying to compare apples and oranges. Nevertheless, taking a look at the cost factors and benefit factors can often be useful, even if we can’t have a neat concise mathematical process and end with a tidy quotient.

The truth is that it is likely that we unconsciously assess costs and benefits most any time we consider taking an action of any sort. We even think to ourselves at times, “Is it worth it?” – that is, is it worth doing whatever it is that we are considering. It’s really amazing how so much of our assessing and decision-making like this occurs unconsciously. Not that we are capable of unconsciously assessing or of even being aware of all of the costs and benefits of a particular action or course of action. The more complex the action planned or executed, the more variables  have to be taken into account in order to come to a decision. As actions become more complex, it becomes completely impossible to think of all the contingencies, so we must and we do come to general hypothetical conclusions regarding the costs/benefits of a particular action. We make a decision, and then act one way or another on that decision; we likely don’t proceed if we decide that the costs outweigh the benefits.  I should really say potential benefits, because we’re talking about the future, something that hasn’t happened yet; so we can only hypothesize outcomes, and for many actions there are such a multitude of intervening variables that it would be impossible to imagine them all; thus prospective outcomes can only be hypothetical, informed guesses.

Possibly you think I am making a simple idea too complex. You say, “Of course we weigh potential outcomes, you dummy, but why make a simple thing so complex?” You’ve got a point. We certainly don’t want to be obsessive regarding the multitude of simple decisions we make daily. Such obsessiveness itself would be a hindrance to functioning, as it is in obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am only suggesting that as individuals, families, groups, and even nations, at times more formal consideration of the costs versus the benefits of action can be very helpful. Oh, regarding that coffee purchase, thank goodness I didn’t have an accident on the way to the store, or leave my wallet on the store counter, or walk into a plate glass door! With all the experts in Washington weighing pros and cons and the costs and benefits, were they all out having coffee when the last Administration tricked Congress into agreeing to the disastrous Iraq conflict, or when the Johnson Administration got us into the murderous the Vietnam War?

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